The only romantic comedy you'll ever need is The Lady Eve, one of Hollywood's wisest, wittiest, and most delightful films. A masterwork from the brilliant, madcap mind of writer-director Preston Sturges, this captivating romp about a sexy, cynical grifter who sets out to swindle a brainy, naive, and disgustingly rich naturalist - but instead falls hopelessly in love with him - deftly mixes clever repartee and hilarious slapstick with arch observations about men, women, and the maddeningly complex mating dance we all play. Criterion honors the movie's long-awaited Blu-ray debut with its best-ever video transfer, lossless audio, a plethora of interesting supplements, and a hefty 40-page booklet. As fresh, vibrant, and sidesplittingly funny as it was upon its initial release 80 years ago, The Lady Eve is timeless, ageless, and one of cinema's enduring beauties. Must Own.
There are contenders, and then there's the champion. The Lady Eve - to quote an old Tina Turner song - is simply the best romantic comedy Hollywood ever produced. Some may prefer It Happened One Night or When Harry Met Sally, but pound for pound, writer-director Preston Sturges' madcap farce delivers more laughs, injects more warmth, and makes more astute observations about men and women and how they interact than any other film in the genre. Sure, it's 80 years old, but that's yesterday in the voluminous history of male-female relationships. Maybe that's why The Lady Eve contains so many veiled and overt references to the Garden of Eden, because that's where the trouble between guys and gals really began.
It's no coincidence Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is a snake expert who's spent the past couple of years in the Amazon jungle studying the species. When he finally decides to return home, he and his loyal sidekick/valet/keeper Muggsy (William Demarest) connect up with a cruise ship bound for America. That's where he trips over the purposely outstretched ankle of Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), a professional cardsharp who travels the globe filching thousands from rich, unsuspecting lugs with her equally sly, monocled father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and their partner Gerald (Melville Cooper).
The lonely, painfully naive, and probably virginal Charles may know a lot about snakes, but he's no match for the serpentine Jean, especially when she discovers he's the heir to the Pike Ale fortune. Jean nicknames the handsome beer magnate "Hopsy," then sinks her venomous incisors into his flesh. Yet before the poison yields any monetary rewards, Hopsy's innocence, genuine warmth, and passionate spirit cast a bewitching spell over Jean, and the two fall head over heels in love. Jean, much to her father's chagrin, puts the kibosh on fleecing Hopsy, who soon proposes to his newfound romantic ideal. The ever-suspicious Muggsy, though, gets the goods on Jean before she can come clean, and when Hopsy sees the hard evidence, he's devastated. Jean begs his forgiveness, but Hopsy feels like a fool (or rather one of the "sucker-sapiens" Jean and her father routinely prey upon) and coldly rebuffs her.
So what's a heartbroken girl who suddenly and vehemently hates her ex-fiancé to do? Why, exact revenge, of course! And in the zany alternate universe of romantic comedy that means masquerading as the upper-crust Lady Eve Sidwich of England, making Hopsy fall hopelessly in love with her, and then cruelly pulling the rug out from under him just like he did to her. If nothing else, that should hammer home the point she tried to make to him on the ship when he spurned her: "You see, Hopsy, you don't know much about girls. The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad."
It's a simple concept, but it takes plenty of screwball complications to get it through Hopsy's thick skull, and Sturges executes them all with peerless aplomb. By mixing slapstick and some of the greatest pratfalls in movie history with sophisticated banter and moments of tremendous heart and heartbreak, The Lady Eve not only runs the comic gamut, but the emotional gamut as well. Love, hate, manipulation, lust, devotion, and class conflicts are only some of the elements Sturges weaves into this rich and rewarding film. There's a common misconception that screwball comedies are as dumb and frivolous as some of the characters that populate them, but The Lady Eve - and most of Sturges' other movies - prove nothing can be further from the truth. Clever subtext abounds, and unearthing it is part of the fun.
Sturges is a writer first, but, boy, is he a fine director too! His camera angles may be pedestrian, but his innovative storytelling techniques heighten our involvement and spark additional hilarity. Here he uses silent montages and quick cutting to convey what pages of dialogue couldn't do nearly as economically. Inspired visual gags, risqué bits of business, and a barrage of verbal zingers keep us laughing, and then, when we least expect it, he rips our hearts out with lyrical speeches punctuated by moments of disarming emotional candor.
It takes accomplished actors to walk such a delicate tightrope, fit into such a specialized milieu, and make broad comedy and tender drama feel authentic, and no two stars fill those qualifications better than Stanwyck and Fonda. Talk about perfect casting! Both file wonderfully natural, captivating portrayals and create a crackling chemistry that makes their characters' amorous ups and downs utterly believable.
Stanwyck has the flashier part, but like a crafty cardsharp, she never overplays her hand. Jean is a starry-eyed romantic one minute and a vindictive scorned lover the next, then she morphs into the carefree, coolly elegant Lady Eve who's always the life of the party. That's really three separate roles, and Stanwyck perfectly performs them all. (Her British accent is at times a little lacking, but that's the only chink in her armor.) Joanne Woodward would win an Oscar 16 years later for playing three faces of a very different Eve; it's too bad Stanwyck wasn't so honored for this impeccable portrayal.
Fonda "only" plays one part, but the movie hinges on Hopsy's gullibility, which symbolizes the arrogance and implacable nature of the idle rich. Screwball comedies often espouse the virtue of street smarts over wealth as they depict common men and women teaching their supposedly better-educated betters the ABCs of life. Hopsy is torn between the two worlds, and it's up to Jean to guide him onto the proper path, but to do so she has to expose his rarefied realm as a bigger racket than her small-time swindling. Hopsy may be the prize in a high-stakes game, but he doesn't understand the rules, so he wanders through the film in a constant state of bewilderment that's brilliantly reflected by Fonda's array of priceless facial expressions. Whether bemused, befuddled, outraged, amazed, mesmerized, disillusioned, or looking slightly nauseous, Fonda remains pitch-perfect throughout, filing a performance of great subtlety and nuance in a role that's just as challenging as Stanwyck's. He also masterfully executes several broad, acrobatic pratfalls that provoke some of the film's biggest laughs.
Once again, Sturges employs some of Hollywood's finest character actors, and they all add immense luster to the film. Coburn, Demarest, Cooper, Eugene Pallette as Hopsy's bombastic, bullying father, and Eric Blore as an upper-crust dandy all enjoy memorable comic moments, but none of them play buffoons. Character dimensionality is a Sturges hallmark, and even his most outrageous creations usually display some degree of empathy that makes them human and relatable. That's certainly true here, and another reason why The Lady Eve is such a fulfilling motion picture.
Memorable scenes and exchanges abound, from Jean's colorful play-by-play as she watches an array of smitten women try to gain Hopsy's favor early in the film to Hopsy's spirited diatribe about the differences between beer and ale. There's also the poker game in which the Colonel keeps pulling better cards out of his jacket pocket, the refined dinner party that devolves into a slapstick tour de force, and of course the uproarious scene featuring a photo-bombing horse who doggedly harasses Hopsy as he tries to profess his undying love for Eve. Only Sturges could orchestrate such inspired comedy while keeping his film anchored in the real world.
Remember that book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Well, all we really need to know about male-female relationships can be learned from The Lady Eve. No film teaches us more in such an entertaining manner, and few films remain as fresh, funny, touching, and oh-so-smart over repeat viewings than this enchanting comedy that features some of Sturges', Stanwyck's, and Fonda's best work. If laughter is the best medicine, then The Lady Eve is a bona fide wonder drug. Simply the best indeed.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Lady Eve at last arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 40-page booklet that features an essay by author Geoffrey O'Brien, a reprint of a 1946 Life magazine profile of Preston Sturges by Noel F. Busch, several scene stills, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
If you've ever wondered why it's taken so long for The Lady Eve to make its Blu-ray debut, it might be because Criterion was busy scouring the globe for the best possible source material. The liner notes state, "After the world's archives were combed, and multiple third- and fourth-generation copies held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress were reviewed, a 35 mm fine-grain master positive from Universal Studios was determined to be the best element to scan for this film. This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution...from that fine-grain." All that effort has yielded a terrific-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that has now become the gold standard for this beloved film.
Decades of neglect take a toll and even the most meticulous restorative efforts can't always bring a film back to its original splendor, so if you're expecting perfection, you'll be disappointed. Yes, The Lady Eve has never looked better on home video, but it still flaunts an antiquated appearance, with occasional fading and fuzziness afflicting the image. Some scenes look a tad too bright (whites tend to run hot), but most are well balanced, with rich blacks and nicely varied grays producing a pleasing, film-like picture that honors the cinematography of Victor Milner, a nine-time Academy Award nominee who won the Oscar for the 1934 version of Cleopatra.
Grain levels fluctuate but never overwhelm, excellent contrast and clarity heighten the sense of depth, and good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time. Wonderfully sharp close-ups flatter Stanwyck and Fonda, while highlighting the weathered, endlessly interesting faces of Coburn, Pallette, Demarest, Blore, and Cooper. Costume textures show up well, but background details aren't quite as vivid as we'd like. Though a few nagging issues keep this transfer from earning a perfect score, it's still a very lovely, faithful rendering sure to please - and occasionally dazzle - the movie's legion of fans.
According to the liner notes, the LPCM mono track was remastered from the 35 mm fine-grain master positive. Audio quality is good enough, but the track often exudes a harshness of tone that grates on the ears as the film progresses. Though the rapid-fire dialogue is comprehendible most of the time, when heated exchanges compete with effects and background music, the soundscape often becomes muddled. Distortion is never an issue, but the track's rough edges occasionally lead us to believe it might become one.
Sonic accents like shrill whistles, chugging train engines, the silver tableware that Eugene Pallette bangs together, and all the noise associated with Fonda's endless pratfalls are crisp and distinct, and though the eclectic score, which contains excerpts from classical pieces and repeated refrains of "Isn't It Romantic?," often sounds a tad thin, it's not a major player in the movie. Atmospherics are a bit muted, but quiet moments and dramatic silences remain free of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle.
Audio has never been The Lady Eve's strong suit, and unless a pristine, first-generation copy of the film is one day unearthed, it's unlikely it ever will be.
A marvelous selection of supplements enhances an already top-notch disc.
Audio Commentary - I'm usually not a fan of commentaries that focus completely on the plot and themes of a particular movie, but film scholar Marian Keane's 2001 discussion of The Lady Eve delves so deeply into this seemingly innocuous screwball comedy, I found her observations enlightening and fascinating. Keane calls The Lady Eve a "tour de force," then proceeds to back up that claim by denoting the myriad ways in which Sturges examines the complexities of male-female relationships within a madcap framework. She cites several Garden of Eden references, explains how the con game is a metaphor for romance (humans need to be duped to fall in love), and even proves all those pratfalls and silly gags possess a purpose beyond provoking uncontrollable guffaws. She also points out several instances where Sturges makes self-conscious acknowledgments about Hollywood and moviemaking while telling his story. Keane shows us subtext is everywhere and there's far more depth to The Lady Eve than initially meets the eye, and by the time she ends her engrossing dissertation, we gain an even greater appreciation for Sturges' brilliant script and storytelling technique. If you're looking for production info, actor and crew bios, anecdotes about the stars, or other trivia, you won't that find that here, but what you will get is an involving and substantive analysis of one of the all-time great screenplays and the artistry that brings it so gloriously to life.
Introduction by Peter Bogdanovich (HD, 8 minutes) - The esteemed director lauds Sturges and his script, analyzes the story and Sturges' style, and discusses screwball comedy in this introduction that was obviously filmed many years ago and ported over from a previous home video release.
Video Conference with Tom Sturges and Friends (HD, 42 minutes) - Sturges' son Tom hosts this delightful video conference (necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic) with filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Shelton, and James L. Brooks, as well as film historians Leonard Maltin, Susan King, and Kenneth Turan. The lively group discusses a number of topics, including the truthfulness of the screenplay, the timelessness of screwball comedy, the impeccable casting and performances, the Sturges stock company, their favorite lines and scenes, censorship issues, and the ahead-of-its-time feminism that often creeped into Sturges' work. Tom Sturges also reveals the secret of the hysterical horse nudging scene (peanut butter) and Sturges' hidden agenda behind a key speech delivered by Barbara Stanwyck.
Featurette: "The Lady Deceives" (HD, 21 minutes) - Critic and filmmaker David Cairn relates the plot of The Lady Eve to episodes in Sturges' own life, espouses the theory of "comic distance," discusses abandoned concepts and deletions, analyzes the characters, and salutes the Sturges stock company in this clever and perceptive dissection of the film that's punctuated with rare photos and some film clips.
"Edith Head's Costumes Designs for The Lady Eve" (HD, 6 minutes) - The legendary designer's own words (in print form) accompany sketches of the gowns she designed for Stanwyck. The quotes address Stanwyck's figure, the Latin-themed wardrobe, working with Sturges, and Head's aborted attempts to fashion a necklace and hat for the slithery snake that briefly appears in the movie.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (45 minutes) - This truncated adaptation of the film was broadcast on March 9, 1942 as part of the Lux Radio Theatre series. Stanwyck and Charles Coburn reprise their film roles, but Ray Milland steps into Fonda's part. Host Cecil B. DeMille announces this edition of the program will run 15 minutes shorter than usual to clear the airwaves for a wartime briefing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and some of this advisors. Milland does a nice job, but he's no Fonda, and the nuances Stanwyck brought to her role on film can't be replicated in the audio medium, which doesn't really suit a movie that draws much of its humor from visual gags and facial expressions. A bit of scripted banter between the stars follows the performance.
"Up the Amazon" (5 minutes) - This audio track provides a one-song preview from an unproductive musical adaptation of The Lady Eve that's being developed for the stage by songwriters Rick Chertoff and David J. Forman.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 90 seconds) - The film's brief re-release trailer rounds out the disc supplements.
The Lady Eve just might be Hollywood's definitive romantic comedy and writer-director Preston Sturges' best film. Distinguished by a brilliant script that mixes incessant laughs with incisive observations about men and women, as well as career-defining performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, this classic screwball comedy remains as fresh, funny, sexy, and utterly captivating today as it surely must have seemed almost 80 years ago. The story of a beguiling cardsharp who woos a naive, erudite naturalist, then exacts revenge on him after he dumps her has inspired numerous knock-offs, but there's nothing like the sublime original, which has been given a spiffy makeover by Criterion. A brand new restoration and substantial smorgasbord of supplements add even more luster to this celebrated film that demands a prominent spot in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.