The early 1940s were the last gasp of the first wave of the classical Hollywood romantic screwball comedy, but why the genre sputtered out remains a conundrum. Perhaps the world was modifying itself too quickly for a genre where chaos was a principle to feel like casual entertainment rather than skewered reflection of the status quo. Or perhaps moods were more ambivalent about fancy free fun with the onset of global geopolitical turmoil. But then again, the arrival of the screwball in the ‘30s was massaged partially out of the national turmoil of the Depression to begin with, so the obvious answers only retype the question mark in boldface.
Among the only factual statements about the genre’s death throes is that the primary, and arguably lonely, vanguard fighting against the death of the style was Preston Sturges. Until an aging Billy Wilder in the late ‘50s burgled his own past exploits writing for director Ernst Lubitsch and induced a resurgence of cockeyed mania with end-of-the-Golden-Age classics like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, rupturing Wilder’s own 1940s focus on, and stranglehold over, the noir in the process, Sturges was alone in trying to pump fresh blood into the screwball. He didn’t last long – after all, the fact that Wilder eventually exhumed the genre’s corpse to re-energize it presumes that it did in fact pass on in the first place. But for a while there, Preston Sturges was more or less singularly galvanizing a dying breed and fighting the good fight.
His acme, and arguably the genre’s, was the 1941 two-fister of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, the latter of which was, despite being rushed to capitalize on the success of the former, the more free-associatively devilish and challenging picture, an attempt to muscle out of the ghetto of a single genre with sheer brute force of imagination. The former may be the more perfect film though, with its exploratory romanticism and a screenplay dripping with acid-wit. Although the follow-up is perhaps more prickly with its rebellious, disobedient anarchy and its disruptive flight from normative genre mechanics, the counterbalance is that, in its casual supremacy over more traditional regulations of the genre, The Lady Eve flows like butter.
Neatly cleaved into a bifurcated two-hander itself, the first half of the film rushes (and Sturges, more than any director, could rush and make it feel like a graceful glide rather than a maniacal hurtle) to wealthy ale-fortune heir Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) and a pair of con artists, sultry Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her thorny but loving father The Colonel (Charles Coburn). On a boat from South America to the US (Pike returning from one of his many snake studying trips, his only real passion being reptiles), the latter pair conspire to have their way with him financially. When Jean falls in love with Pike, and an accident of circumstance informs him that Jean is a hustler, things go awry until Jean wields her clarified skill to concoct a plan that triangulates teasing Charles, seeking vengeance on him, and resurrecting the love for him that nominally evaporates once he leaves her.
The centerpiece of the film is Stanwyck somewhere deep in the entrails of one of the finest performances in English language cinema from its decade. Which is fitting; Jean, so embellished in her own magisterial, voluptuous authority, is the de facto agent of a film that thornily inverts and even liquefies traditional, ossified gender relations, with the film ultimately suggesting an effervescent witch’s brew of female agency and passive masculine ossification. In a film excised of judgment or a desire to justify Jean’s habits, her hustling ways are not fodder for redemption or soul-searching; the delicate fingers of fraud are simply a way of life, a passion but also a craft and even a necessity (tied into the fundamental deception and manipulation of cinema craft, obviously). Never once does the film propose that her serpentine, con-artist ways are mutually exclusive to her love; Pike isn’t entrusted with christening a newly exonerated, rescued, moral Jean, nor is he cast with flattening her volition by trampling over her life outside of Pike’s world. Pike is an addendum to her agency, even a reconsideration of it, but not a denial of it, especially when the entirety of their relationship is undergirded by her desire to harmonize her independence and her newfound companionship and interdependence.
Tease, torment, infatuation, superiority, desire, and loneliness all boil together under the heat of her punctilious, punchy wordplay and laser-like eyes, a pair of portals all the more perfect to transfix the screen and for Sturges to mount as the central duo of his eyeline-focused filmmaking. Pike is the baseline, the straight-man, but not the voice of reason or morality or even competence; he is the ball that Jean ricochets with casual perfection, and it is her tension, and her tensile strength to resolve but not absolve that tension, that forms the film’s central interest.
Highlights approach with a manic, almost maniacal consistency, beginning with a famous dinner sequence where Stanwyck’s narration counterposes Fonda’s nerdish, almost aloof, passivity with her glorious, artisanal supremacy over the situation from minute one. Viewing a parade of women threatening to woo Fonda’s character, we watch from her perspective through her personal compact mirror as her act of lensing Fonda’s divested persona –narrating the chaos around him – mimics her literal ambition to overtake the screen and swivel and swerve the narrative and his emotions to her liking.
It’s best not to overextend the argument that the film is a case study in female agency, of course; rather than shoehorning the film into an intentional feminist parable that doesn’t exactly exist in the text, it is more perceptive to suggest that the film reflects a timely dialectic between traditional, rigid gender dynamics (there’s a tinge of fate to the eventual relationship) and upended, more fluid roles. Even if it is less a singular argument than a multifaceted anxiety though, it’s a provocative tension, and among the more perceptive expressions of this theme in a sub-genre that was arguably defined primarily by questions of influence and passivity in gendered interdependence.
Throughout, the editing within Sturges’ deceptively complex craft is the visual sucker punch that drives the comedy to off-kilter, off-road recklessness, but the most famous scene is an unedited, unadorned close-up on the principals’ heads as Stanwyck plays with Fonda’s hair and eggs him on. Over nearly four minutes, the film rises from a heated simmer to a bubbling orgasm in an unbroken take that erupts into the most sexually implicit, or sexually suggestive, scene of the decade. Even the dialogue is secretly libidinous, with sex becoming a fragment of everyday life refracting itself in every interaction; when Jean informs her father about the mortal terror of “that slimy snake” (one of Pike’s scientific finds), he balks “you mean Pike?”, prompting his response: “No, his reptile”. That it was ushered in under the censor’s noses is almost inconceivable, but in a film where phallic imagery is nearly the norm, one wonders if Sturges simply acclimatized the censors to his rule-set until they naturalized the hot-under-their-collar bubbles around them.
Although a word like “tricks” proposes a certain nullifying superficiality that the film ultimately surpasses, the cabal of visual and aural trickery and double-entendre suggests swindling and trickery as a principle of life, a mechanism by which we convince others of who we are and maybe even discover our own selves in the process of contextualizing ourselves in society. In a beautiful mid-film card game where the stakes fluidly recalibrate by the minute – not simply the monetary ones but stakes of the heart and the nature of identity – we find the characters swapping out identities within single shots, not even gifted with the flux of an edit to hide away or mollify the transformations. Victor Milner’s cinematography isn’t exactly dense with chiaroscuro, but the visual framing of scenes like this – character composure, countenance, and position in the frame warping with the power dynamics of the characters – covertly reconfigure clandestine personal identities throughout. Watching the film, the characters aren’t lying about the world or their personas but navigating them through subterfuge that ultimately reveals a certain honesty about how various ostensibly “false” identities are no less constructed than our dominant assumptions about who we are.
The farcical insanity of the production, then, is an incision into a world where identity flops and swivels and slips around space by the minute, with the film’s battle-of-the-sexes topsoil concealing but not suppressing a wellspring of diamond-cut interrogation of fluid roleplaying (even the social construction of gender flares up once or twice). The tendrils of sex and identity as they inscribe themselves into every facet of life and conversation are the thesis; in The Lady Eve, love is a facet of identity, but merely a facet, and one that is always enlivened and compromised by the multiplicity of other desires that catalyze love, and the need to clarify or codify love within the prism of one’s future. Love, and interpersonal association altogether, are ever-changing battlegrounds within which we attempt to understand what we actually want from the world.
Throughout, Struges’ script (with Sturges among a handful of directors at the time who wrote his own screenplays) never keelhauls itself with the sort of flippant mugging mania epitomized by so many more over-baked, over-rushed screwballs. Even when it does, the biting, hurried, syncopated pitch of the comedy is never arbitrary or antic; it is always intimately attuned to worldview of the characters. When Pike discovers that his newfound love originally set her eyes on swindling him, the typeface of a note with her true identity dissolves over his head, pummeling its way expediently into his brain and inscribing itself visually in his countenance, and in his sudden-onset doubt as a visual mimicry of the maniacal speed at which his emotions, and sense of self, curdle. The snappiness of the comedy – like the brutal speed of his realization – reflects with fertile elegance the tempo of a world where emotional up and emotional down are always right around the corner.
Which is perhaps why The Lady Eve exists almost parallel to, but not synonymous with, any moral predetermination; that the end will erupt in a rage of love is somewhat preordained, but the emphasis isn’t nakedly a question of how two people will end up together and why they need to. With childlike glee and devious maturity, The Lady Eve explores personality as confrontational, contestable, and changeable, with love a means to fulfilling the self (and not the only way to do so) rather than simply something that exists as a normative structural assumption about the world and people within it. Emotions and connections are like insinuations and identities: contingent and tentative. Every image, line, and beat is prismatic, rather than simply reinforcing one purpose. Even the slightest utterance, like Pike’s “I’m an expert card-player, I’ve been fooling with cards all my life”, suggests his agency as well as his incompetence (“fooling with” rather than “playing”), in addition to serving as an ironic counterpoint to Jean who literally does fool other people with her card tricks, and who is arguably fooling herself by maintaining a façade of cheerful disinterest toward the man she has fallen head over heels for. In the film’s most infamous line, “I need him like the ax needs the turkey”, love morphs into a heated harmony between infatuation, attrition, blitzkrieg, and exhaustion all coexisting in the nebula of a certain companionship that might hurt both participants, but nonetheless draws them together in mortal combat. Good thing for Jean that she has her prey by the feathers.