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The best romantic comedy ever?
on May 29, 2001
The gist of THE LADY EVE is ably summed up by Barbara Stanwyck's character in the first half of the film: "The good girls are never as good as they seem to be, and the bad ones never as bad." In this movie, Barbara plays Jean Harrington, a "bad girl" who is not as bad as she seems to be, who later pretends to be Eve Sidgwick, a "good girl" who isn't as good.
In my opinion, this is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. Other films may be more romantic, others funnier, but not a single one combines both elements so perfectly. Everything about this film sparkles. Preston Sturges, one of the finest screenwriters in the history of cinema, turned out one of his most perfect scripts.. The details, the transitions between scenes, the wit, the lightning pace, the superb oneliners, the cascading dialog, absolutely everything marks this as a Preston Sturges production. The cast is utterly beyond reproach. Absolutely no one in the history of film could have been more perfect in the central role as Barbara Stanwyck. Other men could have played the Henry Fonda part, but he was nonetheless excellent in his role, one of the very few comedic parts he managed in his career. Charles Coburn sparkles as "Handsome" Harry Harrington, just as he excelled in a dozen or so other great films from the thirties, forties, and fifties. Eugene Palette, the finest Friar Tuck there ever was or ever could be, is delightful as Henry Fonda's beleaguered father. William Demarest is a fixture in nearly all of Preston Sturges's films, and while his role is not as large here as in some of the others (like HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, or THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK), he nonetheless manages to steal nearly every scene he is in.
THE LADY EVE is easily one of the most sexual films of the Hays era. There is a great deal of barely concealed sexual innuendo, beginning with the title ("Eve", the temptress), to the moment when Henry Fonda first climbs up the ladder onto the ocean liner that picks him up at the beginning of the movie (Barbara Stanwyck drops an apple that hits him on the head), to the extraordinary seduction scene (no sex, but at the end of the scene you know Henry Fonda goes back to his cabin for a long, cold shower). I am not sure that the forties ever pictured a man filled with greater sexual desire than when Henry was holding Barbara's leg while putting on her shoes, lost in her perfume. Indeed, the entire segment extending from the second when Barbara Stanwyck initiates meeting Henry by tripping him (one of six pratfalls he will take in the film, if one includes his falling in the mud upon disembarking from his "honeymoon" train) to her sending him out of her cabin in a state of intensely heightened sexual awareness, is utterly astonishing. As someone who grew up watching Barbara Stanwyck on THE BIG VALLEY, seeing that sequence for the first time was a revelation. I had no conception that the woman was that sexy.
The greatest thing about THE LADY EVE is that it gets better with each viewing. I have to strongly disagreee with the editorial review of this film, when he says that it is hard to say whether BALL OF FIRE or THE LADY EVE is funnier: I have seen BALL OF FIRE and THE LADY EVE approximately four times and nine times respectively. The mark of a really great film is how it stands up to reviewing. BALL OF FIRE is great the first time but lessens somewhat upon reviewing (Howard Hawks is marvelous, but it is not one of his stronger films), but THE LADY EVE improves each time in every way. Like I said, in my opinion, one of the best romantic comedies ever made.