While it’s not my favorite Preston Sturges film, The Lady Eve belongs high on the list of any serious film fan — especially those interested in comedy. Sturges had written his share of romantic comedies — his screenplay for William Wyler’s The Good Fairy (1935) is pure delight — and his previous film, Christmas in July (1940), was more or less a romantic comedy, but the romance is subordinate to a variety of othere issues. The Lady Eve is pure romantic comedy — Sturges style. That’s to say that it has the elements of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses, girl, etc. But Sturges, being Sturges, handles it all in surprising — and still fresh — ways — including the addition of a good deal of physical comedy. It’s always wise to remember Sturges’ belief that “a pratfall is better than anything,” but never more so than here. But there’s more.
The simple mechanics of the genre have been complicated almost beyond recognition. The traditional “meet cute” not only involves, yes, a pratfall, but it’s all engineered by card sharp Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) in order to fleece rich clueless boob, Charles “Hopsy” Pike (Fonda), heir to the Pike’s Ale (“The ale that won for Yale”) fortune. Just following the formula doesn’t interest Sturges. He’s determined to make that formula his own — and he succeeds. Not only are all the elements there, but they’ve been enhanced and embellished. Boy will not only lose girl, but before he can win her back, he’ll be taught a lesson by the most unbelievable charade imaginable. And, of course, the film is filled with character actors — Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Luis Alberni — and his usual array of stock company bit players — Robert Greig, Al Bridge, Frank Moran, Julius Tannen, Robert Warwick — and they all get to spout that wonderful Sturges dialogue. It’s fast, it’s funny, and somehow it manages to be incredibly romantic in the bargain.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Lady Eve Tuesday, March 31, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.