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The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve is a screwball comedy film about a mismatched couple who meet on a luxury liner, written by Preston Sturges based on a story by Monckton Hoffe, and directed by Sturges, his third directorial effort, after The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. The film stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck and features Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest and Eric Blore.

In , The Lady Eve was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist. Along with her equally larcenous father, "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his partner Gerald (Melville Cooper), she is out to fleece rich, naive Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to the Pike Ale fortune ("The Ale That Won for Yale"). Pike is a woman-shy snake expert just returning from a year-long expedition up the Amazon.

But even the best laid plans can go astray. First, Jean falls hard for Pike and shields him from her card sharp father. Then, when Pike's suspicious minder/valet Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about her and her father, Pike dumps her. Furious at being scorned, she re-enters his life masquerading as the posh "Lady Eve Sidwich", niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), another con man who's been swindling the rich folk of Connecticut. Jean is determined to torment Pike mercilessly – as she explains, "I've got some unfinished business with him — I need him like the axe needs the turkey" – and it doesn't hurt that Pike's wealthy businessman father (Eugene Pallette) is impressed by English nobility and eager to promote a marriage between his son and her ladyship. Soon her hapless victim is so confused and bothered he doesn't know which way is up, but, in the end, after all the twists and turns, deceptions and lies, true love wins out.


Cast notes:


The 19-page story by Monckton Hoffe which The Lady Eve was loosely based on was called "Two Bad Hats", which was also the working title for the film. Sturges was assigned to write a script based on Hoffe's story in , with Claudette Colbert expected to be the star. Sturges and Paramount producer Albert Lewin had some written disagreement in about the development of the script, with Lewin writing to Sturges ""the first two-thirds of the script, in spite of the high quality of your jokes, will require an almost one hundred percent rewrite." Sturges objected, and eventually Lewin gave in, writing: "Follow your witty nose, my boy; it will lead you and me and Paramount to the Elysian pastures of popular entertainment."

The censors at the Hays Office initially rejected the script that was submitted to them, because of ""the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads" which lacked "compensating moral values." A later, revised, script was approved.

The casting of the lead roles for Eve went through some changes. At some point the studio wanted Brian Aherne for the male lead, and Joel McCrea, Madeleine Carroll and Paulette Goddard were under consideration as of July 1940, but in August 1940 Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll were announced as co-stars. In September, Darryl Zanuck lent Henry Fonda to co-star with Paulette Goddard, who was then replaced by Barbara Stanwyck.

The Lady Eve was in production from 21 October to 5 December . According to Donald Spoto in Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Sturges "invariably paraded on [the] set with a colorful beret or a felt cap with a feather protruding, a white cashmere scarf blowing gaily round his neck and a print shirt in loud hues...the reason for the peculiar outfits, he told visitors, was that they facilitated crew members' finding him amid the crowds of actors, technicians, and the public." Barbara Stanwyck compared Sturges' set to "a carnival". In his biography of Stanwyck, author Axel Madsen wrote that "The set was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him. To get into mood for Barbara's bedroom scene, Sturges wore a bathrobe."

Location shooting for the opening jungle scene took place at Lake Baldwin of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, California. In that scene, Henry Fonda's character refers to "Professor Marsdit", whose last name is an anagram of that of Raymond L. Ditmars of the American Museum of Natural History, a well-known reptile expert and popular science writer of the time.

The film premiered in New York City on 25 February , and went into general release on 21 March of that year. It was marketed with a number of taglines, including When you deal a fast shuffle... Love is in the cards. The film ranked as one of the top ten films of that year in box office sales.

The Lady Eve was released on video in the U.S. on 12 July , and was subsequently re-released on 30 June .

Awards and recognition

Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original story for The Lady Eve, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. In that same year, the National Board of Review nominated the film for "Best Picture", and the New York Times named it as the best film of the year in their "10 Best Films of 1941" list.

In 1994, The Lady Eve was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The clearest theme, and easiest to pick out very early in the film is gender inversion. Jean Harrington is clearly in control of the situation for the majority of the film, until her feelings get in the way of her previous, dubious intentions. Until that moment of crystallizing realization that she loved him, there was little sense of the struggle between equals that typifies most romantic comedies.

The unique blend of slapstick and satire allows this film to speak a message while still being uproariously funny. We see the “fall of man” implied by the title of the film in many ways. First is that literal, that being Pike continuously falling down in various situations and his “fall from innocence” as he is sucked into the deceptive plots laid out by Jean.

Sturges also uses deceptiveness in appearance profusely throughout the film. Things as small as the distinction, or lack thereof, between beer and ale to the various disguises of Jean Harrington add depth to the plotline. Even most of the characters have two names (Charles=Hopsie, Jean=Eugenia/Eve Sidwich). This lack of recognition sets the stage for the craziness of the storyline, adding yet another layer of complexity to the film.

Sturges repeatedly suggests that the “lowliest boob could rise to the top with the right degree of luck, bluff and fraud”. One can easily see how this could have been the case with Jean, as she had ample opportunity to succeed in her plans and get away with both her pocketbook full and her dignity intact. However, we see the romantic side of life burst in and how the best laid plans can end up much differently than one previously planned. Love, in the end, will do what it will and we are all just players in an often confusing, but inevitably wonderful game.


In 1956, the plot of The Lady Eve was recycled for the movie The Birds and the Bees, starring George Gobel, Mitzi Gaynor and David Niven. Preston Sturges received a co-writer credit for the film, although he did not actually participate in the project.

See also

Dialogue from the film




  • Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, American Directors: Volume I, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983
  • Nochimson, Martha, “The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels”, Cineaste, Summer 2002, Vol. 27, Issue 3
  • Rowe, Kathleen, The Unruly Woman, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995
  • Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968

External links

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