1941 was a very good year for Preston Sturges: he released The Lady Eve and what is probably his masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels, although I have a special fondness for the extremely dark Unfaithfully Yours. In the same year she starred in The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck also had leading roles in Meet John Doe and Ball of Fire, and before the year was out she had reunited with her The Lady Eve co-star Henry Fonda in You Belong to Me. Imagine a actress having four roles that good in a career, never mind in a single year.
There were screwball comedies before Sturges got his historic deal at Paramount as the first writer/director, but with The Lady Eve he would basically invent the modern romantic comedy—and at nearly 80 years later, it’s still better than 99.9% of the dreck in that genre today.
Henry Fonda plays Charles Pike, heir to the Pike Ale fortune, who has just come came back from a expedition up the Amazon. He literally trips into the life of Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) while on his return voyage to the States. Jean is beautiful but also a complete con-woman through and through, and it’s a family business, because her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and her partner in crime Gerald (Melville Cooper) are in it with her. She and Pike fall in love while still on the voyage and plan to get married, but naturally it falls apart. However, she has a plan to reappear as “The Lady Eve,” who looks suspiciously like Jean, but Charlie is already gaga about her.
It’s a masterclass in the genre, with Fonda—who very rarely did comedy—mastering the pratfalls that would become such a hallmark of the modern romantic comedy. The character of Jean is one of the most interesting in the genre, because until the very end she is very clearly in control of the situations that they get into, it’s a shame most writers for romantic comedies today can’t write a female character half as interesting as Jean. Fonda is this completely inept, shy idiot throughout, which is such a refreshing change. The film feels still incredibly modern: for a film from 1941 that’s stunning, but Sturges’ and Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies can do it. It’s one of many high-water marks in Sturges’ career, which was at its heights until a deal with Howard Hughes, who promised him independence and creative control, ended up being disastrous. I wonder if his first film after the Hughes debacle, Unfaithfully Yours, is so dark because of all of that drama with Hughes, but it didn’t matter—it was a huge flop and destroyed his career, but has since become a cult classic. It was in Quentin Tarantino’s all-time top 10 at one point.
The extras include items from the previous 2001 Criterion DVD, such as an introduction from Peter Bogdanovich, commentary from film professor Marian Keane, the 1943 radio version with Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland, and a featurette on Edith Head’s costume designs. New extras for the Blu-Ray release include “The Lady Deceives,” a video essay by film critic David Cairns; and a featurette with Preston’s son Tom, Bogdanovich and Leonard Maltin, amongst others, in a Zoom chat during the Coronavirus pandemic. This is the second release I’ve seen with an interview/cconversation recorded in Zoom and it blows—just postpone the release or drop it. The booklet has changed as well, and now contains a new essay from Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1946 profile of Preston Sturges from LIFE magazine.