The Lady Eve: Henry Fonda Can Act, Just Not Here

The Lady Eve: Henry Fonda Can Act, Just Not Here

It’s pretty useless to reduce any effort – film, literature, music or otherwise – to a type. Of course, there are generally accepted lines of delineation separating comedy from action. So, in keeping with that, Preston Sturges’ 1941 film The Lady Eve might be considered a love story. Or a battle of the sexes film. Or a revenge tale.

Regardless of how the film’s understood, though, it doesn’t rate as one of the strongest – in terms of acting, at least – to fall under the auspices of Sturges’ name. And that’s kinda surprising.

If your last name is Fonda, you’re probably decent at acting. And Henry is a good actor – in other features. His portrayal of a rich guy’s son in The Lady Eve, though, is all ‘shucks’ and no yucks. Sturges was a comedic filmmaker, admittedly so. And Sullivan’s Travels even details why light, comedic fair is useful in a society rampant with folks angling at being artists.

In this feature, though, comedy is accidentally disregarded and replaced by a winding, serpentine plot that involves double identities, lies and more sex than viewers would expect from a film issued during 1941.

Card sharks apparently ran rampant on cruise ships back in the day. And the ones capable of doing the most damage were those cloaked in the respect of proper society. The Harringtons were one of those families. And very early on in the movie, Jean, as portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, decides to take Henry Fonda’s Charles Pike for all he’s worth – and it’s a lot. His father owns a successful brewery.

That dance of the sexes begins with Pike literally tripping over Jean, a good move and one that links the two throughout the rest of their voyage together. Unfortunately, Pike eventually figures out what’s what and the end of the boat ride appears to be the end of their relationship.

Perhaps part of Fonda’s difficulty in coming off in a respectable manner has to do with the fact that his character’s meant to be a sap. The performance is still wooden. But it doesn’t help matters much when Jean crops up again later in the film, claiming a completely different identity.

The farce is carried out to its logical conclusion – Charles and Jean are married. What makes The Lady Eve difficult to watch, though, is the happy, sappy, Hollywood ending. But since the script as well as directorial duties were handled by Sturges, it was all his doing. Bummer.