Plot: Charles (Henry Fonda) is a naive, but wealthy man who has just returned from an extended trip to the Amazon, where he studied snakes. As he travels back home, he runs into Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), a beautiful woman who takes an instant interest in Charles and strikes up a conversation. She also happens to be part of a small band of professional card players, who hustle unaware players and in Charles, the potential con could be a massive windfall. And given how smitten he is with Jean from the start, it looks as if this could be the easiest con ever. But that changes when Jean finds herself drawn to Charles for real and despite protests from her cohorts, she refuses to fleece her new beau. But can Jean manage to conceal the truth about her lifestyle from Charles and if not, what will become of their unlikely romance?
Entertainment Value: I’d rank The Lady Eve as one of the best romantic comedies ever made, as it is so brisk and effective, with excellent performances and a razor sharp sense of humor that never fails to entertain. The movie blends fast paced, hilarious dialogue with measured slapstick, all of which is in the hands of an incredible cast that elevates the already terrific material. I appreciate that The Lady Eve appeals to both those who just want a simple laugh, through the physical comedy involved, and those who love good banter, thanks to the keen dialogue present. I lean more toward the dialogue, as it is so character driven here, especially when it comes to Jean and Charlie, but there are a wealth of memorable characters in this one. Even small roles tend to be well developed and play into recurring bursts of humor, such as Charlie’s handler, who is on point, but always ignored. The script does take some odd paths, but it makes sense within the silly nature of the material, where Charlie is beyond oblivious.
A lot of what makes The Lady Eve so effective rests within the focus on characters, as that drives the narrative and humor. So the dialogue and plot threads feel like they’re more meaningful with that connection, as opposed to random lines or pratfalls. In the leads we have the always radiant Barbara Stanwyck and our hapless Charlie, Henry Fonda. Stanwyck is beyond beautiful here and her performance is on point, with her charm and charisma at god tier levels. When she runs her hand through Charlie’s hair, that scene is more romantic and alluring than most sex scenes, thanks to her smoldering screen presence. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Fonda, who is clueless and while likable, reels in his charisma. This results in such an ideal pair and the two make the most of the material. The cast also includes Charles Coburn, Janet Beecher, and Eugene Pallette, while Preston Sturges’ masterful direction ensures all of the tumblers are always in the right places. As I said before, I think The Lady Eve is one of the all time great comedies, romantic or otherwise, and as such, it earns our highest recommendation.