It’s important to note, while contemplating his work, the unusual nature of the credit that closes The Lady Eve’s snakes-and-apples animated opening: “Written and directed by Preston Sturges.” The writer/director is such a commonly spotted creature in contemporary cinema that it’s easy to forget that this was, for quite some time, not the case at all; writers wrote, and directors directed, and never the twain did meet. They were simply seen as entirely divorced skill sets, and the ability to do both was only granted to the occasional, special case. Charles Chaplin wrote and directed. And in the 1930s, Paramount decided that Preston Sturges was a “writer,” and that was that.
But Sturges had an ace in the hole: a script so good, he was able to hold it hostage. Paramount head William Le Baron liked the political satire Sturges had written, then titled Down Went McGinty, and thought it could do well in the upcoming election year. Sturges, however, was tired of second-tier directors and rewrite men ruining his work. “When a picture gets good notices,” he explained, “everyone but the writer is the prince. So I decided, by God, I was going to be one of the princes.” He invited Le Baron over to his home, cooked him a lavish meal, and made his offer: he would sell Paramount the McGinty script for the fee of ten American dollars, as long as he would also be allowed to direct it. Le Baron, equally impressed by Sturges’s cooking and his cajones, had the studio write Sturges a $10 check.
Le Baron’s bet paid off: that film, eventually titled The Great McGinty, won the Academy Award for Best Original screenplay. And it kicked off a jaw-dropping hot streak for Sturges, who would write and direct eight great movies over the course of a mere five years: McGinty and Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Great Moment (1944). Some were better than others, and some were not as well-received. But that burst of activity is one of the great runs in the history of filmmaking, in which a distinctive artist stamped his style and personality onto a series of great American movies.
You won’t find a consensus for the best of the bunch, which is why it’s such a relief that seven of the eight are currently available in the Criterion Channel’s “Directed by Preston Sturges” series (the later Unfaithfully Yours replaces The Great Moment – the weakest of the batch, so no great loss there). I chose to revisit The Lady Eve, because it offers all of the charms of the Sturges filmography – snappy dialogue, colorful supporting characters, screwball energy, laughs a’plenty – along with Henry Fonda at his dopiest and Barbara Stanwyck exhibiting what a friend (rightfully) dubs “epic domme energy.”
In the screwball taxonomy, Fonda plays the pampered nerd (see also: Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby), the heir to an ale fortune who’s utterly disinterested in the family business; his interest is in snakes, and we meet him as he’s departing from a year-long trip up the Amazon. He boards a cruise ship, and a dazzling tracking shot captures how he’s the talk of the boat – landing on Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington, a con artist who tells her father and grifting partner, “Gee, I hope he’s rich.”
The other women on the cruise are thinking the same thing – or, as Jean puts it, “Every Jane in the room is givin’ him the thermometer.” Her fun, slang-y dialogue is one of the greatest pleasures of Sturges’s script – particularly when she starts aiming those zingers directly at Fonda’s head. Her seduction of the young millionaire is lightning fast, even considering that, per his admission, he “hasn’t seen a girl in a long time”; five minutes into their first meeting, she’s got him on his knees in her stateroom, getting a full view of her legs as he fastens the straps of her shoes around her ankles.
She’s absolutely in charge, from the moment they meet, and their flirting is top-notch: when he compliments her “definite nose,” she replies, “I’m glad you like it. Do you like any of the rest of me?” Within minutes, she’s running her hands through his hair and whispering sweet nothings in his ear, and Sturges plays the whole thing in a tight two-shot, with no cuts – and it’s somehow both staggeringly funny and staggeringly sexy.
The Hays Code had long been the law of the land by the time Sturges was directing his movies, and it was a thorn in his side – because his pictures were decidedly of an adult nature, for an adult audience. He spent more than a year fighting with the Hays Office over The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and he couldn’t have been surprised; its mere premise (involving a one night stand that results in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) was asking for trouble.
He presumably had less trouble with The Lady Eve because its sins weren’t so explicit; though the picture is (per the title) all about the lure of sex and the dangers of temptation (Fonda may never return to Eden, or the Amazon, but what a way to go), it wasn’t the things Fonda and Stanwyck said to each other. It was the loaded way in which they said them, and the way they looked at each other as they did. You can’t calculate or predict chemistry, so Sturges really lucked out; theirs is stunning, in both the horny scenes and the lovey-dovey ones. (Most films are lucky to get just one of those right.)
Even more impressively, the movie doesn’t slow down when it veers from grift to romance (and back again). Sturges has a lot of ground to cover here, packing more plot into the 99 minutes of The Lady Eve than the typical romantic comedy even contemplates. But that’s the joy of this film, and of just about everything Sturges touched: he gives you more than most, but never too much.