by Sachin Gandhi
Love and Romance are emotions that often escape logical explanations. When one is hard pressed to understand why one person loves another, the phrase “Love is Blind” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” comes to the rescue. Once these phrases are uttered, no further explanation is required. No one will ask to dissect the meaning of these phrases and instead nod their head in agreement. As a result, these phrases can also result in an airtight screenplay, where a writer/director can use these phrases to have a plot that cannot be questioned. Not surprisingly, such phrases can be gold in the hands of the right writer/director. Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, based on a story by Monckton Hoffe, utilizes these phrases in such a clever manner that one cannot fault anything but instead laugh and admire the effort. In the film, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) falls for the same woman twice, blindly following his heart and shutting down his mind even though all evidence points to him staying away.
Charles can be forgiven for falling in love the first time because he encounters the charming and bubbly Jean (Barbara Stanwyck, excellent) after he has just returned from his year long trip in the Amazon. Charles was short of human companionship in the Amazon, let alone a female one, that all a woman had to do was smile and he would have been swept off his feet. But as it turns out, Jean knows how to trap a man. She, along with her father ‘Colonel’ Harrington (Charles Coburn) and Gerald (Melville Cooper), are professional card sharks and make a living out of conning people. After the trio learn of Charles’ wealth, they lay out a plan to trap him. It takes minimal effort for Jean to win Charles over. Even though Charles’ bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) is suspicious, Charles ignores his warning. Surprisingly, Jean actually starts to fall for Charles and when he proposes to her on a moonlit deck, she is more than happy to accept. She dreams of leaving her criminal life for a better future with Charles and wants to come clean about her trio’s intentions. The Colonel asks Jean to wait until the ship reaches its destination but Muggsy manages to find a photo where the trio are documented as professional card players. Charles feels betrayed and does not seek out an explanation from Jean. She is devastated and seeks revenge as they leave the ship. She gets a chance for revenge after she runs into a colleague, Pearlie (Eric Blore), who boasts about the cons he has pulled off in Bridgefield, the hometown of Charles. Jean asks Pearlie if she can work with him using his cover, where he goes under the working name of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, a British man. Jean plays his niece, “The Lady Eve of Sidwich”, and is so confident of her abilities that she does not change her appearance. Instead, all she does is tie up her hair and puts on a British accent. Eve and Sir Alfred go the Pikes’ house party where Eve first charms Charles’ father, Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette) and then manages to get all the guests dancing on her every word. Muggsy is the only one who is not charmed because he is convinced Eve is Jean. Charles has his doubts but Alfred fabricates a story about Eve and Jean being siblings born of an illicit affair with a ‘coachman’. He asks Charles to keep this story a secret in order to protect the reputation of the Sidwich family. Alfred’s story convinces Charles and he proceeds to propose to Eve.
Charles falling for Jean twice defies belief but this is where the phrase ‘love is blind’ comes in handy. He is under Jean’s spell and ignores all reason, including the evidence that is in front of his eyes. However, the film also shows that Jean longs for the magical spell of love despite her conning ways and quest for revenge. When Charles proposes to her the first time on the ship’s moonlit deck, Jean refers to the location as a “woman’s business office”. In the second proposal instance, Jean/Eve plans the spot where she wants to be proposed. She leads Charles on a horse ride that ends with them viewing a sunset. On both occasions, she enjoyed getting a marriage offer at two spots that are famously associated with romance even to this day, more than 7 decades after The Lady Eve was made. Of course, the film is not only about the gushing positive side of romance but also shows the dark side of romance with manipulation and betrayal that can shatter one’s heart. Further, the film’s title, opening credits and multiple scenes in the film reference the Garden of Eden, the most famous act of temptation. However, such is the genius of the screenplay and Struges’ direction that the film never feels dark or sinister. Instead, the comedic framework beautifully captures all aspects of romance, from infatuation to temptation to marriage in one faultless stroke.