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From the Vault: The Lady Eve

A look at the dynamic duo of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck

By 1941, the bright stars of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda were both on the rise. Stanwyck was an incredibly versatile actress who was able to do both comedy and drama. Fonda was a slow-speaking Everyman who was known for his portrayal of iconic American heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath. It would only make sense to have these two rising stars cross paths and make a film together.

Though Stanwyck and Fonda were not the studio’s first choice for Preston Sturgess’ screwball comedy The Lady Eve, the two soon-to-be acting icons easily proved that the studio’s previous beliefs were incorrect. The film is smart, seductive and funny, due to the near perfect performances of the two leading film stars.

The biggest take away from The Lady Eve is Barbara Stanwyck. Though Billy Wilder’s classic, Double Indemnity, was my first introduction to Stanwyck, The Lady Eve cemented my appreciation for her craft. In this film, she plays Jean Harrington, a con artist who, along with her father, try and con passengers on a cruise ship by — mostly — playing cards. Stanwyck’s Harrington is witty, smart and incredibly attractive. She’s a strong, dominating woman in a world where men have placed a controlling stake in society. She happily plays by the rules until she has knowledge and control to “flip the script” of social norms. She is incredibly confident in her ability to read people. These qualities are a huge reason why she finds success in conning people.

Stanwyck hilariously comments on “Bookworm” — Henry Fonda

Stanwyck brilliantly portrays these qualities. On screen, she oozes with confidence and sex appeal. Yet, with a hint of sarcasm, she voices an understanding of how people operate — what is going on inside people’s minds. This is clearly evident near the beginning of the film as Stanwyck hilariously gives us a play-by-play of women approaching the “Bookworm” — Henry Fonda.

Henry Fonda plays Charles Pike, a bookish man who is on the way back from an expedition studying snakes. He is a tad shy around women, though they all seem to be interested in knowing Pike — as Harrington notes. Pike is an heir to a family fortune, and Harrington believes he would make the perfect “victim” for her next con. However, Harrington learns she can not outsmart everyone — including herself. She falls for Pike, and the two develop a relationship.

Here’s Fonda trying to deal with a shocked Stanwyck

Fonda excels at his character’s learning on the fly when it comes to women. Pike is, at times, clueless on how to proceed with Harrington’s advances. The awkward situations provide ample comedic moments, as the film builds its characters to its second half. Fonda’s physical and subtle humor is a great treat, especially since he was mainly known for dramas at this point in his career. Though his character is put in some testy situations, Fonda seems relaxed in the role of Pike.

As the couple begin to understand each other more, Pike and Harrington change. Pike becomes confident in his feelings and demeanor toward women, while Harrington grows to be incredibly stubborn and single-minded. We see the characters we care about grow in both a positive and negative way. Experiencing the change, and the self-realization of it, is incredible because of Stanwyck and Fonda excelling in their roles.

In 1997, Roger Ebert had this to say about Stanwyck and Fonda’s performance in The Lady Eve,

If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve,” and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.

Ebert’s favorite scene

The film takes a turn in its second half, relying more on the physical humor — living up to its screwball comedy nature. Regardless of how screwy the plot gets, Stanwyck and Fonda provide a characterization to their characters that runs deeper than many screwball comedy films. Not only are these two actors iconic separately, but as a pair, they are a cinematic dynamic duo that stands out in the history of film.

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