Grade: B+
Romantic Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When BBC Culture unveiled their list of 100 greatest comedies of all time, screwball comedies fared pretty well. Topping the list was Some Like It Hot, the Billy wilder comedy produced more than a decade after the subgenre’s hey-day. But Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby turned up at #14 and #17, and closely behind them at #19 was Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve—a 1941 screwball comedy just released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

It’s an enjoyable film, but not one that I would rate so far ahead of It Happened One Night (#28 on the BBC-Culture list) or even The Philadelphia Story (#38). The film rolls along at a brisk pace for the first two-thirds. Lady Eve is the serpent in this farce about a card sharp (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a cruise ship who sets her sights on a well-known ale heir (Henry Fonda) who just happens to be a snake researcher. But then a third-act dinner party scene goes on too long, a lost snake is all but forgotten, and Lady Eve bounces back and forth between love and revenge so abruptly you’d swear she was under a spell. Then, just as abruptly, the film rushes to an ending with a last line clever enough to rival the most famous last line in cinema (“Nobody’s perfect,” from #1 comedy Some Like It Hot).

Screwball comedies are typically farces revolving around a courtship, pursuit by a member of the opposite sex, or divorced couples still playing games with each other. Film noir has its femme fatale, but the screwball comedy version is more benign, causing the male levels of distress but nothing that can’t be overcome by the end of the film. Screwball comedies are also characterized by clever, fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, and more often than not they include implied social commentary involving the classes (rich vs. middle class). Some films, like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, are fast-paced enough and with a plot gimmick (escaped convict, escaped leopard) that make them best suited for family viewing. Others, like The Lady Eve, are driven by a spider/fly plot and a screwball femme fatale that make it still fun but a little more sophisticated.

There are two main reasons to watch The Lady Eve: film legends Stanwyck and Fonda, both of whom are perhaps better known for their more serious work—The Big Valley and The Thorn Birds TV series, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number in the case of the former, and The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men, On Golden Pond, and Fail Safe with the latter. Playing off of each other they’re about as mesmerizing as a snake charmer. In fact, though The Lady Eve isn’t rated, it would probably merit a PG-13 just for a single, fully-clothed ship’s cabin seduction scene, where Eve holds Charles Pike cheek to cheek and he, the snake expert, seems more like prey in her coils as she plays with his hair and ear. That scene is both steamy and hilariously funny.

Veteran character actors fill out the rest of the cast, with Charles Coburn (who will later turn up in a pair of Marilyn Monroe comedies) as Eve’s father and partner-in-crime, Eugene Pallette (who famously played Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood) as the wealthy Mr. Pike, and William Demarest (later Uncle Charley in the popular TV series My Three Sons) as the man in Mr. Pike’s employ tasked with looking out for his snake-loving son.

My generation watched a lot of films with parents, and because there were only a handful of TV stations and no individual options (like phones, computers, streaming services), watching old movies was a shared experience. I tried to repeat that experience with my children without pressuring them, and those that watched older movies when they were young continue to have an appreciation for them, while those that avoided them still continue to do so. I personally think that exposing children to travel and different types of films and foods and experiences broadens their world and expands their range of tastes, which I why I review films like The Lady Eve.

The Lady Eve also makes for an interesting feminist debate. On the one hand, Eve is a strong, confident, in-control woman who is as skilled at manipulating her “marks” as she is a deck of cards. She’s witty, she’s smart, she knows how to dominate a conversation, she reads people and situations well, and she’s not dependent on anyone for anything. She’s in control. On the other hand, if you didn’t get the Adam and Eve allusion from the title or title sequence, which features a cartoon snake in top hat clutching a baby rattle in its tail, there’s an opening gag where Eve drops an apple she’d bitten into off the side of the ship so it strikes her target in the head as he’s boarding below. And with those allusions, Eve is linked to a corrupting influence. But is she? Or is she just a woman whose mark turns out to be her match?

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 94 min., Black and White
Studio/Distributor: Criterion
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: LPCM Mono
Bonus features: B
Includes: 36-page color booklet
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG/PG-13 for adult situations)

Language: 0/10—Other than a few instances of namecalling (“idiot”) what passes for profanity are old-fashioned words like “boulderdash” and “cannoodling”

Sex: 3/10—A substantial amount of kissing and intimacy between the two stars, but everyone remains fully clothed and there are no “make-out” scenes; the sexiest scenes are the cabin seduction and shoe replacement, both mild by today’s standards

Violence: 1/10—Other than comic pratfalls and a few deliberate trippings, there’s one mild “assault,” for lack of a better word

Adult situations: 6/10—Mostly talk about going to bed with someone, but also plenty of social drinking and smoking

Takeaway: While His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby are still the best classic “starter” screwball comedies for families with junior-high age children and older, teens ought to find it amusing to see what “romance” was like in this acclaimed 1941 black-and-white comedy