The Lady Eve: Hers & His Perspectives
For the second installment in our 2023 Classic Couple Movie Challenge, we offer our take on The Lady Eve (1941).
Over the last eight years or so, I have become a Barbara Stanwyck fan, a real Barbara Stanwyck fan as she now ranks in my top five actresses of all time. I enjoy all of her performances, but when she’s in a comedic role, she’s got a grip on me. The Lady Eve is one of her best performances in a comedy and 1941 was a standout year for the actress who gave a terrific performance in Ball of Fire the same year. In The Lady Eve as card shark con artist Jane Harrington, Stanwyck is sexy, smart, beguiling and wily as she seduces and falls in love with Charles Pike, played by Henry Fonda. But let’s talk about Fonda.
For me, this film is the one that changed everything I ever thought about Henry Fonda. Prior to watching The Lady Eve, my Henry Fonda was a great dramatic actor. His performance in 1957’s Twelve Angry Men is riveting, one that sets a standard for great acting in my view. My Henry Fonda was a dramatic Henry Fonda, and his performance in The Lady Eve turns that on its head.
As Charles Pike, Fonda is an absent-minded science nerd, with a passion for serpentology of all things. He’s the gullible reluctant heir to his family’s fortune who navigates the world with his head the in clouds or more aptly put in a book. Fonda perfectly plays the innocent target against Stanwyck as the sharp seductress. It’s his performance that really brings the comedy to this film. He even takes on the pratfalls of classic slapstick as a convincing bumbling fool in love. He’s at his most convincing during a scene with Stanwyck where she’s running her hands through his hair while whispering sweet nothings to him. Fonda’s facial expressions in this scene tell you everything you need to know about his character and where things are headed. It’s fine acting, but moreover it’s comedy at its most subtle best from an actor you might not expect it from. That’s the magic of this film.
I love Barbara Stanwyck, and I love her in The Lady Eve. Like Charles Pike, I fall in love with her as both Jane Harrington and the Lady Eve, the two characters she plays in the film. She’s bold, confident and self-assured as Jane. She’s charming, sophisticated and witty as Lady Eve. And while both characters share the extraordinary beauty of Barbara Stanwyck, their appeal differs. She succeeds in seduction as both women. This range, this appeal, is what makes her a star.