The Lady Eve —arguably the most completely satisfying of the brilliant but uneven series of comedies Sturges made for Paramount in the 1940s—is structured upon a thematic complex that transcends authorial and generic boundaries and is deeply rooted in the sexual politics of our culture. The most obvious parallels are with Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (made the same year), Hitchock's Vertigo , and Minnelli's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever , but a serious critical inquiry into the ways in which the thematic has been treated intelligently and progressively would inevitably lead one also to the films Sternberg made with Dietrich.
The theme is that of the problem of female identity within a patriarchal culture, wherein men have the power of definition; or, more precisely, the male's attempts to construct a female identity that will flatter his ego, the woman's resistance to that construction, and the relationship between the constructed image and the reality. In the four films cited, the woman either assumes ( The Lady Eve, Two-Face Woman, Vertigo ) or reveals ( On a Clear Day ) an alternative identity, and the man falls in love with a romantic and/or erotically fascinating image which can never be possessed in actuality (in Sturges, Cukor and Hitchcock, because it is a false and deliberate construction, in Minnelli because it existed only in the distant past, in the heroine's earlier incarnation). All these films, then, probe the relationship between romantic love and the male ego, the man's desire not for an actual woman but for a projection of his fantasy which would perfectly fulfil his desire but for the slight disadvantage that it has no real existence and must remain forever inaccessible. Sturges suggests this brilliantly in the love speech that Fonda delivers to Stanwyck in both her identities, believing her to be two different women, repeating its clauses verbatim: he is not addressing a woman so much as his own fantasy of her.
Two-Faced Woman offers the closest parallels to The Lady Eve , but Vertigo provides a particularly fascinating comparison, the relationship being that of simultaneous complement and inversion. One is a tragedy, the other a comedy; one is told almost exclusively from the male viewpoint, the other predominantly from the woman's. In Vertigo the woman's deceptive masquerade occupies the first part of the film, in The Lady Eve the second. Despite the fact that it was made sixteen years earlier (and without wishing to postulate any causal connection), one is tempted to think of The Lady Eve as "Revenge of Vertigo ." The generic difference is partly determined by the point of view: told from the male viewpoint, The Lady Eve could no longer be a comedy (Hawks's comedies of male humiliation— Bringing Up Baby , I Was a Male War Bride , Man's Favorite Sport? —are made possible by the fact that romantic love has no place in his imaginative universe). Most of the film's humor is dependent on the woman's control of situations, and even apparently marginal gags (Eugene Pallette's percussive response to the lateness of his breakfast) arise from the deflation of male power.
Vertigo, although narrated from the male position, is not of course an endorsement of it: from the moment at which identification is interrupted (Kim Novak's flashback), it becomes a devastating critique of the male obsession with total domination and possession known in our culture as "romantic love." Vertigo is built upon our identification with the male gaze, its assumption of dominating/controlling the action, and the gradual recognition that it controls nothing, that the illusion of control is a product of the (culturally constructed) male ego. In the comic mode, the critique offered by The Lady Eve is scarcely less devastating. Here Jean/Stanwyck has control of the gaze from the outset, literally holding Fonda's image and actions (unbeknownst to him) in the palm of her hand—reflected in the mirror of her compact. And she is permitted to retain this control throughout most of the film, losing it temporarily only at the turning-point (her exposure as a professional cardsharp) and triumphantly regaining it in her masquerade as "the Lady Eve." Cukor's original version of Two-Faced Woman (which should now be made generally available for reassessment—prints exist) offers very close parallels, the whole point of the bowdlerized version (after the film's condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency) being that it restores control to the male, thereby ruining the whole conception at a blow.
Sturges's use of star personas/personalities is masterly. Stanwyck's combination of streetwise toughness (she was often cast in proletarian roles) and a capacity for intense suffering—a combination central to her distinguished career in the woman's melodrama—adds depth to her superb comic timing. Fonda's image, developed especially by Ford in Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk , compounded of innocence, naiveté and idealism, is here subjected to astringent revision. The "innocence" prevents him from recognizing the sincerity of Jean's feelings, and is shown to be inseparable from an assumption of gender and class superiority, so that we register his chastisement at the hands of "Eve" as at once a just revenge and the necessary prerequisite for his final acceptance of the "real" Jean.
The Lady Eve
Directed by Preston Sturges
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda
In Praise of
Music Fetish Film Project
Sound & Vision: Toronto