(director/writer: Preston Sturges; screenwriters: from the story The Faithful Heart by Monckton Hoffe; cinematographer: Victor Milner; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Sigmund Krumgold; cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Jean Harrington/Lady Eve Sidwich), Henry Fonda (Charles Pike), Charles Coburn (“Colonel” Harry Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Horace Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore ( Sir Alfred McGlennon-Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Torben Meyer (Purser), Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Jones; Paramount; 1941)

It’s just not simply an hilarious and witty battle of the sexes farce but amazingly has a tender romantic side.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Preston Sturges (“Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”/”The Palm Beach Story”/”The Great McGinty”/”Christmas in July”) is the writer-director of this marvelous sophisticated romantic comedy that is filled with pratfalls, screwball comedy antics, and verbal slapstick. It’s just not simply an hilarious and witty battle of the sexes farce but amazingly has a tender romantic side. The Lady Eve is based on the story The Faithful Heart by Monckton Hoffe, which was nominated for an Oscar for best original story but lost to Harry Segall’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the unsophisticated heir to the Pike brewery fortune, whose company slogan is “Pike’s Pale, the Ale That Won for Yale.” But the timid lad is less interested in the business than in being an ophiologist (a snake expert–which gives one visions of Adam and Eve and that biblical serpeant, and allows for the ribald sexual nature of the comedy to crawl by untouched by the censors).

Charles is feeling horny having just spent a year “up the Amazon” searching for rare snakes (even bringing back one) with his guardian/valet Muggsy (William Demarest), the ruffian his father Horace (Eugene Pallette) hired to act as a friend and protector. Charles is aboard the S.S. Southern Queen, a luxury cruise liner where he’s going from South America to New York. The most eligible wealthy bachelor is ogled by the shipboard ladies but is spotted by a trio of cardsharps, the wily Colonel Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn), his beautiful daughter Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), and their nondescript partner Gerald (Melville Cooper) posing as their butler. Jean meets Charles by tripping him and getting him to accompany her back to her cabin on the pretext of fixing her heel. While there it leads to some flirtation, before Jean stops his advances and playfully refers to him as an animal who should be put in a cage. Then father and daughter engage Charles in a card game with the intention of fleecing as much as they can from him, but in the middle of the con game the brassy Jean actually falls in love with the prissy, bumbling and vulnerable professor. Their shipboard romance becomes so serious that Charles asks her to marry him, but before she can tell him the truth about herself Muggsy gets the purser to show Charles a photograph identifying the trio as cardsharps. That’s enough to bring Charles back down to earth, and he rejects Jean as being merely a gold-digger. Terribly hurt by the rejection, Jean bitterly says “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.” Evidently she’s not satisfied that pop took the sucker for $32,000 in a rigged double or nothing ‘high card wins’ game, and only faked tearing up the check but instead palmed it. Jean later sees a chance to get revenge through her con artist friend posing as Sir Alfred McGlennon-Keith (Eric Blore), who gets invited to a reception in the ritzy Ridgefield, Connecticut, mansion of the Pike’s and brings her along as his niece, where she’s masquerading as Lady Eve Sidwich a sterling member of English society. There she meets Charles again, who when not taking pratfalls around the house falls for her again–convinced she can’t be the same person on the boat because she looks just like her and did nothing to change her identity except talk like a Brit.

This nearly perfect romantic comedy (I won’t argue too much with those who thought it perfect, but still at time it was too nonsensical) is filled with a host of colorful supporting characters from Eugene Pallette to William Demarest, whose bizarre antics keep the fast-paced comedy rolling full-steam ahead. Charles Coburn is delightful as the lovable rascal con artist, who can pull four aces out of his handkerchief when he sneezes. Henry Fonda radiates charming innocence and makes a good straight partner for the adventuress con artist Barbara Stanwyck, who plays her role with much gusto and quirkiness–toying with her man as she touches him all over and talks so fast he can hardly keep up with the dizzy lingo.

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)