FILM / Films that should come back from the dead: Independent riters campaign for the return of four classics: Kevin Jackson on The Lady Eve

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The Independent Culture
The Palm Beach Story may be swifter and more brilliant; Sullivan's Travels may be at once more biting and more heartfelt. Yet there are strong grounds for maintaining that it's The Lady Eve which is Preston Sturges's real triumph, and, therefore, just about the best comedy on film. (Incidentally, all three were released in the same year as Citizen Kane, which makes 1941, an atrocious year for most of the planet, Hollywood's annus mirabilis.)

The Lady Eve is like Vertigo played as farce. Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a stiff, virginal heir to a brewing fortune is on his way back to America from a year's snake-hunting in the Amazon when he is himself hunted and won by Jean (Barbara Stanwyck, on delicious top form), gold-digger and all-round tough cookie. To her own astonishment, though, Jean falls in love with Charles. Wedding bells are just starting to chime when Charles's trusty goon Muggsy (William Demarest) blows her cover, and the engagement is off.

Hell, as usual, hath no fury, and Jean decides to take her revenge on Charles - 'I need him like the axe needs the turkey' - by reappearing in his life in the hauntingly familiar guise of a bogus English noblewoman, the Lady Eve Sidwich. He succumbs. Within weeks, they are married . . .

Summary can't begin to convey the glorious nature of what Sturges drew from this plot: the sexy crackle of the early courtship scenes (there's scarcely so much as a bare shoulder in The Lady Eve, yet it's powerfully erotic); the vivid wit even of the minor players; the improvisatory panache of the storytelling (Sturges was a professional inventor, and it shows), as in the scene shot in Jean's hand mirror while she spies on the women trying to seduce Charles, and derides their amateurish technique.

The Lady Eve was partly inspired by Sturges's own amours, and partly by Adam's problems with his wife (hence the serpents), though Sturges is less concerned with the Fall than with the pratfall. It has the lightness and depth of all classic comedies, and a pungency which Hollywood seems to have lost for good. Just pray they don't remake it with Tom Hanks.

What the critics said: 'Drastically funny.' William Whitebait.

'Laugh entertainment of top proportions . . . Sturges provides numerous sparkling situations in his direction and keeps picture moving at a merry pace.' Variety.

Availability: None of Sturges's films is available on video, and the only 35mm print of The Lady Eve is owned by the BBC, which, fortunately, does screen it from time to time in off-peak slots.

(Photograph omitted)