Mon. September 24
Barbara Stanwyck’s Feminine Charms in “The Lady Eve”
This past summer, I set out to watch old films from the 1940s and 50s and to write about how they speak to universal themes and circumstances even today. I wrote about three fantastic films—Gentlemen’s Agreement here, Sunset Boulevard here, and High Noon here—that really deserve to be seen by a new generation of movie watchers. But not everything I have seen has resonated with me. I found The African Queen (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, for one, to be utterly unrelatable, and I felt uneasy about the prospect of recommending a movie that I personally found to be such a snore.
Most recently, I saw the 1941 film The Lady Eve, directed by Preston Sturges and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. And on its face, this slapstick comedy—though delightfully funny and charming throughout—seemed to present an outmoded picture of what it means to be a woman.
Leading lady Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) screams when she sees snakes, says things like “they say a moonlit deck is a woman’s business office”, and sits around coveting a marriage proposal. There’s plenty here to make a modern woman feel uncomfortable. But there are also lessons about women for women, and more importantly for men, who despite thousands of years of scientific and industrial progress, still struggle to know the first thing about women.
The film begins with wealthy ale heir and ophiologist (that’s a scientist who studies snakes) Charlie Pike (Fonda) finishing an expedition up the Amazon. His all-consuming passion for scaly and slimy things has up to this point assured his bachelorhood. That is, until he meets card sharp Jean Harrington, who conspires with her fellow con artists to dupe and ensnare Pike in a gambling ruse aboard a cruise ship. The cadre of con men (and woman) is masterful in their set-up: at the card table, they lull Charlie into self-confidence by intentionally throwing a few hands of poker. And behind closed doors, Jean is unrelenting with her calculating coquetry. She plays with Charlie’s hair, whispers sweet nothings in his ear, and pulls him in close so that he can drink in the smell of her perfume.
But in the midst of playing Charlie for a sucker, Jean unexpectedly and truly falls for him. Though her intent was to seduce and manipulate the man, she discovers that she’s in love with him. So Jean calls off the sting just in time for a marriage proposal from Charlie, which she happily accepts.
The next morning, however, Charlie learns (or believes that he’s learned) the truth about Jean—that she’s a duplicitous, scheming, devious, calculating con woman, who has made a career out of playing men. Believing the whole affair to be a sham, he immediately rescinds his proposal, and will hear no explanation from a wounded Jean. The remainder of the film sees Jean setting out to give Charlie—and the audience—an education in women, and in people in general.
While a woman may be innately beautiful, charming, and shrewd, these qualities can’t be judged in isolation. How we ought to judge people instead is by the ends they pursue. Just as shrewdness in isolation can be used to rob a person blind, it can also be used to attain a good man, or even—as the character of Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve demonstrates—to accomplish both ends. We needn’t champion some squishy relativistic view of truth and morality to accept that, as Jean says to Charlie, “the best [women] aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.”
Diane Ellis Scalisi is the lead editor of Ricochet.com.