Fonda plays the naive Charles Pike, heir to a brewery fortune. On his return from South America, at the cruise ship, the eyes of all single women are turned towards the table where he sits immersed in a book about his hobby, snakes (remember the snake of Paradise?). Con-artist Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) takes action (as a real Eve she has already dropped an apple on his head when he was boarding the ship): when he passes her table, she sticks out her foot so that he trips and falls. As he picks himself up she blames him for breaking off the heel of her shoe and asks him to help her to her cabin so that she can change her shoes. She lets him choose new foot-gear, has him kneel on the floor, and swings her nyloned leg right in his face. You see him blushing, even in black-and-white. That's how one catches a man!
Later that evening she is frightened by one of his snakes and uses that as an excuse to have him hold her tight, again kneeling on the floor beside her, while she keeps running her fingers through his hair in a very sexy way. More was not possible in 1941, but suggestion is often more powerful than naked reality. Charles is literally paralyzed by this exquisite torment. She calls him affectionately (but also humiliating) "Hopsy" after the beer his father brews.
Her father, a card sharper, is traveling with her and attempts to bamboozle "Hopsy," but has to abandon his plan as Jean is clearly falling in love with their prey and protects him. But later her identity as an adventuress will trip her up. When Charles learns the truth about her, he hypocritically breaks off their relationship.
That is the great part of the film. The next part takes place in the parental home of Charles (his monumental father is Eugene Pallette), where she has herself introduced as a visiting English lady, in an attempt to reconquer his heart. She only disguises her voice, but Charles is fooled and doesn't recognize her (impossible to believe, even in the artificial world of a screwball comedy). He falls for her again. Unfortunately he also falls over the furniture, and has himself showered with a tray with drinks and a plate with gravy. He keeps tripping and falling and sophistication makes place for broad slapstick. To add insult to injury, father Pike sits banging like a big baby on the plates and saucers when he is not served quickly enough.
A more interesting scene arrives again when Charles and Jean (still as English lady) are off by train for their wedding night. Jean now takes revenge for Charles' behavior on the ship. Instead of letting her new husband enjoy a romantic night, she keeps telling him stories about all her other lovers, a protracted and ingenious mental torture, until he gets so fed up that in the middle of the night, and in the middle of nowhere, he jumps out of the train.
In the end, everything of course turns alright, again aboard the cruise liner, now on its way back to South America. Jean lets Charles again trip over her foot, has him take her to her cabin and then the door remains closed to the camera while we hear sounds that suggest a final romantic union.
[Barbara Stanwyck - Photo Wikipedia]
The fun of this film is that it is the woman who is in charge and not only that, she positively enjoys tormenting her lover and making him look silly. Barbara Stanwyck has all the sophisticated sexiness, grace and innuendo that is necessary for this role. She seduces Henry Fonda in the most casual way, even with open contempt. “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.” There is no romance here, only irony.
But all this cruelty is far from unpleasant. In fact the tone of the film is very happy, not to say exhilarating. It could have been much more without the silly slapstick and improbable & impersonation in the second part, but even as it is, The Lady Eve is a coldly brilliant comedy.
Available in the Criterion Collection.