Lady Eve [1941]

In 1941, Barbara Stanwyck was offered two screwball roles equally suited to her tart intelligence, deft comic timing, and undeniable sex appeal, and it's a photo finish as to which was funnier--showgirl-on-the-lam Sugarpuss O'Shea, the title character in Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire, or con artist Jean Harrington a.k.a. Lady Eve Sidwich, the delirious fulcrum for this classic Preston Sturges comedy. Under Sturges's typically antic microscope, the collision between the gold-digging Harrington and the very rich, very hapless brewery-heir-turned-herpetologist Charles Pike (a wonderfully callow, guileless Henry Fonda) yields ample opportunity for the writer-director to skewer issues of class and sex; as always, Sturges is bold in pushing the censors' envelope, capturing a palpable erotic heat between the canny Jean and the literally feverish Charlie, who, after a year up the Amazon, is instantly smitten by the mere sight of her shapely ankles (in hindsight, a precursor to her subsequent effect in Double Indemnity). To give away the plot machinations driving the farce would spoil the fun, beyond confirming impersonations, mixed signals, and misunderstandings as the turns in a consistently rollicking ride that makes good use of Charles Coburn and screwball character veterans Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, and Eric Blore. --Sam Sutherland

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