All screwball comedies are, to some degree, female revenge movies, in that one of the genre’s characteristic plots pits a hyperarticulate, slightly hysterical protagonist (not always a woman, sometimes Cary Grant) against a ponderous, unsophisticated male character whose ego is pummeled, punctured, and deflated as a primary source of humor. Often this figure—a “man of the people” from somewhere like Albany or Oklahoma—is a secondary character meant to serve as a point of contrast for the film’s hero. In The Lady Eve, the source of screwball energy is the woman, and her male counterpart is both romantic lead and victim. In a sign that the contest between them is in no way a fair one, they meet on a steamship called the SS Southern Queen.
The male lead, played by Henry Fonda, is Charles Pike, the scion of an important brewery family (“Pike’s Pale: The Ale That Won for Yale”) who has enough money to do whatever he wants—namely, to pursue obscure postgraduate studies and carry a pet snake around with him wherever he goes. He has been up the Amazon studying reptiles for a year, and he is on his way back to his parents’ home in Connecticut.
The female lead, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is an adventuress named Jean Harrington. Her father, “Handsome Harry” Harrington and his business partner are professional cardsharps; her role in the operation is to lure rich and unsuspecting passengers to the table. In this case, their victim is Charles. Jean gets his attention simply by sticking her foot out and tripping him, as if hailing a cab. When she makes him take her back to her cabin to replace the sandal she claims to have broken in this maneuver, she dips up and down on one shoe in a perfect waltz step. When she throws herself down onto a couch, seemingly in the grip of uncontrollable emotion, she comes up with Charles’s head wedged firmly between her arms. He looks straight ahead, quivering, like a mouse caught by a snake.
That the film convincingly presents him as a hero is a testament to its ability to position him against the right backdrop. Its dominant idiom is set by the other male characters—her father, her father’s associates, his father, his family’s friends—and drawn from the worlds of gambling and business. Love is compared, over and over, to a game of cards or a complicated industrial process. The goal is to drive a hard bargain, and anyone who can’t is a mug, a sap, a sucker, and a chump. The two father figures, the film’s main representatives of this position, are not bad exactly. They’re humane and generous; both are frustrated not only by Charles’s gullibility but by his inability to appreciate the relative value of the woman who’s pursuing him. They’re just old, like cities where people have been building on the same site for a long time.
Charles, however, has no aptitude for cards, can’t tell the difference between beer and ale, and seems never to have talked to a woman before. He has no language to express his feelings beyond than that of the playground and the classroom: in his longest romantic monologue, he tells Jean, after first positioning her on a moonlit deck, that he feels he’s always known her, that he sees her farther and farther back in his past like “converging perspective lines,” and that they are two children in the forest together holding hands. As he sits alone at dinner in his spotless white tuxedo reading a book called Are Snakes Necessary?, he is both ridiculous and a blank slate, an unexplored continent—an Adam to her Eve. What he offers her is the chance to imagine that they are the only two people in the world. When he proposes, she says yes.
But because his idea of love is simple, it is unable to accommodate reality. As soon as he understands that she is not as artless as he is, he rejects her. Her response is to bring his cardboard image of the perfect woman to life, and then to destroy it systematically. She tricks her way into a dinner party at his parents’ house as “the Lady Eve Sidwich.” Here, she confronts him with an English accent, an ostrich fan, and a story about an elderly Earl, his young wife, a coachman, and “two little girls who look exactly alike.” Charles believes it all. Within two weeks he is asking someone he thinks is a different woman to marry him. As he repeats his earlier proposal almost word for word, his innocence seems like clumsiness, his sincerity like pompousness. We understand why he deserves her scorn.
The best scene in the film, from the standpoint of female vengeance, comes on their wedding night. Her father, who was not invited to the wedding, gloomily sets the stage. “Now she’s honeymooning on a train with a man she hates,” he concludes. “Maybe she’s going to shoot him,” his partner suggests. “She’s afraid of guns.”—“Maybe she’s going to push him out of a window.”—“No, you can’t open a window on a train.” But her revenge is easier than that. She simply tells Charles that she has been married before: to “Angus the stable boy” when she was 16.
The scene cuts away, and then back to Charles, pacing; he’s about to give a speech. In the name of “sweet forgiveness,” he says, he’ll forget about Angus. “Sweet what?” she asks. “Sweet forgiveness!” he is forced to shout. She is teasing him, but it is a real offer, and we see her considering and then rejecting it. “I wonder if now would be the time to tell you about Herman . . .” she continues. The train’s whistle and the sound of its wheels becomes louder and more insistent, and a railroad sign announces, in gleeful capitals, “Pull In Your Head: We’re Coming to a TUNNEL.” Only snatches of their conversation are distinct: “Vernon? I thought you said Herman!”—“Cecil?”—“How do you mean, Hubert or Herbert?”—“They were John’s twin cousins!” —”John? Who was John?” Eventually the train pulls to a stop. Charles stumbles off with his bags, and, unable to keep his balance, slips in the mud.
The sexual imagery in this scene is too explicit to take Jean’s performance simply as an act of retributive justice; she is clearly enjoying herself urgently and violently at Charles’s expense. But neither does she fit the classic model of the woman scorned—Medea killing her husband and children, or Glenn Close rising up out of the bathtub with a bloody knife. What Jean destroys is not the possibility of a future between her and Charles, but the fantasy keeping them apart. Shattering someone’s romantic ideal, when that ideal happens to coincide with you, may be violent, but it is not obviously vicious or pointless. If you are lucky enough to find someone who has mistaken you for the standard of female perfection, the easiest and most tempting response is to shut up and let him believe whatever he wants. To reject this bargain for the chance of something better—to love someone for what he could be and hate him, at least a little bit, for what he is—might look a lot like revenge.