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Lady Eve- Reinventing the Garden of Eden

After watching “Lady Eve” for the first time ever in class, I walked away feeling that this was one of the best films I have ever seen. What struck me the most was the complicated layers of the leading lady, the honest dimensions of her character and the lack of a viable female counterpart in modern cinema. I asked myself incredulously- how can this be? How can a film made over fifty years ago capture the essence of its leading lady without marginalizing and oversimplifying her as much of today’s films do? Though “Eve/Jean” is witty, ambitious and cunning, she is never castrating like Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”, completely devoid of femininity like Hillary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” or utterly desperate like Glen Close’s “Alex” in “Fatal Attraction.” She isn’t waiting on the top of the Empire State Building for love to come to her like Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle”, and she doesn’t have to quit her job and be chased after like Kate Hudson in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Kate Hudson

What the film does is take the story of the Garden of Eden and turn it on its head. While the female is responsible for tempting and betraying “Mugsy” with her sardonic wit and cunning intellect, she eventually accepts love without compromising her character. She isn’t suddenly transformed into a virtuous woman because she has found love. At the same time, Henry Fonda’s character is forced to forego the idea of an ideal woman in exchange for reality. The irony is that reality is often constructed and love, an innocent emotion, is not always reconciled through innocent action. While it may be viewed that Eve mainpulates Mugsy, he gets her revenge on her as well, albeit unintentionally, because she falls in love with him. This is where the narrative turns the Garden of Eden on its head. His naivete is just as dangerous as her cunning, and they are both guilty and innocent parties throughout the film.

Sturges is able to accomplish this feat by the nature of his talent as a writer-director. It is obvious when watching the film that the narrative and dialogue are carefully constructed. Almost every line is a ringer and Stanwyck delivers them with characteristic ease. The dimensional quality of Eve could only be accomplished with a good script and this is what propels Sturges into “legendary” status. As a writer-director, he brings the character to the forefront and tackles it in a way his contemporaries were unable to.

Scene from "Lady Eve"

“Lady Eve” not only plays with gender roles and their construction, it provides a ying-yang framework for the characters. Jean is dominant and aggressive like a man yet emotional and feminine like a woman. Charles Pike is naive and dimwitted, yet educated and logical. No one’s to blame and everyone’s to blame. It is amazing that such a forward-thinking view of gender identity emerges from a period riddled by the Production Code and Hollywood stereotypes. It is even more amazing that a female character in a screwball comedy has more dimension than some of today’s greatest dramas. It lends credence to my opinion that the comedy is an oft-overlooked and underrated genre of film that should receive more recognition from the industry. Can we get an Academy award for a woman not playing a prostitute, a housewife, a queen, someone famous, a lunatic in an insane asylum or a boxer, please? Thanks!

~ by Jamie Parganos on February 27, 2010.

4 Responses to “Lady Eve- Reinventing the Garden of Eden”

  1. Since you liked The Lady Eve, you may also enjoy Cry Wolf (Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn)… Stanwyck was a terrific actress and I urge you to watch more of her films (if you haven’t already). I think you’ll be quite satisfied!

  2. Going off what you have written, would it be fair to say that ‘love’ gets a short changed by cinema? In some ways doesn’t love make people even more devious and not ‘doey-eyed’. Love makes people cheat, murder and steal. It’s not all hearts and fat cherubs flinging arrows around. Isn’t there also something humorous about an emotion considered so sweet actually being so dark? You’re right that she doesn’t “transform into a virtuous woman because she has found love”. In fact I’d argue that love makes her worse.

    You know that if they ever remake this, they’d tack on an ending in which she sees the error of her ways. -shudder-.

  3. Jamie, you made some great points. I absolutely agree on he female stereotypes that we are so used to in today’s society. To be quite honest, when I first saw Jean, I actually felt a little bit uncomfortable. It felt weird to me, to see this unconventional character in a movie (especially considering the time period). But after watching the movie, I felt attracted and compelled by her charismatic character. It actually made her seem more real to me-something that a woman would do today.
    Another thing that I noticed right away was the way that Sturges was able to go around all of the regulations that the film industry was enforcing. He did it in such a way that was truly fabulous and it gave the film that extra shock factor that differentiated it from many other movies. Like you said, he really “tackles” it.

  4. Yes, I completely agree with how Eve is presented in this movie. She has the qualities all of the women you have mentioned but in different aspects. The qualities she uses to get Mugsy to gamble, then falls for him, are the same qualities she uses to get him to fall for her again and not notice it is really her. There is no change in character and her role easily made way for films with deceivingly smart women in control. This film was by far one of my favorite to have watched in class.

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