Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist. Along with her equally larcenous father, "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his partner Gerald (Melville Cooper), she is out to fleece rich, naive Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to the Pike Ale fortune ("The Ale That Won for Yale"). Pike is a woman-shy snake expert Ophidiologist, just returning from a year-long expedition up the Amazon. Though surrounded by ladies desperate for his attention, Charles is putty in Jean's hands.
But even the best laid plans can go astray. First, Jean falls hard for Pike and shields him from her card sharp father. Then, when Pike's suspicious minder/valet Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about her and her father, Pike dumps her. Furious at being scorned, she re-enters his life masquerading as the posh "Lady Eve Sidwich", niece of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), another con man who's been swindling the rich folk of Connecticut. Jean is determined to torment Pike mercilessly, as she explains, "I've got some unfinished business with him—I need him like the axe needs the turkey."
When Pike meets "Eve", he is so bewildered he constantly trips and falls over himself. Although Muggsy tries to convince him "she's the same dame", Pike reasons that Jean would never come close to his home without at least disguising herself, so he concludes the resemblance is only a coincidence. After a brief courtship, they marry, and on the train to their honeymoon, "Eve" begins to confess her past, dropping name after name after name of old boyfriends and lovers. Pike finally gets fed up and jumps off the train.
Now separated, Jean's con team urges her to close the deal, saying she's got him over a barrel and can make a killing in a settlement. While Charles' father and lawyers are on the phone with her pleading to settle quickly, Jean says she doesn't want any money at all, just for Pike to tell her it's over to her face. Pike refuses, and through his father Jean learns that he's departing on another ocean voyage. She arranges her own passage, and "bumps into" Pike, just as they met before. "Hopsie" is overjoyed to see Jean again, and they instantly dash to her cabin where they mutually affirm their love for each other. Charles confesses that he is married, and Jean replies tenderly, "So am I, darling."
The Lady Eve was loosely based in a 19-page story by Monckton Hoffe called "Two Bad Hats", which was also the working title for the film. Sturges was assigned to write a script based on Hoffe's story in 1938, with Claudette Colbert expected to be the star. Sturges and Paramount producer Albert Lewin had some written disagreement in 1939 about the development of the script, with Lewin writing to Sturges, "the first two-thirds of the script, in spite of the high quality of your jokes, will require an almost one hundred percent rewrite." Sturges objected, and eventually Lewin gave in, writing, "Follow your witty nose, my boy; it will lead you and me and Paramount to the Elysian pastures of popular entertainment."
The censors at the Hays Office initially rejected the script that was submitted to them, because of "the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads" which lacked "compensating moral values." A later, revised, script was approved.
The casting of the lead roles for The Lady Eve went through some changes. At some point, the studio wanted Brian Aherne for the male lead, and Joel McCrea, Madeleine Carroll and Paulette Goddard were under consideration as of July 1940, but in August 1940, Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll were announced as co-stars. In September, Darryl Zanuck lent Henry Fonda to co-star with Paulette Goddard, who was then replaced by Barbara Stanwyck.
The Lady Eve was in production from October 21 to December 5, 1940. According to Donald Spoto in Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Sturges "invariably paraded on [the] set with a colorful beret or a felt cap with a feather protruding, a white cashmere scarf blowing gaily round his neck and a print shirt in loud hues ... the reason for the peculiar outfits, he told visitors, was that they facilitated crew members finding him amid the crowds of actors, technicians, and the public." Stanwyck compared Sturges' set to "a carnival". In his biography of Stanwyck, author Axel Madsen wrote, "The set was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him. To get into mood for Barbara's bedroom scene, Sturges wore a bathrobe."
Location shooting for the opening jungle scene took place at Lake Baldwin of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, California. In that scene, Henry Fonda's character refers to "Professor Marsdit", whose last name is an anagram of that of Raymond L. Ditmars of the American Museum of Natural History, a well-known reptile expert and popular science writer of the time.
The film premiered in New York City on February 25, 1941, and went into general release on March 21 of that year. It was marketed with a number of taglines, including When you deal a fast shuffle ... love is in the cards. The film ranked as one of the top 10 films of that year in box office sales.
The Lady Eve was released on video in the United States on July 12, 1990, and was subsequently re-released on June 30, 1993.
After The Lady Eve premiered at the Rialto, The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther characterized the film as "a sparkling romantic comedy." He further described the director's work, "It isn't often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler 'Hurry, hurry, hurry!' As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world. Too many of the films on which we comment boil down to woeful mediocrity, and too many of the people who make them betray a depressing weariness." More than 50 years later, Roger Ebert gave the film high praise: "If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve."
The clearest theme, and easiest to pick out very early in the film is gender inversion. Jean Harrington is clearly in control of the situation for the majority of the film, until her feelings get in the way of her previous, dubious intentions. Until she realizes that she loves him, there is little sense of the struggle between equals that typifies most romantic comedies. The film has been lauded for a unique blend of slapstick and satire. We see the "fall of man" implied by the title of the film in many ways. First is "fall" in the literal sense, with Pike continuously falling down in various situations, and his "fall from innocence" as he is sucked into the deceptive plots laid out by Jean. Sturges also uses deceptiveness in appearance profusely throughout the film. Things as small as the distinction, or lack thereof, between beer and ale, as well as the various disguises of Jean Harrington, add depth to the plot line. Even most of the characters have two names (Charles=Hopsie, Jean=Eugenia/Eve Sidwich). This lack of recognition sets the stage for the storyline. Sturges repeatedly suggests that the "lowliest boob could rise to the top with the right degree of luck, bluff and fraud."
Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original story for The Lady Eve, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. In that same year, the National Board of Review nominated the film for "Best Picture", and The New York Times named it as the best film of the year in their "10 Best Films of 1941" list. In 1994, The Lady Eve was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The Lady Eve is commonly listed among the greatest films of all time. In 2008, it was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It was placed similarly on The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made list by The New York Times. In 2012, the movie ranked #110 on Sight and Sound's critics' poll and #174 on the directors' poll, as selected by the British Film Institute. The Lady Eve was listed by Time magazine as one of the All-TIME 100 Movies. The film was 59th on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. FilmSite.org, a subsidiary of American Movie Classics, placed The Lady Eve on their list of the 100 greatest movies. Additionally, Films101.com ranked the film as the 97th best movie of all time (a list of the 10,059 most notable).
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
2000: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - #55
2002: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions - #26
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Jean Harrington: "I need him like the axe needs the turkey." – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Romantic Comedy Film
The Writers Guild of America ranked its screenplay as the 52nd best ever written.
In 1956, the plot of The Lady Eve was recycled for the movie The Birds and the Bees, starring George Gobel, Mitzi Gaynor and David Niven. Preston Sturges received a co-writer credit for the film, although he did not actually participate in the project.
The plot of The Lady Eve was also the model for Corrupting Dr. Nice, a science fiction novel by John Kessel involving time travel.
The Lady Eve was presented on Hollywood Star Time September 21, 1946. Joan Blondell and John Lund starred in the adaptation.