I don't get into older comedies much. I mean, I have a hard time convincing myself that I will be interested in them. Then, as soon as I press play, I immediately wonder why I was so skeptical. The Lady Eve still seems very fresh today. It is also happens to be incredibly sexy despite the restrictions of the Hay's code. That is one thing that always does manage to impress me about older films--the way the subtleties used to circumnavigate the code actually produce more intriguing results. Despite the fact that sexuality is never directly mentioned at all, it is so obvious what is going on that I'm surprised Mr. Hays wasn't upset by some moments in this film.
This is a classic screwball, a classical confrontation of differing classes and genders. The most interesting thing about this film is the power relationships between Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and the men who surround her. The basic story is that she attempts to seduce Charlie Pike (Henry Fonda) for the purpose of getting her hands on some of his money; she ends up falling in love with him instead. Both are anomalies. She is a lady crook; he is an academic wanderer with no real interest in his family's ale inheritance. In a stark contrast to the Humphrey Bogart-type masculine ideal, Pike seems to attract accidents of all sorts. He is slow and gullible, while Jean is adept and wily.
In one scene, her father (Charles Coburn) tries to swindle Charlie Pike by fixing the deck of cards, but Jean fixes it right back, in Pike's favor. These criminals take matters of power into their own hands. In their world, you do not necessarily have to live with the hand you have been dealt. Living outside of the rules of society, they make their own. As a renegade living among them, Jean has the power and the knowledge to manipulate reality the way she sees fit. She also lives outside of the conventions of love and marriage. In the scene depicted above, she narrates the images that are reflected in her mirror, as if creating them herself. From the beginning, she leads the bumbling Pike around by the nose.
I found it interesting the way Jean is constantly placed between the male characters on the screen. More often than not, it is because she is controlling them, though this is not always the case. Here she is between Pike and her father, trapped between an old life and a new one. No matter what the scenario, the framing and positioning makes the gender struggles apparent.
The film opens in the Amazon, where Pike is returning home after a successful scientific excursion. From then on, the film takes place in a number of different transient settings, including a boat and a train. The characters always seem to be in-between, as if there is no home for them in a traditional space. They must return to the ship, Amazon-bound, in order to consummate their relationship, and to truly reconcile.
The business about the Amazon is something I find sort of troubling. There are frequent references to the Amazon, especially in association with Pike. Which means, consistently lurking on the periphery of the film is some kind of exotic otherness. This place is also associated with sexuality, making it some kind of mislaid Eden. Pike returns from this expedition with a snake, which seems to be representative of more than his fondness for animal research. While it is a clearly a literalization of the bible story, it is also seems to embody a metaphor of sexuality. Jean seems to find this oddly frightening, despite her apparent lasciviousness. Or perhaps, in a reversal of Eve's story, she is simply afraid of falling from her position of manipulative, seductive power into the more subdued position of a wife.
Role-playing and doubling are emphasized in this film, both in the plot-lines and the extensive use of mirror images. Halfway through the film, Jean takes on the role of the Lady Eve. She slips so easily into this alter ego, that it is hard to believe she is role-playing at all. It seems more as if she is accessing a different side of herself. As Pike notes, she is so similar to the woman he left behind, she could not be Jean at all. It is accessing this alter-ego that inevitably leads to the reconciliation of the two lovers. Jean does seem to be pitted against herself. One half of her desires to fall in love, to settle down, while the other remains a willfully independent seductress. When Pike and Jean do come together, it is on the Amazon-bound boat, where they first met. Once more, they are sailing to that far away Eden.