>I just caught Preston Sturges’s 1941 film The Lady Eve last night and it got me to thinking about today’s current state of romantic comedies and how truly awful the majority of them have gotten over the past few years. Already this year I’ve handed out two “F” reviews (Valentine’s Day and Leap Year) as well as a “D” for When in Rome, and I wasn’t alone in my opinion on these three films. The highest rating at RottenTomatoes among the three is for Leap Year with a 20%, a film so bad its co-star Matthew Goode referred to it as “turgid” and admitted it was a “bad job” but said he “had a nice time” and “got paid.” Sounds like a winner to me.
Today’s romantic comedies and The Lady Eve follow paths of a similar nature. Lady Eve stars Henry Fonda as Charles Pike, a wealthy young scientist who joins a cruise ship of sorts on his way back home from the Amazon only to be targeted by Jean and Col. Harry Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn ), a father-daughter card-sharp duo who see Charles as an easy target for a take down. Of course, in the process of wooing Charles, Jean and he fall in love. However, Charles storms off after learning her original intentions even though we know she’s grown to truly love him, as her shift begins in the clip above, of which Ebert refers to as the “single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest.”
It’s the same old rom-com story as a misunderstanding breaks the couple apart, but we assume they’ll come back together again in the end. I won’t spoil the ending of Lady Eve, but in its execution it separates itself from today’s banal misunderstandings.
The keys to Lady Eve are not only the performances of Stanwyck and Fonda as well as a supporting cast, all of which are excellent, but the way Sturges has written Fonda’s character as a bit slow on the uptake, a fact Jean takes advantage of but also comes to love him for as he can’t help but wear his honest intentions on his sleeve. He’s not an idiot, but his naivete plays to the film’s humor — thanks in large part to Charles’s valet Muggsy (William Demarest) — and genuine believability of an otherwise absurd story, all of which makes for a far more enjoyable ending.
After all, the ridiculous nature of a romantic comedy is part of the fun the audience is supposed to have with it, which is what’s so off-putting in today’s rom-coms when we watch the characters bounce around from scene-to-scene, stepping in poop and making asses of themselves only to suffer from the entirely expected and profound misunderstanding that will ultimately culminate in the grand proclamation of their love for one another in the film’s final 10 minutes.
The Lady Eve suffers no such folly. All that’s taken seriously are the feelings between Charles and Jean, and whether that love can shine through the madness they provoke. Their love is a comic-filled plot thread rather than an inevitability the two protagonists must reach in order to satisfy the need for a melodramatic climax. And despite all of The Lady Eve‘s silliness and pratfalls you believe the love story at its core, yet it never makes an overly emotional plea for your affection.
As to why rom-coms of today can’t live up to such an effort, perhaps Ebert says it best when he writes, “A movie like The Lady Eve is so hard to make that you can’t make it at all unless you find a way to make it seem effortless.” Perhaps expecting today’s romantic comedies to deliver in such terms is simply to expect too much.