Criterion Review: THE LADY EVE (1941)

Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy’s still got it in a new 4K restoration

It’s been a banner year for Criterion so far in 2020, whose work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has continued unabated and with no less dedication to their releases. When The Lady Eve was announced this Spring, I was caught well off-guard; a podcast interview with Criterion transfer supervisor Lee Kline last year cast some doubt on the film ever getting a high-definition release, claiming for years the original materials weren’t in the best condition. And then, like one of Handsome Harry’s card tricks, Criterion and Universal have pulled a restoration from up their sleeve — one filled with an abundance of features in this long-awaited Blu-ray.

Starring an out-of-her-time Barbara Stanwyck and an unexpectedly hilarious Henry Fonda, The Lady Eve follows sharp-witted card shark Jean, who connives with her ruthless partners to seduce and destroy the gutless, gullible Charles Pike. Pike, the heir to the Pike Ale fortune (the Ale that Won for Yale) is a biologist specializing in snakes returning from his latest sojourn in the Amazon as high society’s most eligible — and clueless — bachelor. He’s the perfect mark for Jean and her crew…but as she enacts her plan while cruising on the high seas, Cupid makes his mark on them both.

It was such a blast revisiting The Lady Eve — Sturges’ screenplay unfurls with fiendish glee through its brisk 90-minute runtime, and gives each character big and small a feast of comedic scenery to chew on. From Muggsy’s (William Demarest) cigar-chomping gumshoe valet to Colonel Harrington’s (Charles Coburn) debonair devilry, The Lady Eve is one of Sturges’ most memorable parade of faces. Stanwyck and Fonda are a wonderful match here, though; Stanwyck possesses such agency and determination which easily bests the men she’s in cahoots with as much as those she deceives, and Fonda’s established schtick as society’s most earnest upright citizen lays the foundation for such a hapless, lovable goof that you can’t help but adore. It’s such an unexpected subversion of screwball comedy dynamic — in addition to how its male characters’ bravado is endlessly undercut by their own buffoonery, as well as its quick evolution into a wickedly fun revenge story — that gives The Lady Eve such a timeless and inventive feel.

The package that Criterion has put together is also distinct in its ingenuity — after a cursory scan of the label’s recent and upcoming releases, it seems like The Lady Eve is the first Criterion release to openly acknowledge the impact of the Coronavirus. The jewel of the film’s special features, a roundtable between Sturges’ son and a who’s who of film critics and screenwriters, is a recorded Zoom conference whose now ubiquitous introductory “Can you hear me’s?” feel like the kind of comedic verbal tic Sturges would work into more modern scripts. There’s also an in-depth archival commentary by film scholar Marian Keane; wonderfully-edited visual essay by David Cairns, which has a fast-paced formal inventiveness and eye for natural comedy in its usage of both animation and archival, both key to contextualizing The Lady Eve amongst Sturges’ bevy of theater and film work. Also included are an archival introduction by Bogdanovich, who can’t help but slip in a few of his memorable impressions of the film’s cast; a presentation of Edith Head’s costume designs alongside her reflections on Eve; a brisk 45-minute adaption of The Lady Eve for Lux Radio Theatre (subbing in Ray Milland for Fonda!); a jazzy treat of a work-in-progress intro number for an upcoming Lady Eve musical; and the film’s re-release trailer.

Long awaited by screwball comedy lovers and die-hards of Sturges, Fonda, and Stanwyck, the new Blu-ray of The Lady Eve is Criterion at its best — providing a rich and rewarding look at classic cinema even when the world can be at its bleakest.


Criterion presents The Lady Eve in a 1080p 1.37:1 HD master, sourced from a brand-new 4K restoration of a 35mm fine-grain master positive held in the Universal Studios archive (which also provided the foundation of the audio restoration). English SDH subtitles are provided for the main feature, but not for the special features.

This restoration — the result of “combing the world’s archives” and turning up mainly 3rd/4th-generation print copies — is well worth the wait. While retaining visible aging in sequences such as its animated opening credits, Criterion’s presentation of Eve is rich in recovered detail, from the grime of the South American jungle to the fine embroidery and sheen of Edith Head’s costumes.

The audio’s remarkably free of the muffled clicks evident of rampant deterioration, lending Sturges’ dialogue a revived electric zeal.

Special Features

  • 2001 Audio Commentary by Professor Marian Keane.
  • Tom Sturges and Friends: A Zoom conversation between Preston Sturges’ son and biographer Tom Sturges, filmmakers James L. Brooks and Ron Shelton; film historian Susan King; and critics Leonard Maltin and Kenneth Turan.
  • The Lady Deceives: A new video essay by critic David Cairns.
  • Costumes by Edith Head: A video slideshow of Head’s designs for The Lady Eve, alongside Head’s textual commentary.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: A 1942 radio adaptation of The Lady Eve.
  • “Up the Amazon:” The opening number to a musical adaptation of the film, performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, written by Rick Chertoff and David J. Forman.
  • Theatrical Re-Release Trailer.
  • Essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
  • 1946 Life Magazine Profile of Preston Sturges.

The Lady Eve is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Except where noted, all screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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