My favorite screwball comedy is The Lady Eve (1941), written and directed by Preston Sturgis. The film stars scrumptious and witty Barbara Stanwyck, and handsome and bumbling Henry Fonda. The cast includes a parade of great character actors -- Charles Coburn, as a cultured card-shark; William Demarest, as a rough-hewn Irish Sancho Panza; Eric Blore, that preposterous fake English gentleman; and gravel-voiced Eugene Palette, as the paternal ale magnate, exasperated by the tasks of being wealthy.
Sturgis (born Edmund Preston Biden, in Chicago) had a madcap upbringing -- in his childhood, dragged about Europe by his bohemian mom. The result was his sharp scrutiny of social class, its morals and money, and various bad imitations. It made him a satirist, brilliantly equipped at verbal play, delivered with speed and charming nonchalance. Sturgis brews up a delicious mix of vaudeville pratfalls, spilled gravy, flailing gestures, and improbable wit.
The Lady Eve opens shipboard on a luxury liner, with Fonda -- a handsome, and well-tailored gent -- the object of glances and ploys by the fashionable females on board. Fonda is oblivious, embroiled instead with herpetology (he's a reptile enthusiast). While he reads on about snakes, Eve (Stanwyck) sets out the traps, and she's as canny as he is bewildered. In a sexy stateroom scene, she works her magic on her gob smacked prey. As the enchantress reels him in, she falls for his simplicity and his sappy declarations of love. Eve, exposed as a cheat, returns disguised as a British heiress, which leads to a marriage and a wedding night of ... well, you've got to see it.
A Sturgis plot races along, threading memorable scenes and bridging improbable chasms. It's a trick the Coen brothers have absorbed. There is a gaiety in these films, a giddy sense of laughter in hard times. His peak years are the early to mid-1940s, and Sturgis strikes sparks from hard flint, holding up against the gloom and menace.
Preston Sturgis: The Great McGinty (1940); Sullivan’s Travels(1941); Miracle at Morgan Creek (1944). Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl, Friday (1940), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).