I've been watching a lot of screwball comedies, and I love the screwball heroines. They're raging, anarchic forces of nature. They make the ditsy heroines, like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Manhattan, look stoic and sensible. They don't run around with leopards like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or ruin their husbands' new marriages like Irene Dunne in My Favourite Wife, or jump off yachts like Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night or tear after stories like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. And the men don't stand a chance against these wilful, wicked women. They're straight men to these scatterbrained comediennes, and they end up reeling, not sure how they've been conned into love.
In The Lady Eve this is literally true. Barbara Stanwyck is a con artist who travels the high seas with her card sharp father. When Henry Fonda's millionaire joins the ship, she wins him over, not by cooing and flirting like the other women on board, but by tripping him up, having a go at him for breaking her shoe and making him escort her back to her cabin. By which time he's grateful to be allowed to kneel at her feet and put on a new pair of shoes (vertiginous heels, naturally).
And by the end of the film, several con tricks later, she gets her man, she gets him to love her for who she is and she opens her heart. What more could you want from a heroine?
And yet it's a terrifying film because can a love that comes from con tricks ever become real?
It made me think of that awful dating manual The Rules, with its sinister retrosexist messages about lying to men continually—even after you've snagged your man, you go on lying and concealing yourself and playing hard to get. It's terrifying. The idea of finding The One—who is supposed, after all, to open your heart and understand you absolutely—and then never ever being able to be truthful with him...well, it's just so empty. And The Lady Eve exposes all that. And that's why it's my new favourite film.