Six Damn Fine Degrees #39: The Final Scene in The Lady Eve

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Ever since the invention of the motion picture, there’s been an audience appetite to watch hot couples getting it together. You want people to pay money to go see your movies, you can’t go wrong with putting a gorgeous man and an attractive lady in front of the camera and let the audience know they’re into each other.

However, this presented filmmakers in the time of the Hollywood Production Code with a problem. How do you show the leads wanting to get it together when you very much can’t show them wanting to get it together? If even a husband and wife can’t be seen in the same bed together without at least one of them having a foot on the floor, how can you possibly let the audience know that this fine young couple just really, really, really want to have sex?

It’s frequently claimed about the Production Code that the restrictions fuelled invention, that in the absence of being able to be obvious, film-makers had to become creative. To find ways to hint to a knowing audience, the subtle wink where the makers and the audience knew, but if the censors suggested something was amiss – well, maybe they were the ones with the dirty mind.

It’s true there’s a wealth of creativity in this era, but I think it’s also true that the inherently conservative nature of the Code meant that even in its suggested form, there are only a few ways it gets on screen. It’s either as comedy innuendo – the train entering a tunnel at the end of North By Northwest – or else as two lost souls embracing passionately in a noir film before a fade-out. The implication that when the camera comes back these two troubled individuals might have found solace in the dark between shots. Sex is the domain of married couples or doomed outsiders.

Which makes the ending of 1941’s The Lady Eve something of an odd curio. Made by Preston Sturges when the Production Code was in full effect, it took me a while to realise why I found the end so striking. After all, for much of the film we are in recognisable screwball romantic comedy territory. Barbara Stanwyck, playing a travelling card shark, meets Henry Fonda, playing the sappiest of marks. But – would you Adam-and-Eve it! – they fall in love. Events turn the lovers against each other, leading to much screwball hijinks as they work through their seeming dislike. And the dialogue has just enough raciness that they knew they could get away with for the era.

But then there’s the ending. Where the two meet once more on a cruise liner and immediately – and there really is no other way to interpret what happens in the story – end the film running off to a cabin to have sex. This isn’t a coy visual gag, this isn’t a steamy on-camera embrace. Just two young people, grinning, as they run to the bedroom. Most romantic comedies will end with a visual illustration that these two lovers are meant to be together, but The Lady Eve is pretty unique in illustrating this very point in such a manner.

Sturges’ script rather brilliantly has set up the Production Code friendly excuse that technically they’re married, even though they don’t both know it (yes, I know that sounds weird, this is screwball, this is the sort of thing that happens), so it’s a story resolution that rests entirely on the fact that these two characters really want to get it together. As her cabin door closes at the end of the film, there really isn’t any other interpretation of how this scene will play out. But Sturges – at the height of his powers as a Hollywood player – has one more trick up his sleeve. It ends with a gag, so the audience leaves laughing, and the censor is distracted from thinking too much over what’s really just happened.

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