With The Lady Eve, Preston Sturges stepped into the big time as a director. The film went into production at the end of October 1940 only a few weeks after the triumphant opening of Sturges' directorial debut, The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy. Paramount's executives were so impressed by the previews of The Great McGinty that even before its release they had encouraged Sturges to direct another of his scripts, Christmas in July (1940), starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew. For Sturges' next film, The Lady Eve, they allowed him to use front-rank stars. Henry Fonda was borrowed from 20th Century-Fox and Paramount's own Paulette Goddard was initially cast in the co-starring role; however she had to make way for Barbara Stanwyck, who was given the part a few weeks before shooting began.
Almost all Sturges' main films were based on his own stories, but The Lady Eve gives the story credit to Monckton Hoffe (who received an Academy Award nomination), even though Sturges' screenplay was inspired, at least in part, by memories of an occasion when he had opened the door to his first wife and talked to her for a while without recognizing her.
Sturges' third film completed a hat-trick of successes. As Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote in his review:
'Preston Sturges is indisputably established as one of the top one or two writers and directors of comedy working in Hollywood today.'
In Britain, the New Statesman's William Whitebait was a little more reserved. Referring to Sturges' label, 'the streamlined Lubitsch', he added:
'If he goes on producing films as lively as this one he will one day come to be known as Preston Sturges.'
The critics were pleasantly surprised at the skillful performances of Fonda and Stanwyck. Fonda's comedy talent was something of a revelation and Stanwyck was found to be unexpectedly alluring. In fact, both players had some grounding in comedy - they had even co-starred in the screwball mystery comedy The Mad Miss Manton (1938). Fonda had also made The Moon's Our Home (1936) with Margaret Sullavan, but critics' memories were short and he had most recently played several straight roles, in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Fonda's portrayal of the simple millionaire's son whose amorous confusion is registered in a series of slapstick pratfalls was so successful that 20th Century-Fox subsequently cast him in five consecutive comedies.
Barbara Stanwyck's last film before The Lady Eve had been Remember the Night (1940), a Preston Sturges script directed by Mitchell Leisen. In this film she had played a hardened shop-lifter paroled for the Christmas holidays into the custody of the District Attorney (Fred MacMurray). Her role in The Lady Eve as a bad girl reformed by love for a dumb cluck was similar to her part in Remember the Night, but gave her far greater scope, allowing her to wear a large number of Edith Head creations and also to parody a well-bred Englishwoman when masquerading as the Lady Eve (British actress Heather Thatcher helped her with her accent).
Hollywood was now fully alerted to Stanwyck as a comedienne. Columbia re-teamed her with Fonda in You Belong to Me (1941), but they lacked sparkle in this mild, marital comedy. However, Stanwyck's glittering performance as the worldly-wise stripteaser educating Gary Cooper's sheltered academic in Ball of Fire (1941) displayed to fine effect the skills she had demonstrated in The Lady Eve.
The Lady Eve has survived the years well; it was even accorded the dubious accolade of a remake, The Birds and the Bees (1956), which no one remembers. The Lady Eve's very lack of pretension has stood it in good stead. Its emphasis on romance makes it the most timeless and accessible of Sturges' works. The film seemed like 'nonsense' when it first came out - 'the brightest sort of nonsense', according to Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune - but it raised nonsense to an art form. As Bosley Crowther put it:
'A more charming or distinguished gem of nonsense has not occurred since It Happened One Night (1934). Superlatives like that are dangerous, but superlatives like The Lady Eve are much too rare for the careful weighing of words.'