By Michael Roberson
It’s the key moment in any romantic comedy: The Meet Cute, the moment when the two romantic leads first have their chance meeting and hit it off. Comedy legend Preston Sturgess certainly directed his share, but in this case, he lets female lead Barbara Stanwyck – whom he wrote this role specifically for—do some directing of her own.
The scene begins with beer magnate and amateur herpetologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) in the dining cabin of a cruise ship, surrounded by young women trying to attract his attention by various means, as he nervously attempts to bury himself in his book, Are Snakes Necessary? (a Hays Code-skirting send-up of E.B White and James Thurber’s Is Sex Necessary?).
The viewer then learns that they’re not the only audience to this scene. Con-artist Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) is watching Charles in a pocket mirror, held up like a frame within a frame. “They’re not good enough for him,” she says, before launching into a spirited narration of all the ways the women are trying and failing to get Charles’ notice. As her narration slips from third- to second-person, we come to see that Jean herself is acting as a surrogate director—telling Charles where he’s going to look and how he’s going to respond. This moment represents the intersection of two eras in film comedy: the silent comedy of the women’s exaggerated flirtatiousness and Charles’ pitch-perfect reaction shots, and the fast-talking dialogue-driven screwball comedies that Sturgess is known for, embodied in Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean.
As Charles gets fed up and starts to leave the cabin, Jean takes the direct approach in getting his attention by sticking out her foot and tripping him. Without missing a beat, she scolds him for breaking the heel of her shoe and demands he escort her to her cabin so she can pick out another pair, and establishing just how she wwill take charge of orchestrating events to her precise desires for the remainder of the film. The way past Charles’ defenses, as it happens, is convincing him that he’s not taking part in a meet cute at all.