“If I don’t run out of ideas —and I won’t— we’ll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them.”
So said writer-director (and early pioneer of that hyphenate) Preston Sturges, a few years prior to making perhaps his most wonderful picture “Sullivan’s Travels” —recently released on Criterion Blu-ray— and following the success of his first venture behind the camera for his own screenplay of “The Great McGinty.” That film, for which Sturges essentially waived his writer’s fee in order to direct, won him the first ever Screenwriting Academy Award. But of course it did: by the time of his directorial debut, Sturges was already one of the best-known and best-paid screenwriters in Hollywood during a period when screenwriters were mostly anonymous, underpaid drones working thanklessly in shared stuffy offices on studio backlots. Somehow transcending that lowly status to a $2500 a week salary and name-brand recognition seemed to come easily for Sturges, if not quickly.
Brought to Tinseltown following the extraordinary success of his second play “Strictly Dishonorable” and through a combination of inspiration and what must have been extraordinary salesmanship of his own talents, Sturges changed the Hollywood landscape with respect to the role of the writer. Working solo, and pioneering along with peers like Billy Wilder the very idea that a screenwriter might be able to direct, Sturges also set unprecedented price records for his completed scripts (his first such screenplay “The Power and the Glory” which went on to star Spencer Tracy and was an avowed influence on “Citizen Kane” netted him the unheard-of deal of $17,500 and a percentage of the profits). So there are ways in which an overview of Sturges’ career can seem as smooth and glib as that initial quote of his: there would be some wonderful pictures to be made, and he would make some of them.
Yet there’s another way in which that curious quote (characteristically egoist and humble at the same time) feels quite misleading. Contrary to the idea that these wonderful films were floating around in the ether and waiting to get themselves made, if not by this guy, then the next or the one after, Sturges’ movies could not have been made by anyone else. Although he was working during what we retrospectively now call the Golden Age of Classic Hollywood Cinema and had come from the three-act structure of stage plays, Sturges’ films are structurally hinky, narratively wonky, tonally bonkers. Stacked up against the tight-drum narratives of his contemporaries’ best films, the almost liquid, seamless storytelling that defines the age , Preston Sturges films are weird.
People fall off balconies at the oddest moments. Men don’t seem to notice that the woman they’re in love with now is very clearly exactly the same woman they just dumped. A lovers’ stroll takes in the unremarked-upon vista of a hanged body dangling from a tree in the background. A romantic contretemps is resolved when all the disputed parties are discovered to have identical twins in the last two minutes of the film. In any other hands, these contrivances would suggest bad, incoherent storytelling, but Sturges makes it feel as if he’s smashing together different, often contradictory and illogical elements at high speed, and releasing their own careening, breathless energy: the storytelling equivalent of nuclear fusion.
In his relatively short directorial career, he only made 13 features, 8 of which we consider essential (and many of which lucky New Yorkers can still catch at Film Forum‘s “Strictly Sturges” series this week) which gives Preston Sturges one of the highest hit rates we can think of. Hold on to your hats —it’s going to be a bumpy, brilliant, weird, wonderful ride.
“The Great McGinty” (1940)
By 1939, though he was well-established, well-paid and well-respected as an Oscar-winning screenwriter, Sturges had become irritated by directors not executing his screenplays as he felt they should be done, and reportedly took a $10 fee for “The Great McGinty” screenplay in exchange for the chance to direct it himself (this was reported as $1 in the supporting press for the film’s release). In many ways, it is typical of the films that Sturges would be most famous for —the satirical element is front and center; issues like poverty, class struggle and single motherhood are present; many of his recurring “troupe” of character actors including William Demarest, Esther Howard, George Anderson appear; there’s a certain cynical undercurrent, an upending of conventional Hayes-Code moralism whereby it’s doing the right thing that makes the hero lose; and Sturges employs non-linear structuring to tell the story, which unfolds largely in flashback. But in other ways, the shaggy dog tale of McGinty, the tough-guy tramp-turned-crooked-politician who is made over by love but falls from grace when he tries to do the decent thing, feels less idiosyncratic than his later films: there’s more satire than silliness here, and also less affection for his characters, so that you can read it as a straight drama, a slightly arch cautionary tale about the dangers of politics intermixing with gangsterism. Here the dialogue crackles with hard-edged nastiness rather than fizzing with champagne-buzz wit, and while Brian Donleavy does a great job in the role of McGinty, he is one of Sturges’ trademark leading men-of-no-conviction, buffeted by the winds of fate rather than their master, and thus a tough character to warm to. Yet it’s a remarkably solid debut and did decent business on release, but impressed critics even more: Bosley Crowther in The New York Times employed a now marvelously archaic simile saying the film “…blew into the Paramount yesterday with all the spontaneous combustion and pyrotechnic display of an old-time Tammany parade through the streets of the lower East Side.”
“Christmas in July” (1940)
If “The Great McGinty” had established a trademark character in the Sturges canon —the down-on-his-luck Everyman who rises through the ranks due more to circumstance and coincidence than his own talent— he returned to it straight away for this slip of a film. Just 67 minutes long and based on an unproduced play of Sturges’ called “A Cup of Coffee,” the film follows Jimmy, a dreamy-eyed clerk in a coffee company (Dick Powell) who just wants to marry his best girl Betty (Ellen Drew) and take care of his loving old mother. But lacking the money to do so, he enters every complete-the-slogan contest he can find. A particularly lucrative competition is being run by rival coffee company Maxford House, but the committee assembled to pick a winner is a “12 Angry Men“-style hung jury, with Sturges regular William Demarest playing the choleric holdout. When some colleagues decide to trick Jimmy into believing he’s won, the ruse snowballs, and Jimmy, newly injected with self-worth and a check for $25,000 (even the head of Maxford House believes he’s the winner) gets a huge promotion at work and goes on a shopping spree that sees him buying gifts for his whole neighborhood. In fact, that might be “Christmas in July”‘s most charming and gently subversive social subtheme —the spirit of community that Jimmy and Betty experience and exemplify in their inner-city home environment. With a few gentle sideswipes at the nature of corporate cowardice and the corrosive, numbing effect of wage slavery thrown in for good measure, it’s a sweet little rush of a film that doesn’t stick around long enough to make any of its points too thoroughly, but nor does it overstay its welcome. And the slogan that Jimmy writes (and has to explain to everyone) is itself a brilliant piece of well-observed Sturges writing in its inane nonsensicality: “Maxford House. If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee —it’s the bunk!”
“The Lady Eve” (1941)
About as screwball as screwball comedy gets but maybe ten times sexier due
to the sparkage that strikes up between Henry Fonda‘s millionaire snake expert and Barbara Stanwyck‘s bombshell con artist,
“The Lady Eve” is one of the highest profile of Sturges’ outings due to its high-wattage cast. But if you were worried that these big names might tamp down his innate goofiness, never fear: “The Lady Eve” is
nutty as a fruitcake. Or at least it becomes so in its second half after
a somewhat conventional (though still utterly delightful) beginning.
The story follows the shipboard romance between gold-digging trickster
Jean (Stanwyck) who along with her equally crooked tag-teaming father
(who doesn’t love Charles Coburn?), as she sets her sights on ale heir “Hopsie”
(Fonda) as a mark but falls for him despite herself. It feels like we know how this is going to go: the bad girl gets
reformed by the love of a good man and, though he must eventually find out her true
nature, some sort of gesture will mark her repentance and he’ll take
her back. But this is Sturges, so Jean’s reaction to Hopsie dumping
her after he discovers her lies is not repentance but wildly
convoluted and unlikely revenge. She “disguises herself” (read:
“affects a British accent”) as the titular Lady Eve, throws herself into
his path again, makes him fall for “Lady Eve” all over again, and after
an utterly hilarious declaration scene which both Stanwyck and Fonda
play utterly straightfaced despite a horse repeatedly batting Fonda in
the head throughout, she marries him. At which point her long
game reveals itself as she tortures Hopsie with fictitious revelations
about Lady Eve’s promiscuous history. Stanwyck is little short of
mesmerizing in the firecracker main role(s), and it’s hard to imagine
anyone selling Hopsie’s desperately sincere awkwardness as well as Fonda. And in this film more than maybe any other in Sturges’ catalogue of appealing leading couples, the herky-jerk nature of the offbeat narrative
magnifies their chemistry and gives added zip to the skewed comedy of these ludicrous situations. By the end, the lines are so tangled up that, back in their original personas as they embrace and whisper confessions to each other about being married, it’s hard to tell if either actually believes/knows they’re married to the other. While any other filmmaker would be at pains to make those motivations clear, Sturges makes us feel like it simply doesn’t matter.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)
Sturges’ influence can be found all over modern film, especially in any strain of comedy that prizes a non-conformist approach to story structure, but nowhere has this influence been more openly acknowledged than by the Coen Brothers, and no Sturges film had a greater evident impact on them than “Sullivan’s Travels”. You can see its traces in Barton Fink’s desire to write something “important” while being entirely unaware of the implicit condescension of his position toward “the little guy,” which is a pretty close mirroring of the attitude of the successful film director Sullivan (Joel McCrea). And you can see it as well in the Coens’ having lifted the title “O Brother, Where Art Thou” from Sullivan’s dream film project. But even more than these surface similarities, what the Coens and other Sturges admirers so adore and what can be found best exemplified in “Sullivan’s Travels” are Sturges’ lightning-fast shifts in tone, from broad, daft comedy to verbal wit to high drama to biting satire. As Sully embarks on his quixotic and self-consciously noble journey to discover what it’s really like to be poor and obscure and desperate, the film glints with every color of the spectrum —there’s real pathos in the moments that the scales fall from his eyes; real peril in how he ends up on a chain gang; real Hollywood insider irony in the band of publicists who follow him and report on his quest; and real spark in the understated love story that springs up between him and an utterly beguiling Veronica Lake, never so appealing and Girl Friday-ish as here. Sturges could occasionally be too clever for his own good, leading to his satirical instincts becoming scattershot and unfocused, with his films becoming so diffuse that there’s no way to really tell what they are being so delightfully scornful toward. But this is the most perfect of his films, perhaps because most unusually for Sturges, it has a focus and a moral that feels thoroughly earned and satisfying as Sully realises the value in simply making people laugh and jettisons his “message”-laden magnum opus for the riotous comedies that made his name. Of course, if Sully had been Sturges, he could have simply done both those things at the same time and made “Sullivan’s Travels.”
“The Palm Beach Story” (1942)
If Sturges is erroneously associated with the champagne/cocktail dress upper class romantic farce genre today, it’s undoubtedly down to “The Lady Eve” and this less well-known but equally delightful, ridiculous, wonky confection. Absent almost all of the social conscience that would crop up in unexpected places elsewhere in his filmography and more of an acerbic character piece than a satire, “The Palm Beach Story” is perhaps the lightest, frothiest mousse-dessert of a film that Sturges would ever make. Starring an effervescently charming Claudette Colbert in some awesome frocks, Joel McCrea as her struggling architect husband, Sturges regular Rudy Vallee and “The Maltese Falcon“‘s Mary Astor, here neither the story nor any of the characters’ behaviors make a lick of sense…and who the hell cares. Tom and Gerry (!) are married and obviously in love, but Gerry (Colbert), sick of having so little money, decides she’s the wrong sort of wife for Tom and takes off for Palm Beach to get a divorce and meet a millionaire. Of course, she meets about ten, becoming the pet to a whole club of drunken captains of industry on the train to Florida, and eventually retreats into a meet-cute with an unassuming-seeming chap who just turns out to be the Rockefeller-esque John D. Hackensacker (Vallee). Naturellement, h e falls for her, so when Tom turns up to win her back, she pretends he is her brother and everyone goes along with it because… look, let’s not analyse any of this too closely, eh? Again, part of Sturges’ consummate skill is in getting coherent and often truly brilliant comic performances out of a cast whose characters bounce from one contrivance to the next coincidence like so many star-cross’d pinballs. If you don’t believe me, simply consider this: the film opens with an unexplained scene of Colbert in her undies tied up in a closet while Colbert (again) dashes to the church in a wedding dress to be married to McCrea, and at its close it’s revealed she has an identical twin. So… wait, what? Gerry married Tom under false pretenses of being her own twin and maintained that illusion for eight years or so? Only Sturges could make a film that seems like it has an entire act missing and somehow make it feel churlish to even point that out.
“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944)
Proof positive that if you shoot your picture in a spirit of infectious
good cheer and put in enough screwballish sequences of an exasperated
but loving father (Sturges regular William Demarest) aiming a comedy kick at one of his daughters’ back sides, missing and almost back-somersaulting from the recoil, you can slip anything past
the censors. “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” tackles such Hays
Code-unfriendly issues as teen pregnancy, motherhood out of wedlock and
what we’d now call “roofie date rape” (but in 1944 is explained as
waking up pregnant after drinking a lot of “lemonade”). The unadorned logline, in which Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), a flighty but
goodhearted girl goes out to a farewell dance for departing soldiers,
gets married to one of them whose name she cannot remember while drunk and discovers later that she is pregnant, would seem outrageously risque. But Sturges and a completely game cast treats the proceedings with such disingenuous brio that we can only imagine that the censors must have felt as if their pockets were being picked —like its heroine, the film is so bouncy and sweet-natured that it acts
like a distraction to whatever agenda lies beneath. And what
a distraction —you have to pay attention or ten other things will
have happened in the meantime, as the long-suffering dim-bulb stutterer
Norval (Eddie Bracken), whose devotion to Trudy will survive even as she carries another man’s baby, gets into ever hotter water in his
attempts to help her out. Featuring a “Sturgesverse” callback to “The Great McGinty” by having two of its actors appear
as the same characters in cameo roles here, the film also throws out
more narrative dead ends and red herrings than you could shake a stick
at. Take Norval’s eventual escape from prison —one of Sturges’ all-time funniest sequences— which seems set up so that we can follow him on
his epic quest to find the father of Trudy’s baby, but then that happens
offscreen, across a single cut and is unsuccessful anyway. And the
‘Miracle’ of the title? The thing that redeems everyone and makes
everything ok for Trudy and Norval? She has sextuplets, which makes
everyone, even the governor, very happy, and news of which causes
Mussolini to resign and Hitler to “demand a recount.” Thus ends
simply one of the most demented studio comedies of the 1940s.
“Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944)
The seventh film in a remarkable streak (not including Sturges’ war documentary short “Safeguarding Military Information” which was his first film with Eddie Bracken, star of ‘Hero’ and ‘Miracle’), “Hail the Conquering Hero” is less well known than Sturges’ other 1940s hits for some reason. Which means the Sturges-curious who haven’t made it this far yet have an enormous treat in store: if it’s not his absolute best film, it’s in the top three. Unfolding as a kinder, more humanist, more affectionate take on “The Great McGinty” (Sturges’ more acid style is often contrasted with that of Frank Capra, but this might be his most Capra-esque film), the film follows a sad sack everyman Woodrow (Bracken), who is medically discharged from the Marines due to chronic hayfever but is too ashamed to go home to his mother. Meeting a group of real Marines, headed by Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest in perhaps the best of his many great roles for Sturges) and including Freddie Steele in a touching role as the tough-but-a-little-damaged Bugsy, Woodrow unwillingly goes along with their scheme and pretends to be one of them, so as he can get home, only for the entire town to have heard news of his “heroism” and be waiting on the platform. From there, the white lie spreads, as Woodrow gets swept up into a mayorial race and finds the girl he loved and lost may not be so lost to him after all. It sounds pretty standard war-era cornball comedy, and yet there’s a real control and wisdom here from Sturges, and he turns in a surprisingly insightful meditation on civic pride, honesty in politics and warh-hero worship in small-town America. It’s also very, very funny, giving his repertory of familiar character actors some of their best, most individual roles, and building to an ending that for once does not rely on a massive deus-ex-machina or a hugely contrived coincidence for a dismount. Instead, in one of Sturges most lastingly, chimingly satisfying films, we get a series of rousing speeches that suggest an idealism he only rarely displayed, as Woodrow reveals himself, in this cockeyed paean to honesty and patriotism and loving one’s mother, as a guy who didn’t fight but who maybe embodies everything worth fighting for.
“Unfaithfully Yours” (1948)
Coming shortly after Sturges’ creative apex in the early ’40s and amounting to his last solid film, “Unfaithfully Yours,” though a flop at the time, has been re-evaluted since on the basis of its great craft and wonderful performances. But it can’t be ignored that despite its good points, the film strikes an unavoidably sour note in its tale of a famous conductor (Rex Harrison) who fantasizes three different ways, set to three different classical pieces, of dealing with the wife (Linda Darnell) he adores but whom he believes to be having an affair. When it is only circumstance that prevents tragedy (here the circumstance is an extended slapstick apartment-demolition scene as the usually urbane Harrison falls over tables, gets tangled in lamps and puts his foot through chairs in an effort to set up the elaborate murder plot he has apparently settled on), the film becomes difficult to wholly embrace. Sometimes Sturges’ idiosyncrasies and cynicism could produce a kind of myopic, misanthropic edge, and it’s hard not to read a self-serving agenda into the conclusion of the film in which Darnell forgives Harrison on the grounds that she worships him entirely and he is a great creative mind or some such nonsense. Still, both actors are great, with Darnell getting to play the fantasy femme fatale version of her character as well as the sappy lovelorn version, but also, as so often with Sturges, selling the lines of dialogue and the moments in between with a kind of spirit and individuality that belies her rather passive arc. In this film and in “The Great McGinty,” “The Palm Beach Story” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” Sturges wrote his supporting female characters with a spark and an inner life that their overarching stories only seldom matched.
“Unfaithfully Yours” has been somewhat reclaimed in recent years, but after his remarkable string of hits in the early ’40s, nothing else, including that picture, ever really made an appreciable impact again. His first stumble came with his first attempt at a “serious” film, a biopic of a pioneering anesthesia surgeon titled ‘The Great Moment,” his last film with the perennially underrated Joel McCrea which did not connect with audiences, nor did it much deserve to.
After that, Sturges went on to form a production company with Howard Hughes, California Pictures, but worked on just two films there — Harold Lloyd‘s last pic “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” which was such a flop that Hughes re-edited and re-released it years later under a new title but to no better reception; and “Vendetta,” which was a vehicle for Hughes’ squeeze Faith Domergue on which Sturges replaced Max Ophuls, only to be subsequently fired.
He also turned in the workmanlike but lacklustre comedy western “The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend” which was a big disappointment for star Betty Grable and finished up his directing career in France with a film that did passably there but sank without a trace when released in the U.S. under the title “The French They Are A Funny Race.” He would continue writing for movies until just before his death in 1959 (in the Algonquin Hotel while penning his autobiography, the never finished but brilliantly titled “The Events Leading Up To My Death”), but he never again enjoyed the kind of creative streak that gave rise to his run of seven indelible hits in the space of just four years (1940-44).
Then again, neither did anyone else.
“Sullivan’s Travels” is out on Criterion now, and Film Forum’s “Strictly Sturges” series is running until Thursday.