26 August 2008

The Brief But Brilliant Run of Preston Sturges

It was an amazing run. Between 1940 and 1944 Preston Struges wrote and directed seven films, six of which went on to become classics:
  • The Great McGinty (1940)
  • Christmas in July (1940)
  • Lady Eve (1941)
  • Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  • Palm Beach Story (1942)
  • Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
  • Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

These were his first directorial efforts and none of the six (that's right– just six) films that followed would compare.

By all accounts, Sturges was somewhat of an eccentric which isn't all together surprising given his bohemian upbringing; aberrant behavior is not unusual in the artistically gifted. Sturges was, by turns, a perfectionist who insisted upon total control of his projects and a risk taker. The risks could range from extra marital affairs to opening a restaurant to starting a production company with Howard Hughes. One constant in his life was writing. He was among the first successful screenwriters in Hollywood to transition to directing. Among his writing credits are two great comedies: Twentieth Century (1934) and Easy Living (1937). Sturges also did a lot of uncredited work as a script doctor both before and after his directing career.

Sturges' films of the early 1940's are among the best comedies of all time. They're settings range across the country (notably, several are placed in what one could call Anytown U.S.A.). Given Sturges' cosmopolitan background, his ability to capture small town American in such films as Morgan's Creek is remarkable.

He explored the home front during World War II in Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. He lampooned Hollywood in Sullivan's Travels. Took a look at the wealthy and at grifters in The Lady Eve. Tackled political corruption in The Great McGinty. And with Palm Beach Story, Sturges told a very funny, and very unconventional, love story.

Sturges didn't just play for laughs. Sullivan's Travels is a very funny movie that spoofs the movie business. This bit of dialogue early in the movie sets the tone.

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How 'bout a nice musical?

Hail the Conquering Hero was a bold movie to make during the war. Though patriotic in tone, it also was a wry look at hero worship. McGinity, of course, was a hilarious but nonetheless powerful statement about the vagaries of a democracy in which anyone can rise to the top.

All his films had a bit of romance. There was an odd marriage between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in Palm Beach Story in which each got entangled with another in the persons of Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee. Identical twins were involved. Confusing? Yes. Funny? Absolutely.

The romance between McCrea and Veronica Lake is an easy one to root for in Sullivans Travels. And the love between Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton in Morgan's is touching. But the best of the Sturges' romances was far and way that between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in the Lady Eve. Stanwyck's seduction of Fonda early in the film is one of the most sexiest in film history. All done fully clothed with no overt sexuality.

Surges could do that sort of thing. He nimbly danced around the censors in all his films. It's still hard to fathom how he got away with Morgan's Creek and its unorthodox pregnancy in the bad old days of the production code. Thank God he did.

Perhaps most of all, Sturges the director benefited greatly from Sturges the writer. He had great stories with smart, interesting and hilarious dialogue to work with. Mixed in was just the right amount of physical comedy. Sturges never went over board with the slapstick, a trap many comedies have fallen into throughout film history.

Some of the best performers of the time were in his films. In addition to the aforementioned Fonda, Stanwyck, Colbert, McCrea, Hutton, Bracken and Astor, he put together as his regulars one of the greatest assemblages of character actors that Hollywood has ever seen. William Demarest is most recognizable and perhaps most important but Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Corwin, Robert Warwick, Jimmy Conlin, Torin Meyer and Victor Potel are among others of note. Their regular appearances is part of what gave a Sturges film its distinct look.

My goodness, all those great names and I didn't even mention Brian Donleavy who starred in McGinty and did a cameo in Morgan's Creek.

One can ponder what ifs about Sturges' career and lament his all too short run of brilliance. But I prefer to sit back and enjoy those great films he did make. They have a style all their own. They're highlighted by fast-paced laughs with romances that never fall into schmaltz. The acting is just fine, of course, but these are films most memorable for great scripts and a unique directing style. This was comedy that never appealed to the lowest common denominator. Yet it wasn't dry high brow stuff that actually isn't funny at all. It was biting satire. Which I suppose is the best kind.

By the way, right up there with Some Like it Hot's (1958) "well, nobody's perfect" for great comedy closing lines is The Lady Eve's, "positively the same dame."

Classic. Just like Sturges.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding us, in your very brilliant fashion, of the greatest of all writer-directors and his audacity in going against all political, patriotic agendas of his day. A figure like Sturgess is inconceivable in the climate of today, censorship or no censorship.

You might have considered including ultra-short synopses though.

Anonymous said...

Unfaithfully yours is a classic of cinema.

Anonymous said...

Wholeheartedly agree re Unfaithfully Yours. Harrison keeps me in stitches. Brilliant, brilliant, script.

Starnarcosis said...

I think I'll become a regular reader. I don't know about Arsenal, though. This might be a deal breaker :)

R. D. Finch said...

Just read your post about the great Preston Sturges. I think you really nailed it when you emphasized the importance of the writing in the success of his films. I've read that Sturges started out as a playwright, and as you point out he worked as a screenwriter before being given the chance to direct (like Billy Wilder). His screenplays seem so well written, with their craftsmanlike construction and great dialogue, that they could hardly fail. Being given the opportunity to direct your own screenplay was rare in the studio days, and it's a fortunate thing that he got the chance to give his own ideas their perfect interpretation. He was also fortunate to be associated with Paramount, a studio that seemed to place great emphasis on sophisticated screenwriting. The ability to cast and direct such great performers helped a lot too. When I saw "Morgan's Creek" again a few months ago I realized what a great visual craftsman he was. The direction of that movie couldn't have been better. Thanks for hitting all the salient points that make people like me admire Sturges so much.