So I got my Preston Sturges’s urge out of my system by watching eleven of his twelve directorial credits in around a week. It was a pleasure doing so. I had seen the majority of his films decades ago, but there were a few that I had never made the acquaintance of. Sturges is generally associated with the Golden Age of screwball comedy, but his madhouse romps of rapid spin your head patter, sexual tension, pratfalls and double takes, farce and foolery, cynicism and sentimentality and portraits of a long gone America that is manic, hectic, diverse, striving, democratic, full of different accents and different hues are almost a genre of their own. Part of Sturges’s still sterling reputation among film people (such as the Coen Brothers who used the fictitious film title in Sullivan’s Travels “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” as the title of one of their films) is that he was one of the first directors to write all of his own scripts, have a stock group of actors that he used consistently through his career and at least for a while he was able to make the films that he wanted to make without a lot of studio interference. In this day and age I suppose he would be called an auteur, but back in those days for a short period of time he was just the golden boy of the studio with hit after hit. In a period from 1940 to 1944, he directed seven films, all of which are usually included in most Top 100 critic lists of the top comedies of all times. Then it all sort of went to hell.
Sturges was at heart a writer – first on Broadway where he had an enormous hit (Strictly Dishonorable) that made him a wealthy man at an early age, than moving to Hollywood in the early 1930’s and over a decade authoring the scripts for many films, some of them classics – The Good Fairy, Easy Living and Remember the Night - before persuading Paramount to allow him to direct his first film, The Great McGinty, in 1940. He soon became one of the highest paid people in Hollywood. The Great McGinty seems somewhat of an odd choice for Sturges’s first film with its deep seated cynicism for the American political system. It is a comedy in its totality but a bitter tasting one. It tells the tale of a corrupt city boss (Akim Tamiroff) who takes a homeless man (Brian Donlevy) and ushers him up the political ladder from alderman to mayor and finally into the Governorship of the state; all the time with both of them taking a crooked slice of all the money coming in. When Donlevy’s character finally tries to do the right thing for the people it leads to his downfall, disgrace and exile. For Sturges it was sort of an antidote to the idealistic Capra film of the previous year, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Donlevy wasn’t exactly a light comedian; more a gruff force of nature with his stern take no prisoners style of acting, perhaps best known to modern audiences in his role as Quatermass in two Hammer films of the 1950’s. Sturges also began assembling his stock of character actors with this film, many of whom show up in film after film, apparently to the consternation of the studio who thought people would tire of seeing them – but you never do (here is a page of them and the Sturges’ films they appear in that some kind soul put together). The best known of them who appeared in all of Sturges’s films until The Sin of Harold Diddlebock in 1947 is the curmudgeonly William Demarest who became very familiar to audiences in the 1960’s for his role of Uncle Charley on My Three Sons.
Frank Capra had been the king of screwball comedy ever since It Happened One Night in 1934. Before this Capra had already logged in a number of films going back to 1926 but it was the screwball genre that made his name. He followed up It Happened One Night with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) but after the solemn and dour Meet John Doe (1940) and with the onset of WWII Capra began to focus on directing propaganda documentaries to bolster the morale of the home front. Arsenic and Old Lace was the one comedy he made during the war years only to come back in 1946 with his most famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Sturges adroitly stepped into the void and his next film Christmas in July (1940) was a much more traditional feel good comedy somewhat in the vein of a Capra film. Dick Powell who was in mid-career transition from his juvenile roles in the Busby Berkely musicals to his later wonderful tough guy roles such as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1946) plays a nose to the grindstone office worker with dreams of winning it big. He thinks he has when a few co-workers fake his winning a slogan contest for $25,000. He goes on a big spending spree for his entire neighborhood, proposes to his girlfriend and is promoted only to find out it was all a hoax. Sweet and amusing, Sturges paints a touching tribute to the closeness of neighborhood and community in those days.
Next in 1941 came a masterpiece. The Lady Eve is as near a perfect piece of writing and directing as there has been for what it sets out to be, a stylish sophisticated comedy that simmers with an undercurrent of sexuality provided by the glowing Barbara Stanwyck. Sturges out Lubitsches Lubitsch, the other great comedic director of this period, with a film so sleek and funny that you just have to sit back in awe at the wonder of it all. Eve (Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn) are card sharks who ride the luxury liners looking for dull pigeons to pluck of their money. Such a pigeon arrives in the form of scholarly Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) the heir to an ale fortune who has been up the Amazon for months looking for snakes. Perfection ensues. If you have never been a fan of Stanwyck who can be very brittle and tough at times (per Double Indemnity and Baby Face), watch this film and be forever changed.
In the same year Sturges directed his second (and final) masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels. The film is stuffed to the brim with colliding conflicting ideas and styles. On one level it is a satire of Hollywood, on another a social commentary, on another a screwball sweet love story and on another an ode to the human spirit. And then there is of course Veronica Lake at her loveliest with her impudent stare and the trademark blond hair curving and cascading down her face. John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is an enormously successful comedy director who has become tired of giving audiences slapstick comedies like Ants in Your Pants and wants to make a serious film about the human condition. When he spouts to the film studio heads, how can we make comedies with a world falling apart around us, they tell him that he knows nothing about misery and poverty so how can he possibly make a truthful film about the subject. He agrees and so decides to disguise himself as a tramp and go into the lost desperate world of the hobos and the destitute. He meets up with a down on her luck actress and she tags along on the journey. Littered equally with sparkling witty dialogue and foolish pratfalls, the film slowly inches towards a resolution that is quietly profound, hopeful and humanistic.
At least for me, his next film The Palm Beach Story is the least interesting of his run of comedies. It is a pretty straightforward adrenaline driven madcap screwball comedy in which the unsuccessful Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea) chases after his wife (Claudette Colbert) who leaves New York City for Palm Beach to find herself a wealthy new husband. She quickly finds a candidate on a train when Rudy Vallee comes to her aid. His character could lend God money at discount rates if he needed it. Vallee found himself in these sorts of goody two shoe elitist roles many times and always performs them with dashed good humor. He never seems to get the girls, which is odd when you realize that Vallee is often considered perhaps the first huge pop star of the 20th century. He was an enormously successful singer or crooner with leagues of teenage girl fans in the late 20’s/early 30’s but this never translated to his film roles.
The final two films during his successful run are usually paired together because they both star Eddie Bracken and take place during the war in small towns that envelop the story with a sense of community and belonging. Bracken is an acquired taste that some may have trouble swallowing. His jittery tongue tied nebbish persona is a peculiar one for a leading man, but Sturges throws Bracken left right and center into these stories and they were both big hits and Bracken became a household name. And he gets the girl in both films. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) he plays insecure bank teller Norval Jones who has been deeply in love with Trudy (the effervescent Betty Hutton) since childhood. But his inability to get into the army has him feeling the blues as she only has eyes for men in a uniform. On one night too much so, as she gets inebriated, married and pregnant to a soldier whose name and face she can’t even recall. Norval steps into the breach and nothing but trouble comes out of it. For this period this was quite a controversial film that Sturges somehow managed to slip by the Hayes Office censorship. In Hail the Conquering Hero Bracken plays a similar character Woodrow Truesmith who joined the marines only to be discharged for hay fever. But he was afraid to tell his mother, girlfriend (Ella Raines) and town that he had failed and so lies to them that he is over in the Pacific fighting. He meets up with a troop of real marines (led by Demarest) and they decide to take him home disguised as a marine who is just getting out of the service so that he can be with his mother. Put on a uniform and then take it off after you get home they tell him. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Infused in this film is a pervading sense of duty and patriotism that beams in the dark.
That turned out to be Sturges’s last box office success and he was to direct only five more films even though he was only 46 years old at the time. In a case where reality followed his own fiction, Sturges decided that he had to make a serious film (The Great Moment, 1944) and clearly the film heads were aghast at the thought of their money train going into serious fare. They disliked the end result so much that they took the film into their own hands and re-cut it. It is a very dull film but one has to wonder why the story of the invention of anesthesia in the 1800’s so bewitched Sturges and it is hard to imagine that his version of the film was much better. The film was actually made prior to the two Eddie Bracken films but wasn't released till afterwards. This and the continuing interference from the studio led to Sturges parting ways with Paramount. When the film was finally released it was a disaster at the box office.
He next partnered with his friend Howard Hughes but they did not remain friends for long. Sturges lured the famous silent comedic star Harold Lloyd out of retirement to perform in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Lloyd was of course famous for his incredible stunts and athletic prowess (the iconic picture of him hanging from a clock tower is part of film Americana) during the silent era but he was never able to make the transition to talkies very successfully. His last attempt had been in 1938 and it is not hard to see why success eluded him. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock feels like a throwback to films of the early 30’s – rather crude and clunky with Lloyd massacring every scene until the final 30 minutes when the film hits a wonderful level of absurdity and not coincidentally when Lloyd is allowed to exhibit his physical dexterity. In a lengthy scene Lloyd who’s character has acquired a circus when he was in a drunken stupor takes a lion for a walk in lower Manhattan to visit the loathsome banker set and finally on to the ledge of a high raise building where all nearly come to a sudden end. Just by watching the film you would never guess it was a Preston Sturges film as it has none of his usual sophistication and wit. The film was a box office thud and Hughes quickly took it out of circulation and a few years later re-cut it and released it as Mad Wednesday. There was another attempt at the partnership making the film Vendetta but Sturges was fired by Hughes a few weeks into the project.
Sturges then went to work at Fox studios where he made two films that again slouched at the box office and that was pretty much the end of his career. The first one was Unfaithfully Yours which over time has been redeemed by the critics as a fine comedy - (Pauline Kael later wrote "One of the most sophisticated slapstick comedies ever made”) – and it is though it has sharp edges and the warmth of a cobra. It is tour de force by Rex Harrison as a symphony conductor who suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) of infidelity. While conducting he concocts a plan to kill her and throw the blame on her supposed lover. In his mind it is flawless but in execution it becomes a plethora of pratfall pandemonium. Perhaps the failure of the film with audiences can be directed at Harrison’s character who is a not a very likable fellow who feels his class, breeding and genius entitles him to diminish all those around him. That plays better today I expect.
The final film of Sturges’s that I watched (he was to make one more film The French, They are a Funny Race in 1955 while in Europe that I can’t find and I am not sure I want to) is the Betty Grable vehicle The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend in 1949. It was apparently the first major box office failure of her career and though admittedly it is a slight film it is not a bad one really; just a peculiar one from the urbane director. Grable plays a saloon singing sharpshooter back in the old west that mistakenly wounds the judge and has to flee to a small town and pretend to be an innocent school teacher. It starts out in what appears to be a light musical comedy and then turns into a gigantic shootout in which no one gets hit and then suddenly it is over. It feels very abbreviated and only has two unambitious musical numbers – one with her singing solo and the other with Rudy Vallee who once again plays a nice wealthy guy who doesn’t get the girl.
It was a sad rapid decline for one of Hollywood’s brightest lights and it is hard to understand how it came about so quickly. After his failures at the box office, Hollywood turned on him and pretty much blacklisted him from work. He was to die in 1959 of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel.
Here is some bonus material! Snatches from four of the films:
1. In this one from The Lady Eve, Fonda has just come aboard the liner and every single female on board is looking to him as a potential benefactor. Stanwyck does the play by play until she takes things into her own hands and feet.
2. In Sullivan's Travels Sullivan finds himself accidentally back in Hollywood when posing as a tramp and goes into a diner for a cup of joe and a sinker. There he meets a blonde who buys him breakfast.
3. In Hail the Conquering Hero, Bracken meets up with some marines and tells them in a patriotic scene how much he loves the marines (and Bracken was never more eloquent and less tongue tied). Remember this was during WWII and it wasn't corny then and still isn't.
4. Finally Betty Grable singing in The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend.