BY CHRIS HODENFIELD
Hollywood movies are full of wisecracks. But if one is looking for a wisecrack with a somewhat elevated tone, look no further than the comedies of Preston Sturges. He was the king of the off-kilter comeback.
Since he famously started out as a writer, it’s easy to assume that Sturges was just a word guy. But sit down with the films and his manic oeuvre slaps you in the face. He made eight movies for Paramount between 1940-44 (seven of them are gathered in the Filmmakers Collection box set) and a couple of worthies after that. His stamp of authority is on every frame. It’s his world, and no one else could even rent it.
There have been a few directors who created singular, easily identifiable destinations. We enter into a Frank Capra picture as we would sit down to a milling Thanksgiving dinner; going to John Ford’s house is more like attending a rowdy Irish wake. Sturges, like those filmmakers, populated his movies with a stock company of charming character actors, but he took it further. What is truly unique about Sturges’ direction was his choice to give so much of the action over to the so-called “minor” characters. A Sturges movie crashes off the edge of the screen like a crowded cocktail party.
Sturges’ distinctive world-view, both urbane and feverish, is somewhat understandable if you examine his wandering youth. Born Edmund Preston Biden in Chicago in 1898, his childhood was spent traipsing across Europe in the wake of an artistically ambitious mother and her best friend Isadora Duncan. He was educated in French schools and then hauled back to America, where he was adopted by a stockbroker named Solomon Sturges. After stints in the Army and working in his mother’s New York cosmetics firm—where he invented a kiss proof lipstick—he suddenly found himself at large on Broadway.
Sturges (center) on The Lady Eve (1941)
It sounds like a typical bit of Sturgeian chance. He was dating a stage actress who injured his pride by telling him she was using him as material for a play. He fought back by attempting to write his own play, and actually got it produced. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, written in just six days, was a major hit in 1929. He was 30 years old, and suddenly thrown into a new life. It’s no wonder most of his stories would be about a character thrust into a jarring new fortune.
When he wasn’t writing, he worked as a stagehand, an experience that gave him a wealth of knowledge about actors’ performances and what the audience watches for. These observations would later inform his directing style: He did not want the cutting of a film to be noticeable. Faces and speech and energy were all-important.
His Hollywood success came almost as fast as his Broadway hit. After just a couple years of working as a writer-for-hire, he moved west in 1933 and acquired a sizeable reputation. He managed to parlay his hottest script, a political satire, into a directing job. Supposedly upset about changes to his previous work, he sold The Great McGinty (1940) to Paramount for $1 with the proviso that he be the helmsman.
There is nothing ordinary or awkward about that film. Right from the start it was clear he knew how to summon up an electrifying pace for his scenes. He was also already a virtuoso at getting memorable performances from actors. Tough guy Brian Donlevy was never known for his range, but Sturges made him into the leading man he’d never been before—or after. In his portrayal of a hobo who gets allied with a political boss and rises to become a governor, Donlevy goes from snarling to sentimental to suave.
Sturges’ movies are filled with such casting coupes. Before Sturges put her in The Lady Eve (1941), almost no one had noticed that Barbara Stanwyck was a hell of a comedian. But he’d watched her work on the set of Remember the Night (from his script, directed by Mitchell Leisen) and vowed to create a role for her. Similarly, he’d noticed that washed-up radio crooner Rudy Vallée had a talent for making people laugh, and cast him as eccentric millionaire John D. Hackensacker III in his screwball comedy, The Palm Beach Story (1942). The Paramount brass were horrified at the idea of casting Vallée, but Sturges fought for him. Vallée almost steals the movie.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Sturges did not mind third-billed actors stealing scenes. He actually seemed to encourage it, and wrote all sorts of gadfly moments into his films, put into the mouths of his beloved regulars, such as the prissy fussbudget Franklin Pangborn, the irascible Jimmy Conlin or the blustering typhoon William Demarest. He gave his bit players thundering moments and extravagant speeches. Sometimes a transitory character would take over the scene, leaving the leading man to stand there and get pummeled by the jester’s towering rodomontade.
In Unfaithfully Yours (1948), an arrogant orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) is consumed by marital jealousies and marches into a detective agency. The threadbare investigator is played by Edgar Kennedy, who, ever since silent days, had played the “slow burn” cop, and little else. But here he gets the scene of a lifetime.
In a five-minute master take (with but four imperceptible cuts) that seems to pass in a breathless minute, Harrison spiritedly rejects Kennedy’s compliments (“The flattery of a footpad is insult enough!”), but then stands there rigidly while Kennedy takes over the scene and muses dolefully about his own failed marriage.
Film executives were often apoplectic at scenes like this. You can almost hear some story reader saying, “Hmm, I think I know where we can trim some pages.” But Sturges maintained that he directed scenes and acted out the parts as he wrote them, and, like Billy Wilder (another Paramount writer who followed in his directorial footsteps), wanted his lines recited as he wrote them.
The Sturges comedy probably most beloved in the industry is his Hollywood satire, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). A tour de force of stylistic flourishes, ranging from slapstick to stark social realism, it follows the saga of a director (Joel McCrea) known for fluffy comedies who wants to make a serious movie about humanity: he wants to film the tragic bestseller, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The title (borrowed 60 years later by the Coen Bros.) gently mocked John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which had been made into a film by John Ford the year before. Sturges meant his film to be an admonishment to director-friends such as Leo McCarey to not get all serious and “deep-dish.”
The tone is set right off with a four-minute scene of the impassioned director getting chased around the office by hollering executives. The best lines are not from McCrea, the lead, but the two character actors, Porter Hall and Robert Warwick, who both put a career’s worth of zest into their zingers. According to the director’s son, Tom Sturges, it was done in just one take. Three days had been set aside to shoot the 10-page scene, but it was wrapped by 11 a.m. of the first day. Sturges’ ability to rip through pages of dialogue in long master takes was perhaps one of the reasons for his proficiency.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
In those days, Sturges’ big influence was Ernst Lubitsch, the German-American director who put a sophisticated European touch to his bedroom farces. Like Lubitsch, Sturges loved to see his characters carry off foolhardy charades. Starting with his third film, The Lady Eve, Sturges really began to have fun as he plumbed the more risqué precincts of what he called “Topic A.” In the film, Sturges concocted one of the sexiest scenes ever dropped into a comedy: a long close-up of Stanwyck canoodling with Henry Fonda in a ship’s stateroom. She is a wily cardsharp and he is a befuddled zoologist. She reclines on a chaise while he sits awkwardly on the floor, distracted by her hemline and the way she weaves her fingers through his hair. To Fonda’s worried astonishment, she describes her ideal man, which is nothing like him. “[He] is a practical ideal,” she says softly. “You can find two or three of them in any barber shop getting the works.”
With its tight framing and silky shadows, the image could come from a George Hurrell glamour shoot. You can almost feel Stanwyck’s warm breath. It’s a beautifully directed combination of lust and cross-purposes.
Sturges excelled at portraying kinetic human energy—sexual or otherwise. His frame was tight, but he could put a lot of passion within it. He favored keeping the camera at eye level or perhaps a little above the hairline, the better to show the folks crowding the background. Directors like Howard Hawks and Capra experimented with high-speed pacing, but not to the breathtaking extremes of Sturges.
In Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), a dizzying comedy about an Army washout pretending to be a war hero, he dazzles with several long, invigorating scenes, including a two-and-a-half minute tracking shot through the backlot streets as two secondary characters have a fractious romantic discussion. He follows this with another long front-porch scene as the ‘hero’ (Eddie Bracken) tries to explain that he might be a fraud. These long takes are not epic, Wellesian showcases. Sturges keeps the dialogue going at such an intense pace that the viewer’s takeaway is not the camera pyrotechnics but the performers’ cockeyed passion. The technique goes unnoticed.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Sturges’ accomplishments are even more astonishing when you consider how he was able to push comedic boundaries in a period of grave wartime seriousness. The miracle of his most successful comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), was not the subject matter (small-town girl wakes with a hangover, unable to remember the soldier who she married and was impregnated by the previous night), but that he got such a scandalous movie made at all.
The arc of Sturges’ career is, alas, a baffling one. He shot out of the gate so fast and then fell into a series of professional pratfalls. He was no doubt ready to leave Paramount after his final release for them, The Great Moment (1944), a mostly serious story about the discovery of anesthesia, was hacked to pieces by a vengeful studio chief. But as bad as that film turned out, in later years Sturges would certainly miss the hyper-efficiency of the big-studio machinery which had allowed him to make picture after picture.
He formed a production company with Howard Hughes, which on the surface made him the envy of Hollywood, but ended tumultuously when the eccentric tycoon pulled the plug on the partnership without warning. Sturges escaped with one completed film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), an uneven comedy still worth seeing for a handful of priceless Sturges scenes featuring Harold Lloyd, whom he had coaxed out of retirement.
With The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), a loud, bombastic Betty Grable comedy, his golden touch had finally turned to brass. After one final negligible film made in France (The French, They Are a Funny Race ), his decade-long career of blazing directorial productivity was over.
Sturges, an observer of swift fortunes and crazy luck his whole life, remained philosophical about going broke. He was only 60 when he died one night in the Algonquin Hotel. He’d been working on an autobiography he planned to call The Events Leading Up to My Death.
Leave it to Sturges to sign off with one last, great wisecrack.