An inventor of unprecedented and unequalled American movie farces in the early 1940s, Preston Sturges packed the frames of his comedies of ideas with unruly Dickensian character actors that he used in film after film: always-suspicious William Demarest, fuming pansy Franklin Pangborn, louche lady Esther Howard, pompous windbag Raymond Walburn, and so many others. Often relegated to bits in other people’s movies, these character actors seized the big chances that Sturges gave them with a ham’s frenzy that the director encouraged, as if he needed their vaudevillian hustle and bustle to both cover and stimulate his risky inquiries into the sliding scales of fortune and morality in the United States.
In Sturges’s work, mink coats fall onto working girl’s heads and money is dangled in front of people’s noses, then abruptly taken away again. Jealousy and hypocritical judgment calls destroy romantic love, most people are on the take, and almost everybody wants to be something they’re not. Happily corrupt men and women are tempted and then destroyed by their latent honorable impulses; the concepts of right and wrong are always shifting because more American opportunity means more chances for glory, more fun and much more dissatisfaction. “Everybody lives by chiseling everybody else,” insists Akim Tamiroff in Sturges’s first movie as writer-director, The Great McGinty. Sturges’s meanings are almost all in his rapid-fire dialogue, but his imagery is fluid, if not graceful, and it expresses a kindly but unsparing, complex sensibility. His inventiveness came in a big burst and dissipated pretty quickly, but he made an indelible mark on his era, leaving behind a tricky trail of movie movies, stylized, unrealistic, yet always managing to allude to the problems of real life that will resume when the double feature is finished.
Sturges led a wild childhood with his mother Mary Desti, a culture vulture who was best friend and camp follower to Isadora Duncan. He rebelled against his mother’s arty influence for most of his youth, considering himself a businessman (he claimed to have concocted a kiss-proof lipstick) until he started writing commercial Broadway plays. Only his second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was a hit, but it was enough to get him a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where he wrote many a lively script for other hands all through the ‘30s. His two best early screenplays, Easy Living and Remember the Night, were rather softened by their director, Mitchell Leisen, and this made Sturges want to direct and sharpen his own work.
The Great McGinty is a curious movie, not as assured as the work to come, but subtly unsettling. Brian Donlevy is the central figure, a tough, weirdly immovable no-class type who plays all his cards right and goes from homeless on the street to governor of Illinois in record time. But a genially arranged marriage with his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) moves from flirty convenience to career-killer as she develops a conscience and presses McGinty to do something about child labor laws and better tenement housing. Angelus is so warm and charming in the role, so likable and womanly, that it takes us practically the entire film to realize how insultingly out of touch she is; she moves from selfish right-wing apologist to condescending limousine liberal without batting an eye.
The real climax of The Great McGinty is when Catherine’s abstract good intentions bump against McGinty’s real experience, her complacent do-gooding impulses prompting him to remember his own childhood in a sweatshop. McGinty actually defends such places until some upsetting and tactfully unspecified memory cuts him off mid-sentence. This is the first instance of Sturges going so far into ambiguous human feeling that our whole value system as a movie audience is questioned and shaken up. Sturges offers no answers, but he continually questions our mixed motives, which is why he is a radical American artist, an antidote to Frank Capra, who is firmly on the side of our worst human demagogic certainties and inflexible pieties.
Christmas in July, Sturges’s second film, looks and sounds like a comedy, but it’s actually a painful, squirm-inducing movie that spirals up and down financial ladders in a way that strikes a very specific American nerve, the one that wonders what it would be like to win the lottery. It features one of the most dispiriting, dehumanizing offices ever put on film, with a quiet-featured, sadistically nitpicking manager, Mr. Waterbury (Harry Hayden). In most other films, that’s all he’d be. But Sturges gives him a speech about his own dashed hopes and the philosophy he has contrived to get him through the day (as James Harvey says in his book Romantic Comedy: “Mr. Waterbury has come to terms with failure by deciding that it doesn’t exist”). Waterbury is still a jerk, but taking us into his mind for a whole scene makes his condescending officiousness more understandable and much creepier. In Sturges’s movies, even a bit part character will be given a single line that explodes with suggestive, mysterious meaning; he had a symphonic consciousness when it came to people, especially big groups of people, and he saw that every person had an infinite number of possibilities, that no one is all good or bad, common or cultured. Even the man who does nothing but crash the cymbals has as much inner life as the lead violinist.
With The Lady Eve, Sturges really came into his own, making a classic that stands with Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby as the gold standard of the romantic comedy genre, which was old Hollywood’s raison d ‘etre. It’s centered on Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean, a glamorous cardsharp traveling with her father (Charles Coburn), who moves in on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), an extremely dim, filthy-rich sucker. Most of the fun in the blissful first half of the movie lies in looking at Stanwyck as she realizes just what a prize chump she has landed; her wonderment at his idiocy is quite tender without ever losing its worldly bite. Fonda’s eyes cross with nerdy lust as he lies supine at Stanwyck’s feet for a wondrously long take in her stateroom—for Stanwyck’s Jean, mockery and seduction bleed seamlessly into each other. Sturges’s point of view here is much simpler than in his other work, as if he was so impressed by Stanwyck’s husky raillery that he let her control the movie’s shifts of feeling. The second half is not as delicious as the first, with Fonda taking one too many glass-crashing pratfalls, but it’s Sturges’s most hopeful movie, with Stanwyck first tempted by Fonda’s purity, then disillusioned by his priggish rigidity, then made to forgive him because when she sticks out her shapely leg, Pike is always fated to trip over it, or, as she says, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” Not a romantic line, until you hear Stanwyck say it with lip-smacking, voluptuous feeling.
Buoyed by the success of The Lady Eve, Sturges quickly made his magnum opus, Sullivan’s Travels. Sullivan, a movie director played by Joel McCrea, has made comedy hits for his studio and now he wants to make a serious message movie. He goes out on the road and learns very little; underneath all of his peregrinations is Sturges’s fear of poverty and failure, his uneasiness with his own success, which can be felt in his other movies, but never more personally and more up front than in Sullivan’s Travels (fittingly, his most personal movie is also his most universal). Sturges and Sullivan’s worst fears are fulfilled when Sullivan finds himself on a brutal chain gang after a mix-up at a railroad yard. There’s nothing worse than false imprisonment, and as depicted in the last part of Sullivan’s Travels it looks like a nightmare. Yet Sturges makes sure that we see how Sullivan’s position would have gotten him out of this mess if his identity could have been revealed; they sentence hoboes to years on a chain gang for assault, Sullivan says, but not successful picture directors. Yet who cares if you’re a success if you’re so easily mistaken for a failure? Such shivery existential questions are enough to make most of us into Mr. Waterburys, but Sullivan (and Sturges?) insists in the end that mindless comedy movies are important. It’s hard to know how to take this ending, though it’s explained quite well by James Harvey, the director’s most convincing supporter: “Sturges is as serious about not being serious as it’s probably possible to be.”
The Palm Beach Story is the kind of lunatic comedy that Sullivan pledged his heart to, and it’s delightful but fatally undisciplined. It’s the only Sturges movie without even a hint of seriousness; though brilliant in its flights of fancy, it’s also exhausting in its often raucous talkiness, epitomized by a group of rich hunters called The Ale and Quail Club, who take over the middle of the movie so that it seems to be spinning out of control. Claudette Colbert, sensible and droll and racy as she is, does not have the authority of Stanwyck and she finally surrenders to the chaos surrounding her. “I talk a lot, don’t I?” says Mary Astor’s motormouth Princess, and she could be speaking for everyone’s verbal incontinence here. Sturges begins and ends this marriage comedy with the title, “And They Lived Happily Ever After,” closely followed by, “Or Did They?” These worried titles are one of those concessions to reality he felt obligated to make, even in his craziest, least realistic farce.
Perhaps the most interesting movie in this generous DVD set is The Great Moment, a gloomy biopic about the inventor of anesthesia—the only film Sturges made at Paramount that was taken from him and cut by others. The first half was supposed to detail the doctor’s bitterness at having to live in poverty and neglect after giving his invention away to ease suffering immediately rather than wait for a patent; Paramount cut a lot out of this part of the film, so that it totals about 20 almost incoherent minutes. The second half, which details the doctor’s early struggles, is practically the way Sturges wanted it, but the whole thing is almost satirically false in its unconvincing, expository dialogue and bewildering in its low-energy crankiness. The unaccountable ending uses cliched heavenly light shining down on a noble girl awaiting amputation, with “Ave Maria” playing on the soundtrack. The Great Moment is such a catastrophe that it exerts a perverse fascination. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you wondering what on earth the director had in mind.
The set ends on a high note with one of Sturges’s great works, Hail the Conquering Hero, a hysterical yet precise satire on hero worship, mother love, and the relative values of honesty. Eddie Bracken’s honorable Woodrow is tempted at every turn by dishonesty and corruption, and in the end he stands firm on his convictions, even as Sturges (“the anti-Capra,” said André Bazin) constantly shifts the grounds of his certainty beneath his feet. Standing out from the crowded film is Bugsy (Freddie Steele), a scary but gentle madman who acts as a sort of cracked compass for Woodrow’s perambulations of conscience. In an earlier film, Sturges might have used Bugsy more simply: he could have been the nutcase who says something reasonable, for instance. But here, Sturges stays true to Bugsy’s tortured illogic, just as everyone in America has to go into denial or go Bugsy-crazy to believe our country is ever purely in the right, or that we as individuals can know what’s right and wrong instinctively.
Sturges made two more major films (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Unfaithfully Yours) before dwindling into inactivity and never-realized projects—the feared run of bad luck that keeps all his work going at such a fast, “I’ve got to say everything I want to now” clip. In record time, Sturges threw out eight brazen movies that revel in America’s capacity for change and our much-vaulted, now-lost ability to see through phoniness and come out on top before we anxiously slide back to the bottom from whence we came.
The prints of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July are muddy and grainy, while The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and Palm Beach Story are the same slightly speckled prints constantly shown on television. Surprisingly, The Great Moment is in pristine condition, as is Hail the Conquering Hero, though this most multi-layered of Sturges's soundtracks is marred by an ever-present hiss.
Theatrical trailers for all but Hail the Conquering Hero.
Having almost all of Preston Sturges's films in one set is an irresistible prospect.