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All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts (Shakespeare, As You Like It, II, vii)
Everyone has seen Preston Sturges’ films: his place as one of cinema’s half dozen or so best directors is agreed on by most. I gave his films another run through to sort out my own opinion. What I say won’t appeal to Sturges fans, who know it all already, nor to Sturgesphobes who can’t see anything in old black and white movies with no shootings. If it prompts someone somewhere to get out a copy of a Sturges film and give it a go, I’ll be happy with that.
Preston Sturges (Edmund Preston Biden 1898-1959) wrote 42 film scripts (several based on his own plays) including Twentieth Century (1934, along with Ben Hecht) for Howard Hawkes, and Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940) both for Mitchell Leisen. He wrote and directed 12 films, eight of which are usually thought of as among the greatest of American comedies. I think that’s an overestimation. There’s really only six films worth considering, his first six as director. The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, both 1940, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both 1941, The Palm Beach Story, 1942, and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 1942, released 1944. The first two films have unsure patches, the last two of these show a slight falling off, but after Morgan’s Creek Sturges seemed to lose whatever he had, made quite a few errors of judgement, and films with great moments rather than great films. The six films mentioned are a scintillating, exhilarating mixture of satire, farce, sentiment, Keystone Kops style manic physical comedy, earthy humour and wisdom. They catapult Sturges into the company of the very greatest film makers of the last 100 years. Sturges, like Howard Hawkes (another one in that company), teetered precariously as an independent producer within the Hollywood studio system, though for a much shorter time. I think comedy writers and directors should somehow be given greater weight than those who produce dramas. It’s so much harder to do comedy, and so much of good comedy falls by the wayside outside its own time and place.
Getting a good class of people into politics: The Great McGinty
The Great McGinty (1940) is about politics, and starts from the premise that all politicians are grafters and crooks in cahoots with organised crime who have united to put as much of public funds into their private pockets as they can get away with. Perhaps that’s what politics is for. This is something the man in the street has always thought, but it has seldom been expressed so overtly. To find this opinion in a Hollywood film is startling, to say the least, as Hollywood had shown itself to be obsequiously eager to please government, or indeed any public body, whose disapproval might lessen their box office receipts. The film won an Oscar for best screenplay, even more remarkably. But deservedly so: it is brilliantly crafted.
Working on a shoestring and with unknown actors (it was a “B” film, shown second on the program), Sturges characteristically makes the most of his limitations. Little more than 80 minutes in length, the film moves at a furious pace until bogged down by an unconvincing romantic patch in its centre, as Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), a down-and-outer hanging around the soup kitchen, gets dragooned into voting for the Mayor in place of an absent citizen. If he gets $2 per false vote, then the more times he votes the richer he’ll get, Dan concludes. This is the philosophy that appeals to the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) the shady underworld ‘contractor’ who really runs the city, and Dan eventually gets to be Governor, before being run out of town by turning reformer. These two are the heart and soul of the film and their constant battles are pure farce, and have nothing to do with politics.
But the film is more than farce. It is also satire, and behind the mayhem Sturges asks cogent questions about politics. Does full employment excuse graft? Was he thinking of America’s war time enemy Italy, where Mussolini had famously made the trains run on time, embarked on a massive building program and was tumultuously popular at the time Sturges’ film was released? Did he understand how much of America the Mafia already owned by 1940? Can self-interest ever result in good for the man in the street who has no connections or influence? How can you implement reform when the very structure of politics reformers need to work in is also corrupt?
Almost no-one but Preston Sturges could present issues like these while carrying on a frantic farce, giving frequent one-liners to great clowns such as William Demarest and Harry Rosenthal, throwing in a crowd-pleaser like McGinty’s scenes with wife and two small children and ending with the wry observation that we are most in danger when we try to change our pattern, whether that pattern be good or bad.
It’s not the coffee it’s the slogan: Christmas in July
With Christmas in July (1940) Sturges tried something more unified, simpler, and character-based. Reviving the script of an early play of his, Sturges based the film on a (Hollywood style) realistic portrayal of a poverty stricken young couple whose dream of wealth comes true. With a bigger budget because of the success of his first film Sturges cast Dick Powell and Ellen Drew as the couple, not great actors, but well able to express the dizzying contrasts Jimmy and Betty go through in the course of the film. Jimmy wins an advertising slogan contest, finds out it was a hoax, then, in a hilarious final sequence, he really does win the slogan contest. One of the dreams virtually every poor person dreams is to have enough money to buy presents for all the people they know. This is a film that stops being funny long enough to tell us that the generosity we feel is far, far more important than the gifts we give.
Contrasted with the central story of a couple whose dreams come true, are seen to be false, then really do come true, not because of wealth but because of the love and generosity they share, is the manic band of great supporting actors who add a unique richness to virtually every Sturges film. Jimmy and Betty have their ups and downs, but Raymond Walburn, as the coffee company president, William Demarest as Mr Bildocker his recalcitrant clerk, Ernest Truex as Mr Baxter, for whom Jimmy works and the great Franklin Pangborn (what a great name) as Dr Maxford’s announcer, all come on at top speed and in full flight. They’re clowns, not characters, but one can only admire the way Sturges uses them, playing off every physical peculiarity, eccentricity of voice and accent and contrast with one another to create brief touches of humor that move the film along like wildfire and in the process give the advertising industry a going over it should never have recovered from. The film works both as a sentimental romantic comedy and as a screwball comedy and as a farce, and because it’s a Sturges film you get all at the same time. The man just overflowed with comic ideas.
The film is a brief 64 minutes long, and doesn’t belabor any of its points. Will Jimmy and Betty cope with wealth and success or will they fail? Will Dr Maxford ever sell any coffee? If you can’t sleep at night would you drink a cup of Maxford’s coffee? That’s in another film, one we wouldn’t like nearly as much. “Does a black cat crossing your path bring bad luck?” “That depends on what happens afterwards”.
The snake in the grass: The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve (1941) is Preston Sturges’ greatest film, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, the kind of film Shakespeare would have made if the producers would have accepted his option for Twelfth Night (Hollywood would have shafted Will Shakespeare). And it all comes down to casting. Henry Fonda is Charles Pike, a rich innocent snared by a gang of cardsharps, and boy is he innocent. He looks about 14 for most of the time but when he grows up and falls in love Sturges gives him some of the sexiest love scenes in cinema. And some of the most absurd pratfalls. Barbara Stanwyck, the greatest actress of the golden age of Hollywood, is superb as Jean, the seductress with a distaste for snakes who falls in and out and in of love, shows her beautiful legs to devastating effect (does Charles fall for those legs, time after time: they floor him). And she gets the Sturges treatment: “You’ve got a definite nose”. And support from Eugene Pallette as Mr Pike (only slightly less effective here than as Carole Lombard’s father in My Man Godfrey), William Demarest as Muggsy the minder, Eric Blore as “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith” as long as the fraud squad don’t catch him, and Charles Coburn as Jean’s father. What a cast. Here is a film that stops time in its tracks and spills a little bit of magic in the midst of all our troubles. It’s in the same select company as Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paridise, Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and Twentieth Century, La Cava’s My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, Conway’s Libelled Lady or Capra’s Awful Truth, a group that forms the peak of screwball comedy.
And it’s a Preston Sturges film: having said all this – there’s more. Not just a romance, it’s one of the frankest treatments of sex ever seen on film (if you think sex is nudity and orgasm scenes you’re in for a shock). Not just about love and sex, it has some wonderful insights about the role of illusion in the attraction between men and women, and of the overwhelming importance of the element of trust as the foundation of a relationship. Romance, philosophy, pratfalls, mockery of the British class system Sturges knew so well, devastating deflation of both male and female forms of vanity, all these elements are placed and integrated and expertly paced. Some directors leave pacing to an editor, but Sturges was a playwright, and perhaps his greatest gift is his ability to deploy his material so effectively over the course of his films. The Lady Eve is a little over 90 minutes, and is beautifully proportioned. During a ten course banquet for example Henry Fonda gets most of the courses on his clothes: it’s funny, but it’s not just about pratfalls, it’s because he’s getting his Eves confused, which is even funnier, and he’s confused about that because he’s had his illusions shattered, which is natural, but he’s wrong; he doesn’t understand his woman, nor himself – and so he gets food on his clothes.
Both Jean/Lady Eve and Charles share the same trait. They’re out of touch with the world. Jean is not involved with anyone except to fleece them, her cynicism is a barrier that separates her from others. Charles is distanced in another way, involved in the study of snakes, fleeing his business interests as heir to an ale manufacturer, too cautious to be involved with others. When they meet and fall in love, neither knows it. Right through the film Jean thinks she is manipulating Charles, then seeking revenge on him. Right through the film Charles is mainly aware he is not up the Amazon any more. He’s overwhelmed by Jean, then infatuated with her. Sturges has the effrontery to use role reversals and mistaken identity ploys straight from a comedy by Shakespeare to shake these characters out of their misconceptions. Then they fall in love in earnest. And Sturges has the last laugh, and it’s at the Hays Office. Jean and Charles sleep together right at the end of the film and so commit adultery. But Will Hays can’t object. Though they have both been married before, it turns out to be to each other, so it’s respectable married sex. Though that hardly describes Barbara Stanwyck throughout the film, with her long legs, bare midriff bolero dress by Edith Head or smoldering close ups.
Brother Where Art Thou?: Sullivan’s Travels
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) has a main point it makes a bit heavy handedly. It has moments where the humour is a bit obvious, as in the scene where Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a hired hand for two sisters, one of whom is over flirtatious, and moments where the pathos is strained, as in the church scene where the congregation break into “Go Down Moses” as the convicts shuffle into the church. But these are quibbles. Starting with the ludicrous concept of a Hollywood director trying to make a meaningful picture (something they’ve never been able to do to this day), Sturges dives into the whole question of what motion pictures are for, taking a swipe along the way at how many people are concerned with social problems who have no idea what they are like to experience. As the poor have always found, charity is usually a form of control, and resented. Along the way he throws in a furious and funny car chase scene reminiscent of Mack Sennet’s Keystone Kops, a touching romance featuring a delicious Veronica Lake with her beguiling voice and accent, star turns from William Demarest, Eric Blore and others of his team of supporting clowns, two attempted murders, a degrading imprisonment on a prison farm, and a Walt Disney cartoon. This is a lot, even for Sturges. But all this is handled with a sophistication that has the viewer constantly questioning the point of view. Nothing in the film is quite what it seems, and the viewer laughs as much because they’re uneasy at the film’s ambivalence as at the many moments of pure comedy. No other Hollywood film has had this many layers.
Like Punch founder Henry Mayhew in 19th century London, George Orwell in 20th century London, Lenin and Trotsky in Russia and many other social reformers, Sullivan is in the position of someone concerned with poverty and wanting to do something about it, but who feels this way in complete ignorance of the condition of poverty and its prevailing emotion, hopelessness. Therefore the concern is a form of role play, and the man experiencing it in the film is consequently played by an actor, an actor who, in addition, is playing the part of a director, a director who might be a mouthpiece of the director making the film in which the director is making a film. And the social concern expressed can only be experienced by the audience, who see the film only in terms of its entertainment value.
Although it seems at times like a prescient satire of the career of Steven Spielberg, the underlying theme of Sullivan’s Travels is more likely to be a treatment of Sturges’ own precarious maneuvring with the studio, which was to worsen in the two years after this film was released. Sturges has the wit and detachment to see and ridicule, not only the sacred ideal of profitability motivating the studios, not only the egotistical drive of actors seeking to be stars or directors striving to be meaningful, but the cleverness and pretentiousness that was a part of his own creativity. And is there a laugh at audiences who want easy answers, such as that making people laugh is ‘better’ than making them think of serious issues? To take this latter tack you have to believe it likely that an unsophisticated audience would go see a Sturges film rather than, say, Die Hard, or Star Wars, which I think unlikely. The poor of course, couldn’t afford to see any film, not even a Disney cartoon (unless they were resident at a prison farm when one was screened).
The issue of honesty, of showing what’s real by whatever method, realism or fantasy, that works is one that surfaces in every artist’s life. In order to make a work of art you have to falsify life: life is not a book, a film, a painting, a sculpture or a symphony, but something very different. There is a poem by Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast books) in which he recounts his shock, while working as a medical orderly, when he realises he is examining the sallow complexion of a dying woman and comparing it to the whiteness of the sheets, and thinking of the contrast of colours as a painting problem when he should have been feeling concern for the woman’s fate. It’s by rendering that contrast that the artist can enable the audience to feel that concern. In film the issue of how to represent the real is clouded by the concept of entertainment, the idea that film should take people briefly away from their troubles. Film as some kind of drug or sedative, like television. It’s certain that even without this factor of entertainment, drama and humour are not two opposed alternatives. There is drama which is quite operatic and unreal, and forms of humor, such as satire and parody, which can comment quite cogently on social issues. The conclusion to Sullivan’s Travels therefore, is suspect if imagined as a statement of Sturges’ own belief. It’s much more likely to be satire of other people’s beliefs. It’s certainly true that comedy receives less critical attention than drama though, but only because comedy is so much harder to analyse (and critics probably think it undignified to laugh).
Once again Sturges has done the exceptional, 90 minutes of sweet romance between Veronica Lake (what a pity Sturges didn’t work with Carole Lombard, who could have taken everything he threw at her in her stride) and Joel McCrea, both actors giving their greatest performance. Great work from the repertory company, a homage to silent screen comedy and stars like Charlie Chase and Buster Keaton. And a film which undercuts the message by making fun of the medium, a film that dares to tell you that its points aren’t valid because it’s only a film, a medium born of the war between profiteers and the pretentious. And then making its points validly anyway. There are signs of strain in the film’s pacing. At the time the film was made Sturges was starting to suffer from overwork. He was writing, producing and directing two films a year, carrying on a war with the studio, who were trying to cut him down to size (whoever heard of a director who was bigger than a studio head?), carrying on a complicated love life, running a restaurant, drinking when he should have been sleeping, fighting a battle with the IRS who were already taking 90% of his earnings and who were soon to bankrupt him, and spending the spare time he didn’t have pursuing his interests in mechanics and inventions. And still he made one of the best films in his career. Soon Sturges started to lose some of these battles.
Sex, economics and the stuck dress catch: The Palm Beach Story
The Palm Beach Story (1942) is a typical anarchic, frantic Sturges farce: but only during the opening titles and the closing scene. For its running time it strives to be merely a rather sedate comedy of manners, as Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) separates from her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) to further his career. The joke: the true love Gerry feels for her husband can’t help his business, but as a footloose and fancy free divorcée she can raise the funds to bankroll his career. This cynical salute to sex, especially illicit sex, fuels the movie’s plot, but ruins it as well, as Gerry’s attempt to leave her husband doesn’t work at all well, mainly because she loves him so much she can’t bear to be apart from him. In the role of Gerry, Colbert, for all her appealing looks, is hampered by her stiff delivery of her lines. She never seems at ease in front of the camera in any of her films. This hampers McCrea, who needs to play off another actor to be effective.
The movie’s pace is carried by other actors. Robert Dudley as the wienie king, a millionaire with a hearing problem, Rudy Valee as a millionaire wanting to give away money, and Mary Astor as a compulsive millionaire divorcée with a severe speech defect. Unfortunately the repertory company are wasted in this film as the millionaire members of the Ale and Quail Club. Their funny bit is they have to shoot guns on a train and cause a lot of damage. Compared with their brilliant work in earlier films this is indeed a waste. The wonder of the movie is that Sturges can take such a threadbare and overtly symmetrical plot device and string so many comic moments throughout its length. The logic of the plot, which posits a world full of millionaires who can be easily separated from their money by the sex appeal of a beautiful woman, is abandoned in the end, when True Love prevails and one of the millionaires turns out to be a philanthropist. Was Sturges giving the public what John Sullivan’s producers told him the previous year that that public wanted, a feel good movie, “with a little sex”, while relegating his own movie to the opening titles? A film about marriage that begins with the title “and they lived happily ever after” is just daring you to believe it could be a true story.
Sextuplet celebrity: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
By the time of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1942, released 1944) the pressures on Sturges were becoming more insistent. He had acquired a producer who interfered with his project at every turn, and his excessive behaviour had begun to make enemies, or at least people who wished he’d go away. Sturges responded by writing a script which cocked a snoot at every section of society. He’d started with an attack on politicians, followed with one on advertising, made fun of fortune hunters, ridiculed Hollywood, pilloried the kept woman. Now he had the effrontery to make fun of marriage and small town respectability, soldiers and the war effort, the newspaper industry at a time when it represented truth and probity, values close to the heart of his audience: they loved it.
And the movie also made a mockery of the Hays Code, Breen Office, the censorious Mrs Grundy who poked and pried into movies looking for offensive bits. I’ve never heard anyone regret this shameful and degrading institution which emasculated the movies and turned them into fairy floss. Perhaps Sturges’ greatest achievement was that he cut the Hays Office down to size.
Trying to untangle the plot of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is not easy. A girl has sex after a dance sending off a group of soldiers to the front. She knows immediately that night she is pregnant (now isn’t that a miracle?) but can’t remember who the father is. She decides to take advantage of a local schmuck who loves her and asks him to marry her. The attempt fails, the man gets arrested on a multitude of charges. The girl’s father, the local constable, connives at the man’s escape and is dismissed. Nine months later the girl gives birth to sextuplets and becomes a celebrity, the governor intervenes (there’s publicity in it for him), everything is arranged, the couple finally marry and live happily ever after. The terrible tragedy of these events is somehow very, very funny, and to go through the script and see how local sentiment about soldiers, unwanted pregnancy, small town respectability are all made to look ridiculous is to appreciate just what an artist Sturges was. Not what he did, for these are easy targets: but how he did it. This was the America that later crucified John Lennon for saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. How did Sturges get away with it?
One factor was the exceptional, and totally unexpected, skill of Betty Hutton. She had acted before, but the 22 year old actress showed the expertise of a real veteran in all her scenes in the film. She said that Sturges acted all her scenes with her, and many of her takes are reactions to his coaching. She’s endearingly dumb, innocently conniving, ludicrously distressed and it’s hard not to take her part while laughing heartily at her antics. William Demarest was given a chance to show what he could do, and excels as Constable Kockenlocker, a widower trying to cope with two daughters, Betty Hutton and Diana Lyn, who think they know a great deal more about life than he does. He does truly astonishing pratfalls and has moving scenes where he supports his distraught elder daughter. The Kockenlocker family and their ludicrous, scandalous, touching predicament is something new in Sturges’ films, as is the loving depiction of small town eccentrics for which he deploys his repertory company of clowns to superb effect. And Eddie Bracken, an actor I don’t like at all, has a star turn mixing physical comedy with sophisticated repartee, and vocal gymnastics to equal Ronnie Barker’s. He has too many double takes and hysterical reactions to suit me: like every actor who worked with him though, he gives his best effort for Preston Sturges. But like the clown who piles one chair on top of another and attempts to sit on the top one, Sturges’ world of comic invention was about to come tumbling down.
Not lies, campaign promises: Hail the Conquering Hero
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is the story of Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), rejected for service in the marines, who comes home disguised as one through no fault of his own, and, as a popular war hero, is nominated for mayor of his home town. Somehow Woodrow summons up the strength to tell the truth, and is more popular than ever. He gets the girl, becomes mayor, and his brave friends the marines go off to fight other battles. The end. This is completely unlike any other previous Sturges film, and very like hundreds of patriotic war movies made during this period. It’s a very sentimental movie, and almost humorless, a sign of what direction Sturges’ career was now going to take.
The Great Moment (1944), a comedy drama about an early use of anesthetics in surgery, was recut, reshot and re-edited by Paramount, and Preston Sturges’ film has been lost. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), starring Harold Lloyd as a schmuck who has that one drink he’s never allowed himself and ends up with a circus, was recut and re-edited by Howard Hughes, and Sturges’ film has been lost. Unfaithfully Yours (1948), with Rex Harrison as an insanely jealous conductor who has fantasies about murdering his wife, was recut and re-edited by Darryl Zanuck, and Sturges’ film has been lost. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) a spoof western with Betty Grable and a script by Earl Felton, should have been lost. Les Carnets du Major Thompson (1955), from a novel by Pierre Daninos, was Sturges’ last movie, another one that should have been lost. Five films that took control of the project away from the director who had been brilliantly successful with his first six films both artistically and financially. Five films that lost money and were nails in the coffin of Sturges’ integrity and confidence. What better revenge on the man who had so brilliantly mocked the studio system than to force him to make failures.
There are some, pessimists, who feel the glass is half empty, and feel it a shame Sturges did not make more great films. I’m an optimist. For me the glass is half full, and I am grateful he made the six great ones he did. It’s more than most directors have done.
To find parallels to Preston Sturges’ achievement you have to go far from Hollywood, and look at great comic writers in other traditions. Back to ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War for instance, when one of the greatest comic dramatists who has ever lived, Aristophanes, crafted a body of work that placed him at the top of the pile with both critics and audiences of the time. Aristophanes’ so-called Old Comedy (critics consider differing styles as belonging to Old, Middle and New comedy) was a preposterous, exhilarating mixture of sex, obscenity, political satire, music, farce, wordplay and exquisite lyrical poetry that is absolutely unique in world literature. Though inaccurate, translations that are written to be performed are the best way to experience Aristophanes. In our terms he mixes burlesque, music hall, vaudeville, standup, opera and oratorio, and it’s his exuberance as well as his variety that brings a comparison with Sturges to mind. Aristophanes’ work followed a similar trajectory to Sturges’, the later work of both writers relying more on sentiment than farce for its effect.
The world of Renaissance comedy that culminated with the comedies of William Shakespeare is another parallel to consider, with their role reversals, impersonations and cross dressing, puns and extended wordplay, conceits, and sentimental fantasy. Shakespeare was always getting into trouble for genre blending, but he was a playwight. He knew his audience. If it worked, he threw it in the script, if it didn’t, he took it out, much as the great vaudeville performers did. Tragedy can afford to stall on stage, but comedy can’t die. Once it does, it’s all over.
The trouble with film is that it seems to be real, to deal with reality, even though Hollywood has never made a realist film in its history and is laughable when it tries. Sturges’ scenarios aren’t real, just as the Forest of Arden isn’t a real place and the parliament of woman or Cloudcuckooland in Aristophanes are not real. What all three playwrights (and Sturges was a playwright) are striving for is a place where lessons can be taught and truths revealed that otherwise might be disturbing or give offense, and laughter is the tool all three employ. Sarcasm, ridicule, parody, satire, wordplay, nonsense, outrage of conventions…if it makes you laugh, then it works. Care has to be taken to separate the particulars of Sturges’ settings, America in the early 1940s, from his subjects, the absurdities of human behaviour, if one is not to relegate him to the film museum.
Sturges has not been served well, ironical as it seems, by the fact he made films, not plays. Film is a popular art, and excellence is often measured by popularity, by number of tickets sold, not by its intrinsic qualities. Sturges had two marks against him in the end. His films stopped making money. And he was too outsize for the studio system. The studios had no room for writers-producers-directors who could act, had a worldwide reputation and an inflated opinion of themselves. The studios had previously exiled Chaplin, turned Keaton into a bit player, made sure Laurel and Hardy had to turn out work at a breakdown pace to earn a living. The studio system functioned because the studio heads controlled the industry. Once the studio started to interfere with Sturges’ autonomy he was finished, in the same way as was Welles. But Sturges had the last laugh, as he usually did in his films. The studios are gone: Sturges is still here. He started out as a comedy director. He ended up creating a genre: he made Preston Sturges films.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.