The rip-roaring, populist satires of Preston Sturges embody the rich and shady entrepreneurial spirit of America. Whether his opportunistic heroes and heroines stuff a ballot box, enter a jingle contest, scheme to bag a rich husband or a spirited gal, create films of social significance or even invent an anesthesia for painless operations, they remain among the cinema’s most charming, self-advancing iconoclasts.
The saving grace of Sturges’ morally-dodgy adventures is the sense of a warm heart beating close to the surface of his cock-eyed world. Pushed to their limits his stressed-out protagonists hem, haw, flip and flop before sacrificing their greedy intentions to follow the path of virtue. Given the vitriol and blizzard of barbs that swirl about in every Sturges film, this turned out to be a surprisingly benevolent take on life—and one which proved difficult for the notoriously cynical artist to sustain.
Sturges’ period of cinematic genius would last a mere five years before misguided ambition and the changing tastes of the fickle public would sink a once promising career like a stone.
Born into a well-to-do Chicago family, Sturges spent much of his youth living and traveling abroad with his mother Mary Estelle Dempsey, a free-spirit who counted legendary dancer Isadora Duncan among her many artistic friends. Mary’s third marriage to Solomon Sturges helped bankroll her adventures but did little to plant roots for mother or child. At the ripe old age of sixteen Preston became manager of Mary’s French cosmetic firm and two years later he would return home to enroll in the Air Corps for the duration of WWI.
Sturges spent most of the 1920s drifting from job to job and even taking a stab at being an inventor—kiss-proof lipstick being his first contribution to the betterment of humanity. By the end of the decade Preston had settled in New York working again for his mother but he soon found his vast life experience lent itself to writing plays, especially comedy.
Sturges hit the big time on Broadway with Strictly Dishonorable, a risqué romantic comedy which was made into a successful—though by modern tastes static—motion picture by the usually reliable John Stahl in 1931. After seeing his fortunes decline on the slumping Great White Way, Sturges turned his attention to a new land of milk and honey: Hollywood. To Fox Studios he sold his pet project The Power and the Glory, the gripping eulogy of a railroad magnate who uses his influence to gain power.
The story, told in flashbacks, follows the rise of Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy) from a happy-go-lucky low man on the rail company’s totem pole to its corrupt CEO. Orson Welles would later claim The Power and the Glory to be a template for his bigger than life opus Citizen Kane and the film’s tight structure and rapid-fire dialogue would become a Sturges specialty.
Like many young writers lured by the good life on the west coast Sturges spent the next several years spinning his wheels, doing polish jobs but receiving no credit on several distinguished films (Twentieth Century, The Invisible Man, Imitation of Life, etc.). When finally given the opportunity to put his stamp on A-list project like The Good Fairy ( for Margaret Sullavan and William Wyler), Sturges delivered an enchanting script about a movie house usherette obsessed in making fairy tales come true.
After spending much of his five years in Hollywood as a free agent, Sturges settled in at Paramount where after writing a colorful bio-pic about Diamond Jim Brady he began a fruitful but dissatisfying collaboration with one of Paramount’s most successful directors, Mitchell Leisen.
A former set designer and protege of Cecil B. DeMille, Leisen was a filmmaker with taste and chops as evidenced by his work with Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in Hands Across the Table and Swing High, Swing Low, a pair of adult romancers which hold up extremely well. Unfortunately, Leisen had the habit of looking down upon his screenwriters irritating not only the touchy Sturges but the studio’s other resident curmudgeon, Billy Wilder, as well.
Still, the two films from the Leisen-Sturges collaboration, the daffy screwball comedy Easy Living and the touching Christmas romance Remember the Night brought out the best in both men. Brimming with sparkling dialogue, engagingly clever plot twists and more generosity than Sturges would permit in his own films Easy Living and Remember the Night prove an excellent initiation for those willing to step into Preston’s cock-eyed caravan.
After playing the good solider throughout the decade Sturges gave Paramount an ultimatum, to let him direct for the paltry “salary” of $10, or let him go. The studio caved, but would only give their rebel a miniscule budget and a motley cast of B-players for his film, hoping Sturges would return to the fold in the likely event it flopped. But, once this genius grabbed the reigns there would be no looking back.
Borrowing liberally from The Power and Glory, Sturges set out to make yet another, ambitious rags to riches story in The Great McGinty. While tending bar in a shady banana republic town Dan McGinty (Brian Donleavy) tries to soothe a crooked, suicidal bank clerk (Louis Jean Heydt) by telling him the colorful story of his colorful life on the political stage.
Several years earlier, a down at the heels McGinty accepts two dollars from a local politico (William Demarest) to pull the lever for the incumbent mayor in that night’s election. The ambitious McGinty takes the man at the word and combs the city to vote thirty-seven times impressing The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), the true power behind the throne.
The Boss hires the pugnacious McGinty to shake down debtors, then become a right-hand man, and finally run for mayor as the “reform candidate”. The only hitch is the affirmed bachelor must marry, so when his comely assistant Catherine (Muriel Angelus) offers McGinty an arrangement of convenience he finds he can’t refuse.
Once settled into office, McGinty is cowed by a guilty conscience over his negligence of Catherine and her children from a previous marriage leading to unexpected consummation of their own alliance. After McGinty wins a gubernatorial campaign Catherine steers her husband from his corrupt ways much to the chagrin of The Boss who vows vengeance.
McGinty’s unsavory past catches up with him and he finds himself in a jail cell next to his old friend and mentor. After being slipped a key, the two men light out on the lam, joined at the hip in friendship and infamy. Though Dan finally does do well by his understanding wife the real romance of the story turns out to be between the cynical mentor Boss and his hard-boiled pupil.
Even though this unforgiving take on American politics turned out to be an unexpected hit at the box office, Sturges chose to shoot a more buoyant topic for his next film.
A sweet yet wickedly funny satire of the American Dream, Christmas in July is a populist classic and one of Sturges’ most palatable films. Tenement dweller Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is convinced his dopey catchphrase “If you don’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk” will win a slogan contest for a major coffee house.
Jimmy’s mother and girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew) offer wary encouragement, but all hell breaks loose when some mischievous co-workers compose a faux telegram informing the lowly clerk he has won the contest. Thinking his ship has finally come in the exuberant Jimmy makes a big to-do in the office prompting his impressed bosses to give him a promotion and his own office.
Jimmy uses his good credit to go on a huge spree at a local department store, buying useful gifts for his mother, new fiancee and everyone in the neighborhood. The inevitable cruel disclosure lets the wind out of Jimmy’s sails but just when it seems he will have to suffer the ultimate humiliation, a determined Betty talks his cynical employer into giving him a chance to make good on his great promise.
Logging in at a breathtaking sixty-seven minutes, Christmas in July flouts the ethnic quilt of Old Manhattan like no other Hollywood film and gives us the first of many similar Sturges heroes in Jimmy, a good-hearted boob with his head planted firmly in the clouds.
By 1941 Sturges was entering his peak years as a filmmaker and while his brilliant satires and farces continue to be singled out for their rapier-like wit, he had also developed a fluid visual style which brought out the best in his marvelous ensemble casts. Unlike most directors of comedy, Sturges kept his camera mobile which enabled his players to rattle-off long stretches of the zesty dialogue and, more importantly, further the already hyper-kinetic narrative without missing a beat.
It was a banner era for character actors in American film and it seemed like Sturges had a monopoly on the best of them. William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, Rudy Vallee, Robert Greig, Eric Blore, Jimmy Conlin. Edgar Kennedy, Alan Bridge all lent their distinctive faces and personalities to Sturges’ Bruegel-esque canvases. It’s no great coincidence these mostly rumpled middle-aged men often resembled Sturges and provided a Greek chorus of running commentary on the increasingly bewildering activity unfolding in front of them.
Not surprisingly two of Sturges’ weakest films (The Great Moment and Unfaithfully Yours) are more traditional in their storytelling and feature strong male protagonists who lose focus and become frustrated in their endeavors. Perhaps, it really did take a village—or the local rabble—to make a difference.
Sturges’ lone foray into the screwball/romantic comedy genre The Lady Eve is decidedly more farcical than any film in the canons of Capra, LaCava, and McCarey. Unlike the major comic masterpieces by those Golden Age icons, it’s the foibles of an airhead male that garner most of the belly-laughs in Eve.
Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is a clueless heir to an Ale Empire, who’d much rather be combing the wilds of the Amazon for rare snakes than playing the field on a luxury liner with a bevy of attentive females. His sexual apathy leaves potential suitors at wits end until the sexy shakedown artist Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) begins to pluck his tender strings.
After an easy conquest, Jean is exposed as a fraud and the uptight Charles breaks off their engagement. Jean plots an elaborate revenge, reincarnating herself as a saucy British “Lady” who gives Charles an alarming sentimental education about sexual mores and the female of the species.
While such cult leading ladies as Veronica Lake and Betty Hutton did their best work with Sturges it’s Stanwyck as the self-sufficient flim-flam gal who turns out to be the most intriguing actress in his films. A no-nonsense professional, Stanwyck was at her best when directed by quixotic male talents like Sturges, Capra, King Vidor, Billy Wilder and Samuel Fuller. As Jean-Eve she gives one of her most relaxed and sexy performances and her tantalizing cock-teasing of poor young Pike leaves us all breathless.
For Sullivan’s Travels Sturges took the ballsy step of satirizing Hollywood, and himself, in a hilarious and often terrifying manner. A rich and pampered director of frothy Hollywood comedies, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) surprises the studio heads when he chooses to take to the hard road to research his upcoming film about the Little Man, O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Storm clouds set in when Sullivan’s butler (Robert Grieg) chastises his boss’ tomfoolery in a cutting speech about poverty but the director pays little mind to his employee’s point of view. Looking to protect their investment, the studio sends a publicity team to keep tabs on their golden boy but John L. cuts a deal with them so he continue his research alone.
As fate would have it the lonesome road leads the erstwhile hobo back to a Hollywood diner where he befriends a good-natured blonde (Veronica Lake). She mistakes Sullivan for a down and out drifter and buys him breakfast but after he convinces her he actually is an important man in the movie industry she turns down his offer to secure acting work and joins him on his boxcar odyssey.
Once free to roam America’s lingering Hoovervilles, Sullivan and the girl get some smelly and unpleasant first-hand experience of hand to mouth existence. The clouds finally break when the hopelessly naive Sullivan is mugged and set on a downward spiral leading to arrest and his being submitted to a reign of terror from a thuggish guard in a prison camp.
Having unwittingly stepped into an abyss of anonymity and despair Sullivan finally sees the light in an African-American church where the miserable prisoners and the poor constituents come together, sharing sanctified laughter over a silly Walt Disney cartoon. Giving up his dream of reforming mankind John L. Sullivan is finally comfortable in his role as a healer.
The Palm Beach Story is another satirical battle of the sexes given the blistering Sturges treatment. After five years of happy marriage Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) decides to leave her financially challenged, inventor husband Tom (Joel McCrea) in the hope she can bag a rich new husband who will bankroll her ex’s endeavors.
With divorce in mind Gerry smuggles herself onto a train headed to Palm Beach with a crew of gun-toting lunatics known as “The Ale and Quail Club”. Fleeing from the drunken louts, she finds peace and a potential suitor in the person of millionaire John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee).
Once in Palm Beach, Gerry and Hackensacker paint the town to the consternation of a jealous Tom who has traveled all the way down to Florida to win her back. Hoping to dissuade him Gerry introduces Tom to Hackensacker’s hot-to-trot sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) as her brother, a rich and single ship captain. The Hackensackers press hard to land the Jeffers but Gerry ultimately comes to her senses and retreats to Tom’s arms.
Awash in gut-busting slapstick and suggestive innuendo, The Palm Beach Story tosses dramatic and social conventions out the window in a wild, merry ride before pulling out all stops in a finale which, somehow, puts it all in perspective.
Sturges’ next two films The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero are delicious sweet and sour farces of small-town America during the War. They are Sturges’ most heartfelt works and a case can be made for either film as his masterpiece.
Sturges’ sympathy for the grotesque shines through with the inspired casting of crass Betty Hutton as the good time girl of Morgan Creek and nebbishy Eddie Bracken as the two-time loser who has fame thrust upon him. In Morgan’s Creek Trudy Kockenlocker (Hutton) enlists the help of her long-suffering beau Norval Jones (Bracken) as a “beard” date to placate her possessive cop father (William Demarest) while she goes out to party with a band of soldiers.
Trudy wakes up the next day notably hung-over and definitely married! The problem is she doesn’t know her husband’s name and since the soldiers shipped out earlier in the day her situation looks hopeless. When Trudy later finds she is pregnant Norval stands in as the father, nobly taking his lumps from the town and the irritable Mr. Kockenlocker.
As a reward for lending Trudy his good name, she delivers an unprecedented set of septuplets turning Norval into a Cause Celeb.
Hail the Conquering Hero features Bracken again as Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a son of a fallen WWI hero who is rejected for duty by the Marines because of chronic hay fever. The humiliated Woodrow bums around California for a few months before he finally decides to return home and tell his mother the truth. A band of sympathetic Marines hear his tale of woe and decide to prop him up as a medalled hero to his mother, unaware of the wild hometown reception which awaits them.
Woodrow is guilt-stricken by the outpouring of affection and wants to own up, but the Marines threaten to do him bodily harm if he breaks his mother’s heart. When town locals decide to run him against the corrupt mayor, Mr. Noble (the incomparable blow-hard Raymond Walburn), Woodrow finally cracks under the threat of exposure.
Taking a page from Capra, Sturges pushed the populist ticket creating his own vinegary vision of American families, community, small-town politics, and mob rule.
The Great Moment, a bio-pic starring Joel McCrea as W.T.G. Morton, the 19th century Boston doctor who invented anesthesia for painless surgery, was a curious but deeply personal project for Sturges. After bad previews forced Paramount to perform a massive re-edit, the furious Sturges bolted the studio and signed a contract with Howard Hughes. Aside from some patented Sturges’ slapstick, the sincere The Great Moment resembles, but never transcends, any number of capable, similarly-themed films of the era (The Story of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Madame Curie, etc.).
The shorn version of the film tanked at the box office, but by late 1944 Sturges was already looking forward to working for the eccentric aviator with whom he would have complete artistic license. It was the greatest professional mistake he ever made.
Sturges went into partnership with Howard Hughes harboring big plans. He wanted to resurrect the long dormant career of pioneer director D.W. Griffith but a disastrous meeting with the intoxicated septuagenarian scuttled that idea. Sturges then approached his favorite comedian Harold Lloyd who had been living in comfortable retirement from Hollywood since 1938. Lloyd’s exuberant go-getter persona presented a mirror image of many a Sturges’ hero. It was curious then for Sturges to begin his film with Lloyd on such a downbeat note.
Essentially a continuation of Lloyd’s classic comedy The Freshman, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock opens with the promise of unlikely football hero Harold hoping to begin a bright new career as a banker but settling for a dead end job as a book keeper. Twenty-two years pass and we see Harold growing old and moldy in the same lowly job prompting his boss J.E. Wagglebury (Raymond Walburn) to give him the pink slip.
On the street Harold strikes up a curious acquaintance with a lowlife named Wormy (Jimmy Conlin) who takes him to a bar where he is served his first alcoholic beverage. The drink liberates Harold sending him on a two day bender during which he gambles his life savings on the horses then inexplicably spends all the winnings on a dilapidated Zoo.
In a revival of the entrepreneurial spirit of his youth, the sober Harold devises a clever means to get the Zoo much needed publicity and unloads it at a great profit. The impressed Wagglebury rehires Harold who, to his delight, finds on his Mad Wednesday he also took time out to marry his boss’ attractive secretary.
While Lloyd’s expertly constructed silent films are steeped in romance and adventure his sound films were invariably loud and overwrought. Aside from some overdone slapstick sequences The Sin of Harold Diddlebock reversed that trend but the film’s entertainment value was more as a result of some great ensemble playing by Sturges regulars (Conlin, Greig, Walburn, Kennedy, Vallee, etc.) than from Lloyd’s performance.
After being continually rebuffed and frustrated by Hughes, the two men parted ways and Sturges signed on with 20th Century Fox. His first film for Darryl Zanuck pointed towards a brilliant return to form.
Unfaithfully Yours would be a black comedy about a symphony orchestra conductor who plots his wife’s murder to the strains of Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) seems to have it all, a flourishing career, a beautiful young wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) and sacks of money in the bank, but it all goes for naught when a report from a private eye insinuates Daphne is having an affair with the dashing assistant Anthony (Kurt Krueger).
Cool, urbane Sir Alfred soon turns into a fire-breathing madman, lashing out at Daphne then conducting his orchestra with unprecedented ferocity. During the concert Sir Alfred imagines three scenarios which will allow him to escape his marriage including an elaborate scheme to cut Daphne’s throat and pin the blame on Anthony. Alfred makes a muddle of his diabolical plans but to his relief Daphne comes clean about her innocent relationship the boring Anthony.
The clever and often ingenious Unfaithfully Yours returns Sturges to the well-trod battleground of love and marriage, but this time the bon mots are doled out with an uncharacteristically nasty edge and audiences weren’t biting.
Desperate for a hit, Sturges returned to safer ground in a Betty Grable vehicle, but the western spoof The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend wasn’t going to lead the former boy wonder back to the Promised Land.
Despite the film’s dreary reputation a case can be made for it being one of the better Grable projects and the not-so subtle satirical jabs at the genre’s inherent racism and glorification of violence come shining through in a broadly funny way. Unfortunately, Betty’s fans were not amused and the film signaled the death knell of Sturges’ career in Hollywood.
Like many major American directors of the era, Sturges didn’t fare well in the post war years. His unique brand of social farce thrived upon relationships born in small communities or tenement flats and with more and more Americans moving to the anonymous suburbs Sturges’ congested take on the world suddenly looked dated.
Burdened by debt and heartbroken by the lack of job offers in America, he moved to Paris where he continued to live beyond his means and scuffle for funding for one last shot at cinematic glory.
Thousands of miles away from Hollywood and his beloved players, Sturges did manage to finish Les Carnets du Major Thompson (with Jack Buchanan in the lead role) shortly before his death. The flat and bloodless comedy turned out to be a sad swan song for film’s greatest farceur.
Books on Sturges:
Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words – adapted by Sandy Sturges ****1/2 This hilarious, ribald autobiography is said to be so much hogwash, but who cares? If it’s even half-true it would make for a first rate Sturges movie—and that’s saying something.
Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges – Diane Jacobs **** This comprehensive and well-written bio of the irresponsible and self-destructive genius is the perfect book-end to Sturges’ autobiographical fantasia.
Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges – James Curtis ***1/2 Curtis concentrates on the rise and fall of the difficult and egocentric Sturges. A very fine bio rendered moot by the outstanding Jacobs book.
Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges – Donald Spoto **1/2 The prolific writer of celebrity bios checks-in with a pedestrian take on a colorful topic. Written at the height of a Sturges revival Madcap didn’t win over many new fans.
Films by Sturges:
1940 The Great McGinty ****
1940 Christmas in July ****
1941 The Lady Eve ****1/2
1942 Sullivan’s Travels ****
1942 The Palm Beach Story ****1/2
1944 The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek *****
1944 Hail the Conquering Hero ****1/2
1944 The Great Moment ***1/2
1947 The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (AKA Mad Wednesday) ***1/2
1948 Unfaithfully Yours ***1/2
1949 The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend ***1/2
1957 Les Carnets du Major Thompson (AKA The French They Are a Funny Race) ***