Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Preston Sturges, a mid-century giant of American movie comedy famed for his endearing characters and barbed wit.
It’s tempting to imagine what might have happened if Preston Sturges had been afforded a directorial career as lengthy as those enjoyed by Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, and Robert Altman. As it stands, Sturges’ legacy rests primarily on a five-year stretch from 1940 to 1944, during which he wrote, directed, and produced such classic comedies as The Great McGinty, Christmas In July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Hail The Conquering Hero, and The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek. He condensed a lifetime worth of achievement into five glorious years. While he triumphed creatively (though not commercially) with 1947’s The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock and 1948’s Unfaithfully Yours, after his boom time, Sturges struggled with dead ends, disappointments, a disastrous partnership with Howard Hughes, and projects that never got off the ground.
Sturges was as verbose, colorful, and unforgettable as any of the characters he created. He was born in Chicago to a traveling-salesman father and a bohemian mother later known as Mary Desti, who married multiple times, traveled to Europe to pursue a singing career, and infamously gave Isadora Duncan the long scarf that led to her freak death by strangulation in 1927.
After a stint in the Army Air Service, Sturges began writing plays and screenplays in addition to his extracurricular work as an amateur inventor. Sturges proved spectacularly successful as a screenwriter. By the time he made his 1940 directorial debut with The Great McGinty, he had become the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. According to Hollywood lore, he agreed to sell the Oscar-winning script to Paramount on the condition that he be allowed to direct it. Thus began a career that included such apogees of cinematic comedy as…
Preston Sturges 101
Even though you can’t go wrong with any of the films Sturges directed between 1940 and 1948, when delving into Sturges’ rich directorial filmography, it’s best to start with pure comedies, then move on to comedy-dramas before ending with the filmmaker’s more challenging films.
Sturges was the character actor’s best friend, thanks to films filled with colorful comic parts. But he also wrote revelatory roles for women. It’d be tempting to describe The Lady Eve’s Barbara Stanwyck and Palm Beach Story’s Claudette Colbert as Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but they aren’t frolicsome sex kittens so much as ferocious lionesses. In both films, the women act as sexual aggressors preying on hapless patsies who are lucky to breathe the same air as they do.
In The Palm Beach Story, Colbert plays the seemingly impossible role of a gold-digger with a pure heart and incongruously selfless motives. She loves the finer things in life, and when hubby Joel McCrea sputters in his career, she hatches a devious scheme to divorce him, then find a rich man to put up the seed money for McCrea’s ambitious business plan. McCrea isn’t too happy with the plan, especially since it entails him pretending to be his wife’s brother, but he’s powerless to resist Colbert’s volcanic charm, and he follows her around like a lost little puppy when a group of wealthy, drunken businessman aboard a train adopt her as a mascot.
When old-timers talk quaintly about much sexier movies were back when they couldn’t show anything, The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve are what they’re talking about. In this clip, McCrea and Colbert manage to make the unzipping of an evening gown a dizzyingly erotic experience.
Onboard the train, Colbert meets a John D. Rockefeller-like heir played by crooner (and Sturges repertory player) Rudy Vallee, who plays a charming example of what Michael Showalter dubbed “The Baxter”—the nice, sweet-hearted schmuck who watches helplessly as the handsome romantic lead gets the girl. When McCrea finally catches up with Colbert and her new sugar daddy, he’s pressed into service playing Colbert’s brother, and he begins a calculated flirtation with Vallee’s ingratiatingly kooky sister, played with daffy exuberance and scene-stealing élan by Mary Astor. A farce of mistaken identity and role-playing ensues as Vallee woos Colbert, Astor pursues McCrea, and McCrea tries to win back a wife he never stopped loving, for damn good reason.
In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda plays a character similar to Vallee’s absent-minded millionaire in conception. Like Vallee, he’s a consummate geek with his head in the clouds and no discernible common sense, but instead of standing by impotently while the handsome stud gets the girl, he wins the girl, loses the girl, then wins her back again, in the most complicated, convoluted, yet glorious manner imaginable.
Radiating incandescent sexuality, Stanwyck plays a sleek con artist who travels the world with her card-sharp father, fleecing suckers and making off with their loot. Onboard a cruise, Stanwyck sets her sights on Fonda, but as illustrated by this clip, she has plenty of competition for his attentions.
Fonda is helpless to resist. After all, he’s only human. He makes his character’s moony innocence both affecting and strangely sexy. And sweet blessed Lord, is The Lady Eve sexy: Sturges brings an almost obscene intimacy to scenes of Fonda putting on Stanwyck’s high-heeled shoe, and later, Stanwyck lovingly tousling Fonda’s hair while he looks on with a gaze that’s half-orgasmic, half-freaked. Who needs porn or nudity when Stanwyck can do so much with a simple caress?
When Fonda learns of Stanwyck’s deception/long grift, he bids her farewell, only to have her reappear unexpectedly in his life when she impersonates a well-born British society woman. Fonda falls in love with her again in this new guise, against the wishes of perpetually apoplectic sidekick William Demarest, and the two star-crossed lovers marry. Sturges was able to slip all sorts of raunchiness past censors; in one particularly memorable scene, Fonda looks on in abject horror as Stanwyck—in her British guise—cheerfully rattles off her War And Peace-sized list of romantic conquests.
If it seems implausible, even by the lenient standards of screwball comedy, that Stanwyck could get one of the world’s wealthiest men to fall in love with her while pretending to be two different people who happen to look exactly alike, it’s important to remember Colbert’s Palm Beach Story boast, “You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything.”
Sturges stuck a fair amount of naughtiness into Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, but that’s nothing compared to what he accomplished with 1944’s The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek. He managed to smuggle past censors a raucous film about a spunky young woman (Betty Hutton) who marries and sleeps with a soldier she can’t remember (though not necessarily in that order) while blackout drunk, then gets a patsy (Eddie Bracken) to marry her and claim responsibility for the pregnancy.
Once again, the woman is the sexual aggressor. While Bracken only wants to take Hutton on a wholesome date to the picture show, Hutton is dead-set on rocking the worlds of a score of soon-to-be-departing GIs as they hit one crazy, drunken, out-of-control party after another, as chronicled in a montage where Hutton gets passed from sailor to sailor and thrown around like a rag doll.
In another bit of gender-role subversion, Hutton gets Bracken to propose by making him think it was his idea all along. Bracken ends up in jail for his troubles, but when Hutton gives birth to six boys, the powers that be—including Brian Donlevy, reprising his title role from The Great McGinty—are so overjoyed by news of this miracle birth that they decide to deliberately forget the circumstances that led to this unexpected bounty. In this clip, Sturges uses one of his trademark frantic montages to extend the reach of his story across the globe and rope Mussolini and Stalin (or at least impersonators) into the craziness.
Where Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek radically expands its scope to international levels at the very end, 1940’s humble Christmas In July feels more like a one-act play or a terrific short story than one of Sturges’ ambitious comic extravaganzas, and not just because it runs a mere 67 minutes.
Dick Powell plays another of Sturges’ pie-eyed dreamers, an average Joe who channels his questionable creativity and unquestionable ambition into entering contests. When Maxford House Coffee runs a contest for a new slogan, Powell thinks he has a winner with “If you can’t sleep, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk,” even though his girlfriend—and later, everyone he meets—considers the slogan nonsensical and counterintuitive. (If you can’t sleep, of course it’s the coffee.) The scene where Powell tries to explain his slogan’s meaning is a miniature masterpiece of awkward comedy.
In a workplace so vast, it makes Powell look like a tiny cog in a vast machine, Powell’s co-workers decide to prank him by sending him word that he’s won the contest. Powell immediately goes from zero to hero, and bosses who wouldn’t give him the time of day suddenly view him as a copywriting savant. But a harsh reckoning is in store when he learns of his co-workers’ misguided joke. Charming and modest in equal measures, Christmas In July builds to an affectionate, though only occasionally biting, satire of mob mentality and the all-American mania for success and upward mobility.
Another deception spirals out of control in 1944’s Hail The Conquering Hero, which casts baby-faced schlemiel Bracken as the scion of a prominent military dynasty who’s heartbroken that his hay fever keeps him from combat. At a bar one night, Bracken has the good and bad fortune to run into a group of Marines led by William Demarest. Demarest takes pity on Bracken and spreads tales of Bracken’s fake heroism throughout his hometown. Bracken’s friends and neighbors are so impressed by Demarest’s stories that they quickly draft Bracken into running for mayor opposite an opponent played by Raymond Walburn, an invaluable, bulldog-faced member of Sturges’ repertory company who specialized in playing everything from blowhard bosses to pompous boobs to overprivileged jackasses.
Like his contemporary and rival Frank Capra, who gets name-checked in Sullivan’s Travels alongside fellow contemporary/rival Ernest Lubitsch (the three men made many, if not most, of the greatest screwball comedies of all time), Sturges took patriotism seriously, especially during wartime, and Hero manages the tricky feat of spoofing hero worship and flag-waving wartime fever while simultaneously playing reverent tribute to our boys in uniform.
Harold Lloyd, who plays the milquetoast title character of 1947’s The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock, travels a rocky path from zero to hero to zero to hero to zero and then hero, even though, like Hutton, he’s too inebriated to remember all of it. Decades before The Hangover—which bears a more than passing resemblance to Diddlebock—Sturges was tuned in to the comic potential of blackout drunkenness.
In a bold directorial choice, Sturges begins the film with an extended excerpt from a silent film made decades earlier—the 1925 Harold Lloyd classic The Freshman—then integrates the action of the earlier film into his own narrative. The film opens with a much younger Lloyd hopping off the bench during a close football game and saving the day with his unexpected gridiron heroism. Excitable business owner Walburn, once again expertly playing a pompous boob, is so impressed by Lloyd’s antics that he offers him an entry-level bookkeeping job. Like so many Sturges protagonists, Lloyd dreams of big things, but watches his hopes fade with each passing year. Finally, Walburn, who can’t remember whether he gave Lloyd the job because of his heroics in a hockey rink, a football field, or some other venue of athletic endeavor, decides to can his underachieving employee.
The bender of a lifetime follows. Lloyd’s hapless dreamer, who had previously never so much as touched a drop of liquor, has the misfortune of sampling a drink offered to him by a poet/scientist/philosopher who says things like “The cocktail should approach us on tiptoe, like a young girl whose first appeal is innocence.”
Like Hutton in The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, Lloyd experiences a losing-control montage, during which he somehow ends up the owner of a third-rate circus. Diddlebock gives Lloyd an opportunity to indulge in his trademark physical comedy and derring-do: He ends up dangling from a building, with only a lion’s leash to keep him from plunging to his death. The film becomes a reverse comic mystery, as Lloyd tries to figure out exactly what he did and did not do while blackout drunk, and how on earth he’s going to get rid of a circus.
Alas, Diddlebock producer Howard Hughes was less than amused by Sturges’ film, and Lloyd resented Sturges for offering him a chance to direct a comeback that never came to fruition. Hughes re-cut the film and re-titled it Mad Wednesday. It was the beginning of the end for Sturges’ career as a director who could get films made, but today, it plays as vintage Sturges—full of comic invention, ingeniously plotted, and above all else, extremely funny. But Sturges was after much more, which leads to…
With the possible exception of The Lady Eve, 1942’s Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ most enduring and substantive achievement. It’s transcended genres and eras to become a lasting piece of Americana, as iconic in its own right as the Mickey Mouse logo that puts in a cameo during its climax.
Sturges’ oeuvre is obsessed with money, class, and upward mobility. When he began directing, the United States had recently emerged from the long shadow of the Great Depression, and it faced an even greater threat in the form of a World War that threatened to destroy its economy and split the world into warring democratic, communist, and fascist factions. What role did art play in this scary new paradigm? Was its role to wake up the sleeping masses to the injustices of capitalism, or make them forget a world that seemed to be spinning out of control? Those are the issues Sullivan’s Travels addresses, while finding time for a little sex, of course.
Joel McCrea stars as a filmmaker of frolicsome frivolities who longs to make a film about the suffering of the underclass, under the title O Brother Where Art Thou? The studio heads are predictably mortified, but when McCrea insists on experiencing poverty firsthand as an undercover hobo, they make sure he travels in style, with a battery of flunkies, helpers, and yes-men at his beck and call should he ever run into any real trouble. McCrea, who ably handled many of the most thankless roles in Sturges’ filmography, can’t escape his wealth or privilege. No matter how much he tries to evade his studio keepers, he keeps ending up where he began. In Sullivan’s Travels, all roads lead back to Hollywood.
At a diner, McCrea encounters Veronica Lake, a hard-boiled beauty whose speedy banter contains rich undertones of thinly veiled contempt, sly humor, and righteous cynicism. Lake is another of Sturges’ dynamite dames, a sharpie with a killer glare and a warm center underneath her prickly, confrontational exterior. Her introduction represents machine-gun screwball flirtation at its finest, conversation as half blood-sport, half seduction.
McCrea eventually succeeds in leaving Hollywood behind for what he myopically considers the real world. At this point, the film’s tone changes dramatically from ebullient satire to stark drama. Much of the film’s surprisingly moving third act is filmed with the haunting shadows and expressive lighting of film noir. Sturges doesn’t soft-pedal the horrors of life among the suffering masses. There’s a long, wordless montage of McCrea and Lake acclimating to the realities of hobo life. It’s quietly haunting, and it gives the hobos they encounter some of the hardscrabble dignity of the Walker Evans photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Evans’ collaboration with James Agee.
The film doesn’t overly romanticize the desperately poor, either. They aren’t all noble martyrs fighting an unjust system. One of the ostensible beneficiaries of McCrea’s uplifting proletariat art knocks McCrea unconscious and steals his money, just before being run over by a train himself. McCrea ends up on a chain gang, and he learns firsthand that he can do more good for the masses with light entertainment than heavy drama when he watches his fellow prisoners and the parishioners of a poor black church forget their troubles and lose themselves in laughter watching a Disney cartoon.
Sullivan’s Travels is rightly revered for its moral—Sturges dedicates the film “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little”—but its portrayal of dire poverty proves even more haunting. Sturges gives us an extended glimpse of working-class hell before delivering a neat little message wrapped up in a bow.
Sturges’ moralistic side similarly informs The Great McGinty, another comedy-drama that begins frisky and grows heavier and more dramatic as it progresses. In spite of the similarities, the film almost serves as the inverse of Sullivan’s Travels. The latter is about a rich, powerful man who wants to be a hobo and learns he’s better off staying within his social class. The Great McGinty is about a hobo who becomes rich and powerful, only to end up returning to poverty after taking an unexpected turn toward virtue.
Tough-guy character actor Brian Donlevy stars as an enterprising bum whose unlikely ascent to fame, then infamy, begins when he impresses his city’s political bosses by voting for their designated candidate a whopping 37 times. The powers that be are impressed by his moxie, hustle, and shamelessness, and he quickly rises to the rank of a scarily efficient enforcer, adept at collecting protection money previously considered uncollectible. In the cynical world of The Great McGinty, which makes Chicago machine politics look pristine by comparison, being a thug receptive to graft and corruption is all the qualification a man needs to run for higher office, so when boss Akim Tamiroff needs a fresh face to serve as a front for his protection racket, he elevates Donlevy to mayor, then governor.
While giving his protégé lessons in corruption, Tamiroff—whose malapropism-prone mobster inspired Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov—tells Donlevy, “Everybody lives by chiseling everyone else.” That’s the succinct philosophy of the film’s rogue’s gallery of thugs, gangsters, and crooked politicians, but Tamiroff seals his own doom when he “advises” Donlevy to get married to appease female voters. Marriage leads to the ruin of Donlevy and Tamiroff alike when Donlevy’s bleeding-heart wife-of-convenience (Muriel Angelus) admonishes her husband to use his power and influence to actually help his constituents instead of lining his pockets, leading to an uncharacteristic burst of altruism that backfires.
Sturges’ jaundiced take on the dirty business of politics gives the film a sneaky satirical edge, but after Angelus awakens Donlevy’s sleeping conscience, it takes a turn for the dramatic. Sturges luxuriates in flashy colloquialisms and fun slang, as when Donlevy impertinently asks a hapless victim of his shakedown racket, “Why not fork over the 500 fish and save yourself a shellacking?” Even at the beginning of his directorial debut, Sturges was adept at combining verbal humor with raucous slapstick, as in this clip where Donlevy and Tamiroff tussle in the backseat of a car while two of Tamiroff’s flunkies have a hilariously banal conversation up front. An Academy Award-winner for best screenplay, in addition to being Sturges’ directorial debut, The Great McGinty marked a great screenwriter’s evolution into a great filmmaker.
Sturges’ populist instincts failed him in the tricky 1948 black comedy Unfaithfully Yours, a film that dares audiences to dislike snobbish protagonist Rex Harrison, a wealthy conductor who sprays vitriol in every direction. He browbeats a shamus (Edgar Kennedy, another fixture of Sturges’ repertory company) who has the audacity to claim he’s a big fan of Harrison’s work, and classical music in general. He eviscerates his oafish brother-in-law (Vallee) for casting casts doubts on the fidelity of Harrison’s wife, Linda Darnell. Oh, and Harrison spends much of the film fantasizing about murdering Darnell.
Harrison proves a supremely mercurial creature. He swings wildly from extremes of emotion, from rage at the very notion that his wife would cheat on him to murderous anger toward a wife he fears sees him as an old man, and finally to rapturous love. If that isn’t enough to scare away the masses, the film is syncopated to the music of Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, not exactly the young people’s favorites.
Unfaithfully Yours is in many ways Sturges’ most ambitious directorial effort. The music establishes the tone and rhythms of the scenes they accompany; Sturges aspires to nothing short of a perfect symbiosis between classical music and the kind of pitch-black comedy that entails Harrison slaughtering his wife with a straight razor (in a fantasy, of course), then cackling maniacally when another man is convicted of the crime.
As Terry Jones notes on Criterion’s Unfaithfully Yours DVD, nothing really happens in the film; the action is largely internal and psychological. Unfaithfully Yours takes place as much in Harrison’s fevered imagination as the outside world. Yet Sturges proves impossible to pin down. Even in the midst of comedy so dark it borders on psychodrama, Sturges still finds time for slapstick shenanigans. Classical music is well and good, but Sturges never lost a vaudevillian’s flair for a well-timed pratfall.
Sturges strayed even further from the populist crowd-pleasers that made his name with The Great Moment, his sole drama and biggest flop. Like Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, he aspired to leave the ghetto of comedy behind and make a film that mattered, a film that would, in the pretentious words of McCrea’s misguided Sullivan’s Travels do-gooder, “realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is.” So he made a biopic about Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, the humble 19th-century dentist who helped develop ether as a powerful anesthetic. Sturges once again cast McCrea as an ambitious young man who stumbles into glory (one of the film’s rejected titles was Great Without Glory), only to lose it all due to complicated legislative and legal wrangling.
It sounds like a stone-cold bummer, and at times it is, but it’s also blessed with many of the strengths of Sturges’ comedies, from flavorful, funny dialogue to a cast loaded with great performances from his cast of ringers, most notably Demarest as the good dentist’s most enthusiastic patient.
The Great Moment was shelved for years, then re-edited against Sturges’ wishes. He took its colossal failure hard. The world, it seems, wasn’t ready for him to make a grand statement about the way the system can crush idealism and defeat the little guy with a big idea. The Great Moment is about the death of a dream, but nothing could keep Sturges from dreaming big and turning his fantasies into realities. “An ounce of security is worth a pound of pipe dreams,” reads one of Lloyd’s “inspirational” plaques in The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock. With Sturges and his glorious pantheon of daydreamers, the opposite holds true. Dreaming is the oxygen his characters breathe: To them, all the security in the world isn’t worth an ounce of pipe dreams.
While many of Sturges’ classic films are available in the Universal box set “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection,” The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend and The French, They Are a Funny Race have never been released on DVD, nor have many of the films Sturges wrote but didn’t direct. Sturges also wrote a number of plays and ran his own playhouse, but his theater work isn’t in wide circulation either, alas.
1. The Lady Eve
With The Lady Eve, Sturges perfected the screwball farce. It’s easily his most beautiful film, as well; even his gallery of gargoyle-faced character actors clean up nicely in eveningwear and sharp suits. Henry Fonda plays film’s coolest geek, but what makes The Lady Eve so timeless is its swooning romanticism. Sturges never hid his romantic streak—some of Rex Harrison’s dialogue in Unfaithfully Yours was taken straight from Sturges’ own love letters—but it reached its pinnacle in this pitch-perfect depiction of star-crossed love in the most decadent, continental settings possible.
2. Sullivan’s Travels
If pretty much every subsequent Hollywood satire apart from Singin’ In The Rain has felt a little warmed-over, it might be because Sturges set the bar so prohibitively high with his warm, witty, bracingly dark exploration of art and entertainment’s role in our mixed-up world. Sullivan’s Travels isn’t just funny: It’s wise and enduring, the definitive statement on the limits of show-business idealism.
3. The Palm Beach Story
Poor Joel McCrea. In his collaborations with Sturges, he always played the glowering straight man on a mission, doggedly pursuing worthy goals. In Sullivan’s Travels, he sets out to uplift the underclass with his socially conscious cinema. In The Great Moment, he sets out to alleviate pain and suffering. In The Palm Beach Story, he has the worthiest goal of all: winning back the inhumanly sexy Claudette Colbert. Is it any wonder every other man in the movie falls instantly, desperately in love with her?
4. Hail The Conquering Hero
During his commercial and critical prime, Sturges had an uncanny knack for anticipating the moods, tastes, and predilections of a mass audience. At the tail end of World War II, that meant simultaneously spoofing and satisfying flag-waving patriots. Bracken’s collaborations with Sturges should have made the former a cinematic icon on par with Bob Hope, but Bracken’s career as a leading man reached a premature end when he got on the wrong side of some very powerful people, namely MCA powerbroker Lew Wasserman, who essentially had him blackballed from movies.
5. The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock
The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock was seemingly cursed from inception. It was designed as a valentine to Sturges’ hero, Harold Lloyd, but the two had a relationship every bit as acrimonious as the director’s troubled partnership with producer Howard Hughes, who re-cut the film against Sturges’ wishes and had it renamed. Today, however, it stands as a dizzying cavalcade of comic invention, brilliant one-liners, and hilarious turns from the Preston Sturges Players.