No words on a screen make me happier than “Written And Directed By Preston Sturges.” In 1939, he became the first ever Hollywood screenwriter to step into the role of director, paving the way for your Billy Wilders and Coen brothers and Nicole Holofceners. In 1940, he received the first ever Oscar for Original Screenplay (The Great McGinty), incidentally for the same film. I like to think the Academy created that category specifically so it could award Sturges but that’s probably not the case.
A typical Sturges film is a madcap blend of glamour, wordplay, snarky misunderstandings, bewildered decent people, and at least one physical comedy setpiece of complete anarchy that reduces me to tears of laughter. That might be enough for a Classic Hollywood film but what marks a Sturges project is an absolutely fearless dismantling of some American institution, be it heterosexual marriage or wartime patriotism or bureaucratic politics or the romanticised idea of the American everyman. Sometimes I find myself pearl-clutching and wondering aghast how he got such criticism past the Hays Code censorship of the time, but then there is always an assuaging and reinstatement of American values by the end of the film. He’s super clever like that. If Frank Capra is the sentimental jingoistic Hollywood propagandist, Sturges is the anti-Capra – insightful, egalitarian, sometimes overtly antiracist, a remarkable feminist ally, and compassionate through all the witty banter.
Today, 29 August, marks his birthday so if you’ve never watched a Preston Sturges film or want to celebrate his excellence, here are five recommendations.
I swear this movie gets funnier every time I watch it. It’s a scandalous premise by Classic Hollywood standards: Trudy Kockenlocker – yes, that’s really her name — (played by Betty Hutton) gets so caught up in giddy wartime adulation of the GI boys that she marries a soldier one party night before he ships off, then discovers she’s pregnant and can’t remember the soldier’s name. Of course this means social disaster in a small town, and shenanigans ensue as she and her sister Emmy (a delightfully acidic Diana Lynn) rope in the chronically nervous hopeful suitor Norval (Eddie Bracken at probably his finest) to salvage Trudy’s reputation and keep her sheriff father (Sturges stalwart and total gem William Demarest) from finding out. And of course things spiral out of control in typical Sturges absurdist fashion.
His critique of wartime patriotism is much sharper and more painful in Hail The Conquering Hero but gentler here. Miracle is far more sympathetic and focused on how hasty war marriages — code for rampant sexual activity — impact on young American girls swept up in home-front propaganda. The pace alternates between steady and breakneck, the conversations dizzyingly fast, rife with interruptions and digressions — this is Sturges in typical form, trusting you to keep up and keep going. And the love story is so sweet, two young fools perfectly matched in adorableness.
Watch for: the long tracking unbroken shots of unreeling conversation; Eddie Bracken’s masterful stammer and babble and practically working himself into an aneurysm; William Demarest breaking the fourth wall more than once; the cleaning guns sequence, a classic Sturges masterpiece of pacing and payoff; chaotic cameos by Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprising their roles from The Great McGinty.
“He gave his name as Ratzkywatsky.” “He was trying to say Jones, he stuttered.”
Cast: Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Porter Hall
The first film Sturges directed and turned out to be an Oscar-winner is a scathing satire and unexpected love story, balancing political disillusionment with human sincerity. A homeless man, McGinty is pulled out of a soup kitchen to fake votes in a local election. It’s the beginning of a beautifully cynical partnership with a shady bureaucrat known only as The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) that takes our protagonist from debt collector to state governor. It might well be that McGinty is one of the greatest antiheroes of cinema, acted with a wonderful naturalism by the deliciously sardonic Brian Donlevy. His evolution is aided by a wife of convenience named Catharine (Muriel Angelus) who comes with children and a precious waddly dachshund. Sturges writes women particularly well, and I love how Catharine is smart and noble without being saccharine, how she develops McGinty’s conscience while still maintaining her own ironic identity.
If all this sounds very Capraesque, trust me, there’s a marked difference. An intriguing conversation about immigrants and the American dream has the Boss talking about how in generations past in his old country, his talent for ruthless manipulation would have made him a robber baron. Contrary to Capra onscreen idealism and with a refreshing lack of xenophobia, Sturges presents a clear-eyed appreciation of how the American political machine is operated by modern men with no conscience, creating new empires raddled with corruption. Compared to the high-octane outrageousness of his later fare, this first film is much more sedate and almost conventional. Sturges directs McGinty’s moral transformation with a minimum of sentiment, and there’s a lovely bittersweet perfection to this story — every time I watch it, I’m convinced that this and Jordan Peele winning for Get Out are the only screenplay wins the Oscars have ever gotten right.
Watch for: some very silly physical comedy; Brian Donlevy’s sexiest brows ever, sorry Paulette Goddard ilu; ironic intercutting of political speechifying; William Demarest being narky as ever.
“Got a new suit.” “It looks more like the suit got you.”
“And if you think I’m not the boss, you try and cross me up sometime.” “You got me all a tremble. I bet you’re scared to death of yourself.”
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, Allyn Joslyn, William Demarest
This is the one I rewatch the most and features my most favourite opening credit sequence. Because only Preston Sturges would be outrageous enough to start a movie at the end of another equally intriguing movie. And every time, I’m like “Wait, what happened there? I wanna know what happened there!” And then I completely forget as this madcap plot reels me in.
Palm Beach begins at the end of a marriage when Gerry (Claudette Colbert) decides to leave her very beautiful husband Tom (played by Joel McCrea, see I told you he was beautiful) because she’s convinced he has far better chances of entrepreneurial success if they’re apart. That way, she reckons she’ll be able to help him with financial connections rather than hinder him with financial burdens. En route to get a quickie divorce at Palm Beach, Gerry encounters the perfect target in the form of a slightly eccentric billionaire, John Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee, yes, that guy). The problem is she and Tom are still in love, and he turns up at her destination where a completely tangled foursome takes shape as she tries to land an interested Hackensacker, and Tom is targeted by Hackensacker’s predatory sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor talking very fast and shameless). Well, technically a fivesome – er, quintet due to the princess’ current hanger-on, Toto (a delightfully incomprehensible Sig Arno).
In this romcom world, a happy ever after isn’t necessarily guaranteed, it’s complicated by very real issues of money. And Sturges is a rarity in the straight white male army of Classic Hollywood in that he gets how women of the era are forced to operate in a patriarchal economy, to use their sexual power to obtain the ease and luxury of a lifestyle they can’t necessarily earn through the workforce. In a Sturges film and unusually for Hays Code Hollywood, they are not demonised or punished for wielding that power. His women are practical, clever, and Gerry is the epitome of a Sturges female protagonist with full agency. She also gets the best lines, and you can tell Colbert relishes the material.
The pace here is fairly relaxed to let the dialogue shine in all the misunderstandings, puns, and interruptions. It may be the most glamorous of the projects Sturges directed himself, from the elegant sets to the luscious costumes and darling hats. I particularly love how everyone’s a cheeky bugger in this – from doormen to taxi drivers to policemen to train porters, all of them get in little digs at our main couple. And I’m fairly certain the entire company of Sturges regular supporting actors show up through the course of the film, those dear familiar faces you see over and over through most of his work.
Watch for: Joel McCrea losing his pajamas; William Demarest (I know, I love him) and Jack Norton in a drunken shooting competition, my fave bit despite a distasteful racist connotation which is unusual for Sturges; the sexual chemistry between Colbert and McCrea with a rather delicious undoing of gowns; Rudy Vallee singing Goodnight Sweetheart which I am still trying to find for my Classic Hollywood playlist.
“Sex always has something to do with it, dear. From the time you’re about so big and wondering why your girlfriends’ fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden. Nothing wrong – just an overture to the opera that’s coming.”
“That’s one of the tragedies of this life – that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.”
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno
You know how people say Americans don’t understand irony? Well, this most famous Sturges film is a satire of Hollywood at the time, and the plot structured in a steady accumulation of dramatic irony upon dramatic irony. He wastes absolutely no time in skewering the Capra model of social issue films, an irony in itself since Sturges films show a keen awareness of social issues on a level deeper than most Hollywood films of the era. (Ida Lupino excepted.) His morally outraged protagonist, John Sullivan (again the beautiful Joel McCrea) is battling with the anti-intellectual commercially-minded film producers who are all for him making his message films “but with a little sex in it.” When they challenge Sully on his silver-spoon upbringing (not unlike Sturges before the hard times), he decides to go out and experience for himself the poverty suffered by the American everyman. His first few attempts are thwarted by fate or in hilarious fashion by his overhelpful entourage, but then Sturges irony twists a perfect knife and Sully really does find himself in the worst strife for a white man in America.
There are arguments and puns galore in the first half of the film, possibly the best of Sturges calibre though I’m more partial to the dialogue of the next entry. In keeping with the opening dedication, the physical comedy here is deliberately slapstick in homage to early silent comedy — Keystone Cops rather than the elegant anarchy of Keaton – and there are these long montages of chaos with no audible dialogue, just frantic music. For the same reason, Veronica Lake’s character has no name and is referred to as the Girl in the credits just like in comedies from the 1910s and 1920s. “There’s always a girl in the picture. Haven’t you ever been to the movies?” For me, Veronica Lake is the weakest part of the film even though she gets most of the best lines; it’s not hard to imagine someone like Deanna Durbin being fiery and vivacious and cheeky as fuck in the role. But if you stick through those scenes, the film becomes better as it goes on.
The tone shifts markedly at one point which I quite like, the grim balancing out all the silly that came before. I always wonder what James Baldwin thought of the sequence involving a Black congregation, whether he would have approved of the dignified depiction of Black people and the elevation of them above white convicts, and the very pointed use of an antislavery song; or whether he would have found it all deeply insulting and, at best, a prime example of condescending racism reinforcing stereotypes. Sturges is scathingly antiracist in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend and I’d like to believe the best of him but then again, Classic Hollywood will be Classic Hollywood.
The solution to Sully’s quandary is very clever and, yes, so ironic that it makes me grin every time. His journey through the suffering of the American everyman gives us two of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, played with just the right amount of bewilderment and sentiment by Joel McCrea, an actor of underrated subtlety. It’s easy to see why filmmakers and filmlovers adore Sullivan’s Travels: it critiques Hollywood pretensions and commercialism even as it validates the joy and escapism of cinema. I like to imagine Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton watching it in 1941, a couple of decades after their own shaping of film as a medium, and I’m convinced they would have loved and appreciated all it does.
Watch for: a rare Sturges cameo as the bewildered film director in the background when Veronica Lake goes charging off in her costume; the lovely deep shadows and glints of John Seitz’s cinematography; the inspiration for a Coen Brothers film; Eric Blore as Sully’s butler, stealing every scene as he does in every movie that’ll have him.
“People always like what they don’t know anything about.”
“The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.”
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn
I’ll admit I put off watching this for the longest time because the premise repulsed me with all its potential for Classic Hollywood sexism. And you know what? Like Billy Wilder with The Seven Year Itch, I should have trusted in my favourite screen writer-directors. Unfaithfully Yours is the story of an orchestral conductor Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) who is deliriously happily married until his brother-in-law’s (Rudy Vallee) interference causes him to suspect his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of infidelity. His suspicions spiral into long elaborate fantasies of murder and conspiracy, and the question becomes: which scenario shall he enact to revenge himself? And will it come off?
Except the target here of Sturges’ eviscerating wit is not the perfidious wife or the perils of heterosexual marriage but instead the complete idiocy of paranoid men. The plot is quite basic so I won’t elaborate on that. The structure of the film is what fascinates me. It’s manifold: long sequences set to sumptuous orchestral score where you’re either watching musicians or watching one character go through a whole thing with very little dialogue; long dizzying sequences of trademark Sturges banter and florid grandiose speechifying with minimal incidental score; and moments of long intense silence or what seems like it because you’re so focused on one character’s emotional process that you subconsciously block out the chatter of another character or the background score. And then there’s one hilarious long sequence of pure physical comedy where Sir Alfred grapples with a tape recorder in a Keatonesque battle of man versus machine.
No doubt there are opinions that Sturges doesn’t carry off the trick of switching between all these modes but I enjoy each for its own merit. The rehearsal sequence in particular makes me wonder how much the 1940 version of Fantasia may have influenced the dynamic editing and filming of musicians, such a contrast to the tedious filming of that odd overture to How To Marry A Millionaire. I also find it comforting to be reminded that people have been struggling with mechanical contraptions and idiotic manuals for as long as there have been mechanical contraptions and idiotic manuals. And that I’m not the only one to struggle so hard to get something down from a high shelf.
Incidentally, the musical director on this is Alfred Newman, father of Thomas Newman and uncle of Randy Newman, those composers of so many scores that have wrecked us in our time.
Neither Harrison nor Darnell are actors I care for but the unabashed tenderness and passion they play as Sir Alfred and Daphne makes my heart melt. They run the whole gamut – shameless indulgent sentiment, distance and aggravation, hurt and insults, bickering and attempting to heal the breach, and then right back into the adoration. And somehow here, it seems like Sturges presents the romance without a hint of sarcasm. Makes me wonder what his emotional life was at the time.
Daphne is a particularly marvellous character and we only really find that out in the final scenes. She totally shatters the image Sir Alfred has built up in his head of her, the image he presents to us. It makes such a gloriously unreliable narrator out of him, and Sturges has no qualms about making a complete fool of his male protagonist. I love him for it.
Watch for: the stunning Edith Head gowns; a firehose sequence of typical anarchy; a very atypical private investigator; possibly the most romantic closing line
“Do you dare to inform me you had vulgar footpads and snap-brimmed fedoras sluicing after my beautiful wife?” “I believe it’s called sleuthing–”
“The way you handle Handel, Sir Alfred. For me, there’s nobody handles Handel the way you handle Handel.”
Cast: Rex harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence, Kurt Krueger
Also Worth Checking Out:
Easy Living (1937): scripted but not directed by Sturges, Jean Arthur and Ray Milland are charming in this visually gorgeous madcap adventure of misunderstandings.
The Power And The Glory (1933): also scripted but not directed by Sturges, this Pre-Code forefather to Citizen Kane has the most glorious structure of nested flashbacks and an ending of brutal moral symmetry. Nothing to do with Graham Greene.
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