(1898 - 1959)
Three Key Films: The Great McGinty (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941)
Underrated: Christmas in July (1940) At only 65 minutes and riding a basic screwball premise all the way to the end, this most confectionary of Sturges’ films has left many critics underwhelmed. But, as is always the case with the comic master’s work, there is a complex spirit floating through the works. Here is a film that appears to be about a simple misunderstanding—a man is tricked into thinking he has won the lottery, hijinks ensue—but which is rife with social commentary about our generalized belief that wealth can equal happiness. Throughout, it is the illusion of wealth—not actual wealth—that leads our hapless hero to good fortune. Living as if he were wealthy—with all of the confidence that this apparently confers—is what allows him to win a promotion, get the girl, and find his happy ending. Of course, a final act switcheroo confounds the easy answers here, since this is a Sturges film after all. Breezy, funny, and always smarter than it appears.
Unforgettable: “But, with a little sex in it.” Sullivan’s Travels Anyone who has watched this film will recall being struck by the rapid-fire dialogue that drives the film, anticipating a couple generations’ worth of banter-laden comedies. No one has ever done it better than Sturges, and he never did it any better than in the opening scenes of his masterpiece. As the studio execs argue with Joel McCrea’s disenchanted screenwriter over making socially-conscious movies—“Who wants to see that kind of stuff? It gives me the creeps.”—McCrea builds to a crescendo, talking about answering Communism with “stark realism, the problems that confront the average man”, it’s the exec’s quick response that wins the day. “But, with a little sex?” A hundred years of Hollywood creative politics, summarized in a couple perfect lines of dialogue.
The Legend: Preston Sturges was raised by his bohemian mother, a singer and pal of Isadora Duncan, and her well-healed stockbroker husband. (What a wonderful contrast!) He enjoyed the weird childhood of a wealthy showbiz kid, flitting back and forth between America and Europe for a time in his early 20s, before finally settling on life as a writer for the stage by the mid-1920s. He made a successful transition from Broadway to Hollywood screenwriter by 1934 and director by 1940, but found himself smothered by the formulaic work he was asked to perform.
Indeed, trapped within the enervating confines of the code-era studio system with its restrictive statutes and directives, many otherwise talented and creative filmmakers wound up producing some pretty pedestrian stuff. But not Preston Sturges. Though each of his far-too-few films followed the rules in the broadest sense, they also took every possible opportunity to stretch, to push, and to subvert the confines of convention. A clear precursor to the great post-code auteurs the Coen Brothers (who reference his films in virtually all of their movies), Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson, Sturges took basic screwball formula plots and stuffed them to bursting with absurdities, snappy dialogue, surreal hijinks, and a sneaky dose of existential philosophy. And, just as would his acolytes, Sturges relied on a steady troupe of the same actors film after film, building up a steady community and sense of creative continuity between his pictures.
As a screenwriter turned director—indeed, he is often credited with being the first such animal, though this is of course untrue—Sturges was always careful to let his dialogue take centre stage. He made movies so breezy that they often felt tossed off, and yet they were so meticulously well constructed that their whipsmart language followed you around for days. Amazingly, the entirety of Sturges’ best work falls within a four year period—1940-1944 saw the release of eight films, at least six of which are utter classics of the genre. From 1945 till his retirement in 1955, Sturges would make four more pictures, but each was a critical and commercial disappointment, suffering from a combination of studio meddling and his own loss of nerve for risk-taking. Apart from 1948’s mixed bag Unfaithfully Yours, there’s not much to be said for this era. Which, I suppose, only adds to the legendary status of those first eight classics. Stuart Henderson