[8 April 2005]
Preston Sturges’ first directorial effort, The Great McGinty, was released in 1940. He hit the ground running, directing eight movies through 1944 and, from The Lady Eve to Hail the Conquering Hero, almost all of them comedy classics. He painted an America as out-of-control jalopy full of fast-talking cons, greedy rubes, snappy girls, and exasperated fat cats with cockeyed intentions. The ultimate joke was that everyone’s problems worked themselves out in the end, that there was method to this madness.
A recently completed series at New York’s Film Forum had the ingenious conceit of highlighting the best of Sturges’ writing, eight films total, in the 10 years before he became one of the first writer/directors in Hollywood. Containing many rare forgotten crowd pleasers, the series was highlighted by a newly restored The Power and the Glory and a new 35mm print of Easy Living.
Where Sturges’ directing reveals a confident comedic personality, his early screenplays reveal an artist who could cover versatile terrain as the job demanded, comfortable in genres ranging from tragedy, musicals, and historical dramas, to horror and screwball comedy. According to his autobiography, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, by 1940 he had worked on 18 produced and 10 unproduced screenplays.
Sturges was born outside Chicago into an upper class family. He spent his childhood shuttling between the Midwest and Europe, his stern father and bohemian mother, developing a love of “high” and “low” that informed his work. After World War I, he worked various jobs and drifted towards the theater until he decided to be a playwright. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was a great success and Universal made a film of it in 1929. The movie is a mediocre relic from a bygone age filled with ethnic stereotypes, jokes about speakeasies and marital mores, and sub-Kaufman and Hart plotting. Sturges had nothing to do with it; he was busy writing a series of Broadway flops.
When Universal hired him as a staff writer, he recalls, “I started at the bottom: a bum by the name of Sturgeon who had once written a hit called Strictly Something-or-Other.” Fired after working on a rewrite of The Invisible Man, he began freelancing and sold his first script, The Power and the Glory, based on his wife Eleanor’s stories about her grandfather, cereal czar C.W. Post, to Fox.
The drama is at times sappy and the central character’s (Spencer Tracy) motivations are somewhat implausible; he’s a contented country bumpkin motivated to outstanding success by his needling wife. Yet the pessimism underlying the action is heartrending. Two characters commit suicide after mumbling, “Why shouldn’t you be in love and be happy for once in your life?” The script is also notable for a number of reasons. It’s a tragedy voluntarily written by a man who excelled at and made notable overtures to the worth and need of comedy. It was the first film to use “narratage,” where the characters mouth words the narrator is saying. It influenced Citizen Kane, a nonlinear story about an industrial magnate’s rise and fall, recalled by characters who try to figure out his demons. And it was shot, word for word, off Sturges’ script, virtually unheard of then and today.
Perhaps most important for his future work, Sturges was able to watch and absorb the entire production process. “And there, on top of the green stepladder,” he writes in his autobiography, “watching Mr. William K. Howard direct The Power and the Glory, I got a tremendous yen to direct, coupled with the absolutely positive hunch that I could.” The movie was a critical but not a financial success, and Sturges had trouble getting additional work as a freelance writer. He wrote The Biography of a Bum (which became The Great McGinty), but decided he didn’t want it made until he could direct it on his own terms.
The titles of his screenplays in years following sound like standard Depression-era comedies: Thirty Day Princess, Love Before Breakfast, Hotel Haywire, and College Swing. By 1935, with his adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play The Good Fairy, Sturges found his rhythm and style as a comedic screenwriter. Margaret Sullavan plays orphan and movie usherette Luisa Ginglebusher, taken under the wing of long-faced waiter Detlaff (Reginald Owen). He introduces her to sleazy millionaire Konrad (Frank Morgan), whom Luisa then convinces to help an idealistic lawyer (Herbert Marshall), whose name she picks out of a phone book. The plot is set at hilarious breakneck speed and then has trouble resolving itself, but Sturges’ characters are deftly defined: Sporum’s combing of beard and love of pencil sharpener, Maurice Schlapkohl’s (Alan Hale) persnickety obnoxiousness.
In 1937, Sturges wrote Easy Living, which comes closest to the style he would bring to his directorial work. In the opening minutes, Banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) throws out spoiled John Jr. (Ray Milland), fights with his wife over a $58,000 sable coat, and throws it off the roof of their New York townhouse. It lands on Mary (Jean Arthur), who is mistaken for the banker’s mistress and then meets John Jr. at the Automat where he’s working. The action moves quickly even by today’s standards, balancing comedic conventions, a large cast (hoteliers, haberdashers, butlers, brokers, Boy Scout magazine publishers), incredible dialogue, and expert pratfalls. How lines like, “I don’t beat around the bush to go in the back door” made it past the Hays Code we’ll never know.
That film’s director, Mitchell Leisen, would also direct Sturges’ final pre-directorial script, Remember the Night (1940). Barbara Stanwyck plays a kleptomaniac; Fred MacMurray is the attorney prosecuting her for a stolen bracelet. The trial is suspended over the Christmas holiday and MacMurray offers to drive her home since they both live in Indiana. She falls for his loving family and good heart, complicating matters when they return to New York. (This relationship between naïve man and urbane woman would be played for more cynical laughs in The Lady Eve.) Initially slow and stagy, the film’s mellow romantic tone completely charms by the close. Sturges writes, “The picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmertz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”
These early films do have a sentimental streak, in contrast to the satire bubbling beneath the surface of his later films. Whether this is due to the collaborative aspects of his work, a willingness to please his bosses, or the influence of outside directors, I don’t know, but it’s tempting to see his ‘30s work as helping to create the screwball template before gleefully ripping it apart in the ‘40s. According to his autobiography, after completing Remember the Night, Sturges looked back at his career as a screenwriter, comparing it to his work in the theater. Friends compared his movie work to prostitution and he had been inclined to agree with them. “But,” he writes, “I refused to believe that anything as necessary as the theatre could be available only to the few, at rare intervals, and at prohibitive cost. I claimed that talking film was one of the great gifts to mankind and the greatest book the theatre had ever received, making it universal, if two-dimensional, and I would up by apologizing to the big twilly out on the street whom I had described so vulgarly. She hadn’t much of a past, I said, but oh, what a future!”
Shortly after that Sturges pitched The Great McGinty to Paramount and he was able to direct it. But I like to think that Sturges came to the above realization some years earlier. In a wonderful scene at the beginning of The Good Fairy, Luisa becomes entranced by a hilarious parody of a studio melodrama, in which a sobbing socialite pleads with her pomade-haired jerk of a boyfriend to love her. He only say, “Go.” While most of the other moviegoers leave the theater, Luisa and Detlaff can’t take their eyes off the screen. The wonderful magic and ridiculousness of movies couldn’t be captured better.