Film

The Early Sturges: Preston Sturges Screenplays, 1930-1939

Michael Buening

Preston Sturges painted an America as out-of-control jalopy full of fast-talking cons, greedy rubes, snappy girls, and exasperated fat cats with cockeyed intentions.

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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