For those who recognize the “Golden Age” of Hollywood as the true pinnacle of American filmmaking, Preston Sturges is a familiar name, but one not widely understood.
Over his modest tenure as a film director and writer, Sturges directed everything from comedy to tragedy, broad screwball to intelligent satire, and grand critical successes to miserable commercial failures. He never became a massive cultural figure like Hitchcock, Welles, or Ford, nor did he helm any major masterpieces still revered as monumental works of art. Even his most well known films — comedies like Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story — are today often overlooked in favor of the era’s legendary classics from directors like Capra, Hawks, and Lubitsch. This leaves Sturges as a man of truly underexplored depths in modern film criticism because, even with the moderate acclaim still imposed on his vast and diverse legacy, he remains a woefully underrated filmmaker.
ReFocus: The Films of Preston Sturges aims to bring Sturges’ body of work to deserved critical attention through 14 interdisciplinary essays from a diverse collection of contributors organized by editors Jeff Jaeckle and Sarah Kozloff (who each author their own essays). The essays, though divided into loosely conceived categories, indeed cover a wide swath of perspectives on Sturges and his films.
In fact, the title of the volume is, in a way, misleading; the collection deals at least as much with Sturges the man as it does with his movies. Jaeckle initiates the character analysis in the book’s introduction, in which he calls Sturges a “study in contrast”, a “genius and fluke, artist and entertainer, auteur and sellout”. Indeed the contributors seem particularly enamored with discovering the personal link between Sturges — who at different times in his life was a businessman, an inventor, and a playwright who shuffled between American and European sensibilities — and his artistic creations. We live in a time where creatives are celebrated for their eccentricity, which makes it a tantalizing prospect to look back at as idiosyncratic a character as Sturges.
So, who was Sturges? Many of these essays springboard off of the director’s status as an outsider within the Hollywood studio system, a true auteur in the age of assembly line filmmaking who often struggled to get his films made on time, on budget, or with his artistic vision intact.
In the book’s first section, “Contexts: Genre, Studio, Authorship”, the writers explore Sturges’ place in the institutions of Hollywood filmmaking, from his transition from screenwriter to writer-director (Kozloff’s “To Write and Not Direct”) to even his surprisingly amiable relationship with the censorship of the Production Code (Matthew H. Bernstein’s “‘The Edge of Unacceptability’: Preston Sturges and the PCA”). Virginia Wright Wexman’s compelling essay on Sturges’ reputation as an early American auteur, “Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels, and Film Authorship in Hollywood, 1941”, even helps us to situate the filmmaker, his art and his professional relationships (Sturges notoriously declined invitations to both the Screen Directors Guild and the Writers Guild) in the context of Golden Age politics. These essays helpfully illustrate that Sturges is worthy of study not just for his remarkably unique oeuvre, but also because of what he, an enduring figure on the fringes of perhaps the most storied period in filmmaking history, reveals about the inner-workings of that legacy.
Naturally, the essayists are not exclusively reverent toward the director, and they occasionally unearth problematic details hiding in his work that otherwise go undetected or unchallenged, as is often the case when dealing with the nostalgia-fueled orthodoxy of Golden Age criticism. Christopher Beach in his essay “Social Class in the Films of Preston Sturges” admonishes the director’s sometimes mixed messages with regards to class, as in the iconic but strangely abrupt ending to Sullivan’s Travels, while Krin Gabbard just one chapter later analyzes the troubling recurrence of fiercely racist African American stereotypes in Sturges’ films in “‘They Always Get the Best of You Somehow’: Preston Sturges in Black and White”.
These criticisms are levied not just to help us understand the films, but also to understand the man behind them. Beach’s essay asks us to consider the films in the context of Sturges’ own varied experiences with class, while Gabbard searches both Sturges’ own prejudices and American comedy tradition for the root of the racist caricatures. Along with the rest of the essays in the collection, these two help us to appreciate how, during a time in Hollywood when filmmaking was systematic above all else, Sturges managed to make his art singular and personal, for better and for worse.
Overall, this entry in the ReFocus series does exactly what these kinds of books on film directors — and indeed all artists — should do: educate us about the many facets of its subject and, at the same time, recontextualize what we already know. Sturges remains one of the period’s most richly complicated figures, even as his name slips gradually into obscurity for casual film fans.
Critical collections like these offer a precious chance at rediscovery. While this volume may understandably center somewhat heavily on certain films (Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story in particular) and at times feel more wide than deep, it contains an astoundingly cohesive and consistent analysis of the life’s work of a man who genuinely deserves it, but rarely gets it.