A Preston Sturges season runs at BFI Southbank in February 2016.
Screwball’s screwiest and ballsiest proponent in Hollywood’s golden age, Preston Sturges’ journey to breaking through the ranks of studio team-writers to become one of the most prominent writer-directors of the time, is certainly a storied one. A career in the theatre followed a jetsetting childhood – his mother was best friends with Isadora Duncan – before he turned his hand to the silver screen, churning out screenplays (as many discarded as produced) for the likes of Howard Hawks and James Whale.
He finally got the chance to direct in 1940, and while just a dozen films would follow, the credit ‘Written and Directed by Preston Sturges’ remains a mark of the inspired chaos within – with social commentary buoyed by a singularly illogical narrative logic and structural audacity, and a deep-rooted humanism underscoring madcap farce.
The Power and the Glory (1933)
Director William K. Howard
“I did not wish Mr. Howard any hard luck like a bad automobile accident or a seriously broken back or anything like that. I merely wished that some temporary fever would assail him, something not too harmful that would lay him flat for the rest of the shooting schedule, so that the company would implore me, as the only other person thoroughly conversant with the script, to take over the direction in his stead.” – from Preston Sturges’ autobiography
The story of Orson Welles wearing out a print of The Power and the Glory may be apocryphal, but it’s likely the boy wonder at least had Sturges’ non-chronologically structured tale of a railroad tycoon’s rise to power in mind when prepping Citizen Kane (1941). Famous for a sequence of what Sturges dubbed “narratage” – essentially lip-synced, overdubbed narration – and for making it to screen entirely as written, Sturges’ screenplay took the 1933 Hollywood Reporter Award of Merit. Not that it did him any favours among his superiors (keen to maintain power hierarchies) or peers (keen to retain their team-writer jobs): “I was as popular as a polecat and, with all that money in the bank, as independent.”
The Good Fairy (1935)
Director William Wyler
“Two weeks before the picture was finished, Willie [Wyler] eloped with Maggie Sullavan. He asked my opinion of the proposed match beforehand, but he must not have heard what I said.”
William Wyler may have directed, but The Good Fairy feels every bit the Preston Sturges picture. Class boundaries are roundly skewered and the kind of madcap circumstantial coincidences that would appear in his later work find themselves in utero here. As ever, Sturges’ sympathies are with the common man (or woman): witness the joy on the face of Herbert Marshall’s skid-row lawyer, when Margaret Sullavan informs him of the windfall she’s finagled for him – “I’m going to buy a pencil sharpener with a handle and different-sized holes, at last!” A film-within-the-film finds an echo more than 50 years later in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Easy Living (1937)
Director Mitchell Leisen
“I offered to direct pictures for nothing and even to throw in a script – and my scripts had become quite valuable – for nothing. The result was the same. A director is as good as his last picture and it is very hard to have a last picture when one has never had a first.”
Jean Arthur grabs opportunity by the balls when a sable coat (“The sablest sable that ever sabled”) is dropped on her head from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, its millionaire owner gifting it to her to teach his wife a lesson. Kicked out of her job, she’s content – like many of Sturges’ heroes – to let the fortunes of fate do their thing, as she clings on to the free ride for as long as she can. Attuned as ever to the casual cruelties of wealth and its lack, Sturges found the perfect partner in director Mitchell Leisen, who takes as much glee in a perfectly executed pratfall as his writer.
Remember the Night (1940)
Director Mitchell Leisen
“At the studio, writing Remember the Night for my new producer, Al Lewin, almost caused me to commit hara-kiri several times, but I postponed it for some later assignment… As it turned out, the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”
Sturges’ second collaboration with Mitchell Leisen is one for the ages, featuring the first of two sensational performances from Barbara Stanwyck in the writer-director’s work. The screenplay begins in familiar Sturges territory, before blossoming into something wholly atypical, if still in keeping with the writer’s unsentimental brand of humanism. Fred MacMurray’s prosecuting lawyer bails out petty-thief Stanwyck, feeling guilty that she’d have to spend the Christmas break behind bars. The screwball takes a turn into darker territory before being abandoned for a love story that finds itself hanging on a moral question, Leisen’s romanticism tempered by Sturges’ pragmatism. Why it’s not a perennial Christmas favourite is anyone’s guess.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Director Preston Sturges
“Then as I turned to leave, he added, ‘By the way, how much do you want for the story? I’ll okay any price you say, but let me point out that the less it costs to bring in your first picture, the more it will be admired.’
‘How about a dollar?’ I said.
At the door, I paused and said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m going to make a hell of a picture for you.’
He looked up from his big desk and smiled. ‘As a matter of fact, I know it.’”
For the first film to see the credit ‘Written and Directed by Preston Sturges’ attached, the writer delivered one of his sharpest commentaries. Combining and equating the political system with mob racketeering, Sturges structures his tale from the retrospective vantage point of a banana-republic barroom, from where the eponymous McGinty tells of his upward and downward social trajectories. It’s another film that feels like it bore some influence on Citizen Kane, it’s acerbic presentation of Robin Hood economics for the greater good swats institutional power hierarchies like flies, while remaining ever ready to drop a broad sight gag amid its more pointed barbs.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Director Preston Sturges
“I was scared to death about The Lady Eve. I happen to love pratfalls, but as almost everything I like, other people dislike, and vice versa, my dearest friends and severest critics constantly urged me to cut the pratfalls from five to three. But it was actually the enormous risks I took with my pictures, skating right up to the edge of nonacceptance, that paid off so handsomely.”
One of the chief pleasures of Preston Sturges’ work comes in the form of the company of character actors who appear in film after film. Top of the list has to be William Demarest, who gets perhaps his most memorable role in The Lady Eve, playing Henry Fonda’s minder, Muggsy. Sturges has enormous fun staging the concept of love as a long con, little different from the games Barbara Stanwyck’s card-shark uses to reel in Fonda’s rich heir, a helpless stooge who finds himself ill-matched for a battle of the sexes. Contrivances gleefully compound as Fonda doubles down on his role as sucker – Stanwyck changing costume and accent to try her luck with him again – while Sturges slices through the tropes of romantic chaff, Muggsy always on hand to point out the obvious: “It’s the same dame!” Top tier.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Director Preston Sturges
“The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story. It would have been very easy to make a big finish either way, but one would have defeated the other. There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.”
Sturges fashions a tribute to the power of escapism in his tale of a Hollywood director, fed up with making disposable comedies, who takes to the streets to learn about real hardship as research for his next, serious picture. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is one of Sturges’ few protagonists who comes from a position of privilege but isn’t a chump, and there’s certainly a wry commentary at play as he satirises the inflated presumption of effectiveness held by liberal altruists. If the ending – suggesting that the poor just need to laugh – could be read as glib following a brilliantly conceived, wordless sequence in the slums, it remains one of Sturges’ finest directorial achievements, if also a case of trying to have his cake and eat it.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Director Preston Sturges
“The Palm Beach Story, incidentally, was conceived as an illustration of my theory of the aristocracy of beauty, or, as Claudette Colbert expressed it to Joel McCrea, ‘You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything…’”
Ever-willing to take hugely experimental conceptual leaps, Sturges begins The Palm Beach Story with one of his boldest coups. An entirely different movie – or at least the climax of one – seems to play out under the film’s opening credits, culminating in a wedding scene between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, that ‘film’ ending and the film proper beginning with a title card: “And they lived happily ever after… Or did they?” Jumping forward, Colbert legs it from Manhattan to Palm Beach, divorce on her mind, straight into the arms of an infatuated millionaire. Only Sturges could sell the manic plot turns that follow, while never losing sight of the compassion he affords even the biggest chumps.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Director Prston Sturges
“I received many letters, including bitterly denunciatory ones from analphabets who believed the sextuplets were the result of the heroine having been promiscuous with six different men. Education, though compulsory, seems to be spreading slowly. An entirely different type of letter was received from servicemen, who said that it was tough enough getting girls to go out with them without pictures like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which threw parents into a panic and kept girls at home.”
Sturges’ predilection for situational absurdity reaches it’s zenith in his inspiredly bonkers The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a film which accounts for a vast proportion of the director’s pratfall count, courtesy of William Demarest. Slinging mud in the eye of just about every conservative value held by the production code – as Betty Hutton’s Trudy Kockenlocker finds herself drunk on “lemonade”, knocked out, married and impregnated by an unknown GI – Sturges races down a dozen narrative dead-ends without pausing for breath. Not that it matters, given the zeal with which the improbabilities increase. It’s simply impossible not to fall hard for a film which ends with as insane a non sequitur as Hitler demanding a recount on news of the eponymous ‘miracle’ – Trudy’s delivery of sextuplets that sends her beau running and screaming for the door.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Director Preston Sturges
“The audiences laughed from the beginning to the end of the picture. And they went home with nothing. Because nothing had happened. He hadn’t killed her; he hadn’t killed himself. It just looked that way. The audiences ate my seven-course special and went home hungry.”
With his penultimate film – and one of his very best – Sturges serves up yet another example of structural audacity in his story of a conductor (Rex Harrison) scheming to take revenge on his apparently adulterous wife. Harrison cooks up three different scenarios, all played out in his mind as he leads his orchestra through Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, before putting his plans into action. Harrison brings an acerbic elegance to the table, while proving adept at Sturges’ more physical demands. It’s a fitting climax to the writer’s career-long examinations of male buffoonery and insecurity, and one can imagine Hitchcock being a fan of its wickedly macabre failed schemes.