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At long last, the films of Preston Sturges are out of cold storage. BBC Television has acquired most of the best (though not, for some reason, the matchlessly insouciant Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). Through the cooperation of the BBC and the copyright owners, the National Film Theatre mounted a Sturges season earlier this year. It would be an exaggeration to say that nobody came. Towards the end, word of mouth had done its usual work, and the audiences were at least respectable. One realised, however, that for all sorts of people Sturges had simply ceased to be one of the names that count. He died in 1959; he had directed only 12 films, eight of them during five intensely active years between 1940-1944. Yet the idea that his films should be in any need of rediscovery seems quite ludicrous: they are so dazzlingly, unequivocally there.

Seeing the films again was like resuming a conversation broken off a decade or more ago. They hadn’t dated at all, except for the clothes, and they hadn’t acquired any of the classic’s patina of respectability. The years had done nothing to make them more suitable for the textbooks. They were still just as proudly rumbustious, noisy, casual, bursting with intelligence and energy, as though their creator hadn’t died six years ago but had just strolled out of the projection room for a few minutes, to think up a new situation in which Franklin Pangborn could register the agonised despair of a shopwalker surrounded by kleptomaniacs, or William Demarest the growing mania of the one sane man who realises that all the rest are mad.

Preston Sturges

Sturges was one of those perversely talented people (John Huston is perhaps another) who achieve a kind of total professionalism, while at the same time contriving to suggest that their films have been tossed off more or less between drinks. He wrote some 15 scripts during the 30s, and finally persuaded Paramount to let him direct one of them (The Great McGinty, 1940) by offering it to the studio for a nominal ten dollars provided he could make it himself. He won an Oscar for it, and Paramount soon realised that they had a phenomenon on their hands and were producing awed and slightly nervous studio handouts about the man who “writes everything he directs”.

During the five productive years at Paramount he could do no wrong; which may be slightly more of a tribute than it seemed at the time to the solidarity of a major studio in its heyday. After 1944, certainly, nothing was quite the same. A partnership with Howard Hughes produced Mad Wednesday, with Harold Lloyd. He directed Unfaithfully Yours, a comedy which was nearly brilliant but not quite Sturges; then the less exhilarating The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend. There was a long silence, and then in 1955 came The Diaries of Major Thompson, with Jack Buchanan as an Englishman in Paris. It was Sturges’s last film, and it was sadly, defiantly unfunny, as though somewhere along the line the mainspring of that perfect comedy timing had snapped.

He must be one of the few filmmakers ever to have been publicly psychoanalysed by a critic. The critic was James Agee, who wrote of Sturges with a kind of nagging, apprehensive affection, generous towards his talent but continually disturbed by his apparent lack of conscience. Sturges had had a quite extraordinary childhood, with a mother who sent him to school in Chicago dressed in a Greek tunic, and later dragged him on resolutely cultural jaunts around Europe. When Preston was sixteen, she installed him as manager of the Deanville branch of her cosmetics business. Sturges, a passionate gadgeteer who is also credited with inventions ranging from a library filing system to a vertical flight aircraft, is said to have rewarded her by devising the first kissproof lipstick. The much-married mother (Sturges took the surname of one of his stepfathers, an amiable Chicago businessman) liked to claim descent from the d’Estes and started her business, the Maison Desti, to market a face cream which reached her by way of another husband, the son of the Turkish court doctor. None of it sounds probable; apparently it all happened. Rather later in her career, she lent Isadora Duncan the scarf which, wound too casually, got caught up in a car wheel and snapped back to break the dancer’s neck.

The Great McGinty (1940)

Agee’s theory was that out of all this Sturges developed “a permanently incurable loathing for anything that stank of ‘culture’ ” and “an all but desperate respect and hunger for success which… again assumed the dimensions of a complex”. Of the films Agee wrote: “They seem to me wonderfully, uncontrollably, almost proudly corrupt, vengeful, fearful of intactness and self-commitment… their mastering object, aside from success, seems to be to sail as steep into the wind as possible without for an instant incurring the disaster of becoming seriously, wholly acceptable as art. They seem… the elaborately counterpointed image of a neurosis.” This was in The Nation. Writing less analytically in Time, Agee risked one of the more idiotic speculations that can ever have been made by a great critic: “It remains to be seen what Sturges might do with really major material, such as Seven Against Thebes or the Oberammergau Players.”

Happily, we never found out. This extraordinary suggestion apart, however, it isn’t too difficult to understand the nature of Agee’s concern. Part of Sturges’s wayward brilliance lay in an eel-like ability to wriggle out of any tight corner ever set him by a picture. He appears to have allowed a plot to handcuff him and tie him down; he appears to have reached the moment when he must reward Agee by turning serious. And then there’s a great convulsion, and Houdini/Sturges is free again. Like Hitchcock, the other great showman, he seems to have felt total confidence in his ability to manipulate an audience, together with a small, genial contempt for the people who allowed him to run such rings round them.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The last reels of Sturges’s pictures add up to a whole series of spectacular volte-faces, always designed to reward the characters on their own terms. The Palm Beach Story, for instance, is a romantic comedy about a wife (Claudette Colbert) on the run from her loving husband. On the train to Florida, she encounters, by stepping firmly on his face, one of the most engaging characters Sturges ever invented. This is Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a wistful, melancholy multimillionaire, whose generous impulses are always being curbed by some vestigial family instinct for keeping a watch on his small change. His days are spent in recording (but not adding up: that would be pointless) his tips and taxi-fares in a little notebook. While Miss Colbert looks greedily on, he gravely weighs up the merits of the 50 cent or the 75 cent breakfast. Peering out from behind the towering barricades of his money, he sadly notes “One of the tragedies of this life: that the men who are most in need of a beating are always enormous.” Sturges uses him cruelly. Hackensacker’s serenading of the heroine, with full orchestra stationed in the garden, is the occasion for her romantic reconciliation with her husband. But the last sequence relents. Wife and husband produce an identical twin sister and brother (one for Hackensacker; one for his sister, Mary Astor), so that everyone gets what they think they want.

What so exasperated Agee was Sturges’s extension of this gay opportunism into more serious areas. The supremely equivocal ending of Hail the Conquering Hero is a case in point. Here, at the height of the war, Sturges had the temerity to question such things as mother love, the U.S. Marines, and the nervous respect paid by civilians to the returning combat veteran. The leading character is Woodrow Truesmith, son of a first war hero, and brought up to venerate the Marines above all else. When he is discharged from the Corps because of hay fever, he is so scared of telling his mother that he takes a job in a shipyard and pretends to be on overseas service. Six Marines, one of them suffering from the most pronounced mother complex on record, befriend Woodrow and take him home. Hideously, they find that the town has laid on a hero’s welcome, with Franklin Pangborn in distracted command of four competing bands. Worse still, the solid citizens insist on drafting Woodrow as their candidate for mayor. His final embarrassed confession brings the town down on his heels like a lynch mob. But they only look like a lynch mob: in fact they love him more than ever, and deliriously acclaim their truthful mayor.

This ending has been interpreted as a really catastrophic sell-out, with Mother and the Marines triumphant, simple honesty vindicated, and hardly a dry eye in the house. Or, equally validly, since the scenes are shot both with and against the grain of their content, it has been seen as an expression of a basic contempt. There is no pretence that a town which would elect poor, blundering Woodrow is anything but out of its mind; and consequently this is only a happy ending if you think it is. Woodrow certainly thinks so, and Sturges enjoys rewarding his heroes far beyond their just deserts, but up to the level of their dreams. His films fade out into a series of Cheshire cat grins: not the expression on the face of the work “wholly acceptable as art”.

Agee thought that Sturges’s childhood had a lot to answer for. But if one feels like following him in this risky attempt to explain an artist in terms of his upbringing, one might find other and more sympathetic clues. Sturges was born in 1898, and he got all this European education, and the detested museum tours, between about 1906 and 1914. It becomes tempting, in the light of these dates, to see it all as one of those great Jamesian expeditions, with the innocents setting sail from Chicago to bring home the cultural loot of the old world. Take it a little further back in time, and you have the perfect image: Preston in his Greek tunic matched against the bored little boy in Daisy Miller who says so crossly, “My father ain’t in Europe; he’s in a better place than Europe.” Schenectady, not Heaven.

In any case, several things do seem to stand out from Sturges’s films. Although only two of them (those starring Eddie Bracken) are actually set in the classic American small town, one’s overriding impression is of this genial, comfortable, more than slightly ridiculous small town world. In Sullivan’s Travels, he even made Hollywood look conspicuously more run down and homely than one usually sees it. Partly this may be due to his company of small part actors, who all seem to know each other so well, and to make such allowances for each others’ quirks, that they travel from film to film like a collection of indulgent, gossiping neighbours. But the Sturges town itself belongs to some period much earlier than the 1940s: it is like some childhood recollection brought hazily to life on the Paramount lot, as though in his ideas of America Sturges had somehow skipped a generation.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Paradoxically, it is this time-lag, this feeling that Griffith’s idyllic Americana has somehow got cluttered up with jukeboxes, lunch-counters, Forties hair styles and the U.S. Marines, that makes Sturges’s films seem so dateless now. Eddie Bracken, the tormented innocent of Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, is more naive than any 40s character had any conceivable right to be; but he is, in his wistful determination to do the right thing, very like someone out of a silent comedy. Even Sturges’s language, with its mixture of slang, repetitions, gibbering hesitations, and entirely formal turns of speech, is quite timeless. Above all the racket of a Sturges film, voices can be heard talking in the relaxed, balanced aphorisms of the classic English stage comedy. “Let us be crooked but never common,” is the motto of the con man in The Lady Eve. “Chivalry is not only dead; it is decomposed,” laments Hackensacker III. “Rich people, and theorists are usually rich people, think of poverty only in the negative,” says the Wildean butler of Sullivan’s Travels. “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find it glamorous.”

It is this timelessness which seems to me to give his films their free-wheeling assurance and their conjuror’s freedom of action. The links with reality are deliberately kept tenuous. Take, for instance, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The film’s heroine, Gertrude Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is the volatile daughter of the local policeman, who contrives during one night to meet, marry, become pregnant by, and irrevocably mislay a soldier about whom she remembers only that his name may be something like Ratsky-Watsky. (Only in a Sturges film could one find a family named Kockenlocker gravely debating whether someone else could possibly be called Ratsky-Watsky.) Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), already pining for the military glory that eludes him in Hail the Conquering Hero, is summoned to the rescue. Dressed in a borrowed 1914 uniform, like some lunatic fugitive from Shoulder Arms, he gallantly sets out to provide Trudy with a marriage licence in the name of Ratsky-Watsky. Arrest; wild confusion; wonderfully funny mock jail-break, with constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest) doing everything but order Norval out of his jail, Norval refusing to see that he is being invited to escape, and the two Kockenlocker daughters arriving with their own rescue equipment, in the form of ropes and spades. Then comes one of Sturges’s sentimental interludes, with Kockenlocker banging crossly away at a Christmas tree star but pausing to remind Trudy, very seriously, of the stable in Bethlehem. And then the pandemonium of the ending, with Trudy producing sextuplets, bedlam let loose in the hospital, and headlines (“Canada Protests”, “Hitler Demands Recount”) flashing on and off.

The ‘miracle’ makes everyone happy: it is frantic, absurd and rather touching, and it allows Sturges to play his favourite trick of flinging a film into such total chaos, as though all the characters were being swept off their feet by a tidal wave, that he can get away with practically anything. In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek he employs most, if not quite all, his range of moods; and each of them remains valid for precisely as long as it lasts on the screen. Scenes between Norval and Trudy, mostly played out in wistful or irate dialogues as they walk through the classic small town streets, with the neighbours perched watchfully on their porches, have a genuine tenderness. The wedding sequence, with the justice of the peace (Porter Hall) roused from sleep to stumble peevishly through the ceremony, while his beaming wife stands by in her dressing-gown, is sad and foolish, toppling over into absurdity when Porter Hall whips out an ancient blunderbuss. In the middle of all this is the rock-solid figure of William Demarest, a gallant Puritan who doesn’t see why his daughter should want to go out with soldiers, and who insists on standing no nonsense until nonsense overwhelms him.

By the end, nobody on or off screen is encouraged to remember that Norval is not the father of the sextuplets, and that this final masquerade is the most painfully ludicrous of any he has been asked to endure. This, too, is characteristic: if there is one consistent element running through Sturges’s films, it is a view of life as some gigantic game of false pretences. In his first film, The Great McGinty (originally written seven years before he filmed it), the hero is a tramp (Brian Donlevy) who ingratiates himself with the boss of a political machine by voting some 40 times, at two dollars a time, in a local election. Under the boss’s patronage he finally achieves the Governor’s mansion. Marriage to a charming prig, however, has undermined him, and it is the rogue’s attempt to play the honest man that brings about his downfall. In Christmas in July (also 1940), a young clerk is tricked into believing that he has won $25,000 in a coffee company’s slogan competition. (His terrible slogan – “lf you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk” – is repeated so insistently, and in so many contexts, that it acquires all the maddening force of an incantation.) This supposed success changes his life: he becomes the sort of man who wins $25,000. And the Sturges twist, after the trick has been revealed and he is left in the debris of his imaginary fortune, is that he wins the contest after all.

Easy Living (1937)

Right you are if they think you are: that is the fairly explicit point of all these masquerades. A tramp becomes state governor; a booby is elected mayor; a clerk emerges from anonymity to an office with his name on the door; a girl’s life changes (in Easy Living, one of the 30s scripts) when she acquires a fur coat and finds everyone expecting her to live up to it. Likeable buffoons are whirled into fantastic impostures, go through them in a state of quaking terror, and usually come out on top. But Sturges, unlike Capra, never uses his barnstorming finales as a means of suggesting that guileless virtue may defeat entrenched corruption. In his films, the victory is more likely to go to plain human silliness and gullibility; and that presumably is what a good liberal like James Agee couldn’t stand. In one biting comment he called Sturges a coward, a snob and a cynic. But you can’t accuse a man of lacking the courage of his convictions, when his main conviction would seem to have been that in this game of deception anyone can win.

In the best critical article I know on Sturges (Film Culture, Fall 1962) Manny Farber and W. S. Poster comment that: ”The first impression one gets from a Sturges movie is that of the inside of a Ford assembly line smashed together and operating during a total war crisis.” This very American comparison comes in the context of an article which sees Sturges’s work as “an extreme embodiment of the American success dream” and analyses his suspect cynicism as “the highly self-conscious philosophy of the hack”. It makes a useful antidote to Agee’s reproaches, and a more sophisticated approach to the problem of coping with Sturges’s equivocations. As for the speed and confusion that make up the surface of a Sturges film, I would choose a more European comparison. To me the impression is rather of an old-fashioned coach business adapting itself in a flurry of urgent incompetence to the demands of the motor car, while a collection of cross-grained Dickensian minor characters stand grumbling in corners, convinced that no good will come of anything if they haven’t personally approved it.

Never less than middle-aged, sometimes seeming almost dangerously advanced into senility, the members of the Sturges stock company show a marvellous capacity to stand the pace, like so many Edwardian grandfathers dancing their juniors into the ground. There is Raymond Walburn, the proud embodiment of inane gravity, forever rehearsing his acceptance speech as mayor, or realising with horror that he has just given away $25,000 to a total stranger; little Jimmy Conlin, the tiny, spectacled old man, usually bouncing between two larger figures, like a highland terrier warding off two Alsatians; Robert Greig, the butler frozen in eternal disapproval of his delinquent employers; Franklin Pangborn, of the despairing gestures and the prim manner; Torben Meyer, glittering of eye and wild of accent; Georgia Caine, beaming mother or flirtatious widow.

Many of them turn up among the members of the Ale and Quail Club, that immortal group of ageing sportsmen encountered by Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story. With timid gallantry, and a proper show of decorum on both sides, they buy Miss Colbert’s train ticket. But the excitement of the occasion overcomes them. Soon the sporting guns are out, the howling dogs are released from the luggage van, and the Black barman, with an ice bucket over his head and the white towel of surrender in his hand, waves feebly over the top of his bar as the millionaire huntsmen take pot shots through the train window. Chaos rages up and down the train; a posse of Pullman attendants moves in with cries of “Misdemeanour”; and the great American clubmen, still shooting up the night, are abandoned in a railway siding.

Sturges’s affection for these rich, battered relics, cast up on the further shores of middle age, is extended to almost all his minor characters. They are old and odd, spry and bumbling, firmly entrenched in their own concerns and – when not reduced to baffled, helpless speechlessness – given to a fierce articulacy. They form an American chorus, standing by while the hero falls over his own feet, gets tangled up in political intrigue, or learns the full horror of the wiles practised on him by the girl he loves.

The Lady Eve (1941)

A press handout for The Lady Eve describes in gloating detail what Sturges could do to one of his innocent young men. Henry Fonda in this film “twice trips over Miss Stanwyck’s trim legs and knocks down a tray-bearing waiter; falls over a sofa and lands in a platter of hors d’oeuvres; trips and drags box portieres (curtains) crashing down on his head; gets a huge hunk of roast beef and gravy dropped into his lap; is drenched with hot coffee; sits down in a mud puddle during a rainstorm; is conked on the head by a falling hatbox; is nuzzled and licked on the neck by a horse”. All these things certainly happen, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the handout had forgotten one or two more. There are moments when Sturges seems to feel that the only thing funnier than a man falling flat on his face is a man dragging the curtains down with him. Bracken falls; Joel McCrea falls; and Fonda, whose placid love affair with a snake is interrupted by the appearance of Barbara Stanwyck, a cool card-sharper of the Transatlantic liners, falls most often of all. He seems to be forever retreating sadly to change his clothes, while Miss Stanwyck, masquerading as Lady Eve Sidwich (“I’ve been English before,” she says crossly when asked if she can manage the accent), looks remorselessly on.

If such basic slapstick needs justification, it finds it in the speed of the films. “A Capra, Wilder or Wellman takes half a movie to get a plot to the point where the audience accepts it and it comes to cinematic life. Sturges often accomplished as much in the first two minutes,” wrote Manny Farber in the article already quoted. He could even achieve it before the movie starts at all, as in the action that goes on behind the credit titles of The Palm Beach Story. Here bride and groom hurtle in fantastic disarray towards the altar; a maid keeps fainting dead away at the telephone; and the effect is of action that could sustain the average comedy for a good half-hour compressed into two absurd, lightning minutes. Sturges wasn’t a particularly inventive filmmaker: he liked to keep a scene in medium two-shot, moving into close-up on key dialogue; his settings did their job, but they seldom strike the eye. But he knew everything about comic timing, and how to play a scene so that the impression is of unfaltering action, a steady flow of bustling, breathless movement which seems to be held just on the point where it threatens to break out of the frame.

The Lady Eve (1941)

The essence of such a filmmaker is that he should never be seen to be exerting himself. Lines flash by, half-heard; satirical comment must be caught on the wing; nothing is made too coherent or consistent, so that a heartless charmer like Barbara Stanwyck’s Lady Eve can inflict atrocious wounds without the audience quite realising what she is doing or losing their regard for her. There is one film, however, in which Sturges very nearly came out into the open: Sullivan’s Travels.

It opens, in Sturges’s most allusive and involving style, with a fight between two men on the roof of a speeding train. Almost immediately, up comes an end title. We are in a Hollywood viewing theatre, watching the latest film of a comedy director making a more or less desperate effort to go straight; and the fight, as he angrily explains, is symbolic of Capital versus Labour. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to film a novel called ‘Brother, Where Art Thou?’, while the studio bosses want only a repetition of ‘Hey, Hey in the Hayloft’ or ‘Ants in Their Pants of 1939’. Goaded by their insistence that he doesn’t know the meaning of poverty, Sullivan borrows a tramp outfit from the wardrobe department and takes to the road to find out. Behind him, at a barely discreet distance, creeps a vast studio bus, with doctor, chef, secretary, bodyguard and publicity men, all under orders to watch over the great director.

It is a wonderfully succinct opening, as fast and economical as anything Sturges ever achieved, and it leads into a series of absurd adventures, as Sullivan tries vainly to break with Hollywood. Running away from two over-kindly ladies whose liking for having a man about the house verges on the alarming, he gets a lift straight back to his starting point. Here he picks up Veronica Lake, coolest and quietest of the Sturges heroines, as a failed actress who can think of no greater present than an introduction to Lubitsch. “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie for driving you out into the open,” she insists, when Sullivan tries to tell her that in a suffering world a director ought not to be making ‘Ants in Their Pants of 1941’. Together they set off to sample poverty, first getting the butler to check with the booking-office where a tramp might properly be expected to board a freight train.

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Slowly, Sturges begins to modulate the film’s tone. The rich boy’s search for the poor no longer seems quite so ludicrous; and it becomes something entirely different when Sullivan is robbed in a freight yard, attacks a railway policeman, and winds up in a Southern chain gang. Again, the point is one of identity – of who other people think you are. Once Sullivan is recognised, he could have hit ten policemen and no one would keep him locked up. In the meantime, however, Sturges has put everything he knows (and a curious everything it is) into the theatrical, fanciful, maddening and effective staging of his key scene. As a treat, the convicts are taken to a film show in a Black church hall, where the minister instructs his tattered congregation on their welcome to those “less fortunate than we are”. Through the mists around the hall, the men advance to a rhythm of clanking chains. Inside, they and the congregation join in wild laughter at a Disney cartoon. Back in Hollywood, Sullivan confounds his bosses and dismisses ‘Brother, Where Art Thou?’: he now knows that he wants to make people laugh.

As a comedy director’s apologia this is notably unconvincing – for the reason that any director who went into comedy with a sense of mission would probably make some terrible movies. And even at its face value, the scene of the laughing convicts has a kind of hysteria, a strained convulsive agony of mirth. Was Sturges here showing us the heart Agee suspected he hadn’t got? Or was he simply playing with an idea, and barnstorming it through when it got too hot to handle? Because Sturges was the great equivocator, we never quite trust him. He has trained us to keep up our guard against his own seriousness.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

In all its details, Sullivan’s Travels is beautifully organised. The gossiping studio staff, boxed up in their absurd bus; Sullivan’s two butlers, so deeply distrustful of the whole adventure; Veronica Lake, chirping cool jokes from behind that wave of hair; Sullivan’s terrible wife, laying flowers on his supposed grave with a gesture of frozen boredom; Jimmy Conlin, the trusty in the labour camp determined to get the recalcitrant Sullivan to the picture show – these are all among Sturges’s best inventions. And the feeling of movement, of freight trains trundling through the night, makes this a very specifically American adventure.

When it came to the point, however, Sturges didn’t know what to do with the poor. He sentimentalises them, as Sullivan and the girl wander among the down-and-outs, and at the same time he is scared of them. He doesn’t want to get too close; and so he falls back on mist, distance and romantic music, with only the publicity cameraman, busily recording Sullivan’s progress from a vantage point in a tree, to hold the film in contact with its satiric intention. Faced with something extremely simple to put across – the real thing, as opposed to Sullivan’s hopelessly romantic view of it – his machinery of expression simply collapsed under him.

It is a very interesting collapse, because it reveals Sturges face to face with his own limitations. His defences were built up in depth; his favourite approach was the oblique and glancing one, with all the retreats into burlesque left open. His films give the impression of running on sheer, undiluted nervous energy rather than on thought. Confronted with an idea to be followed straight through, Sturges brought his elaborate defence mechanisms into play. Yet for a man who is supposed to have thought only of success, he was extraordinarily preoccupied with the byways of failure, with age and decay, and that wistful realisation of their own uselessness that suddenly hits his most sympathetic characters. His films are sometimes nearly serious, and always wildly funny. Perhaps the key scene in a Sturges movie is really an earlier one in Sullivan’s Travels, when the director goes to another rural film show. There are the howling babies, the popcorn-chewing children, the snoring farmers, the tired, apathetic, misty faces – and among them the Hollywood aristocrat, dressed in a borrowed suit of clothes, confronting the ultimate object and purpose of it all: the audience.