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Preston Sturges


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It is a scene that takes place in the small-town setting relished by Frank Capra, the director whose films unabashedly celebrate American virtues. A father is having a heart-to-heart talk with a potential son-in-law about his daughters: "Let me tell you," he says, "they're a mess no matter how you look at 'em, a headache till they get married-if they get married-and after that, they get worse .... Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guestroom or their husband loses his job and the whole caboodle comes back."

We are, clearly, not in the world of Capra, but, instead, in the realm of Preston Sturges, the savvy yet sentimental realist who wrote and directed eight cinema classics in only four years, each toppling one sacred cow after another. It is a world rich in witty dialogue and slapstick, in romantic interludes and tirades.

No other movie director had a style – or a life – quite like Sturges's, and, for whatever reason, 1991 seems to have brought a burst of Prestomania: MCA/Universal has released Hail the Conquering Hero and The Great Moment on videotape; CBS/Fox has issued The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend; Sandy Sturges, the director's widow, has adapted and edited his memoirs (originally titled The Events Leading Up to My Death); and a new biography is in bookstores, Madcap: A Life of Preston Sturges, by Donald Spoto.

sites/default/files/Unknown-2.jpegBorn Edmund Preston Biden in 1898 (he later took the name of his stepfather, Solomon Sturges), Sturges spent his first 16 years traveling throughout Europe and America with his mother and her friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan. From age 16 to his mid-30s, his life was as fast-paced and changeable as some of his later movies. He became a flyer in the Army Air Service, a songwriter, and the manager of his mother's cosmetics company. He ran a restaurant, created kiss-proof lipstick, and invented an early mimeograph device. He had dramatic ups and downs, and by his 40th birthday was collecting $1,000 a week as a screenwriter. Yet he yearned to direct, calling it "the only job worth having."

A Not-So-Wonderful Life

He soon became Hollywood's first hyphenated writer-director. His initial picture, The Great McGinty (1940), was a smash, earning Sturges an Academy Award and the right to make seven more films in four years. Most about wild success and failure, something he knew well: When he became a playwright at the age of 31, he had a huge Broadway hit, followed by three equally huge flops. By 1948 the IRS had labeled him the third-highest-paid man in America, but in 1959 he died broke, his last three films disasters.

If his life was unusual, so were his movies, an odd mixture of erudite dialogue and lowbrow pratfalls. In a typical Sturges script, a little guy has "greatness thrust upon him" through incredible luck, an accident, or a well-meaning lie. He is then set up for a fall, watching as events spin out of control. In The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) and Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) attempt to untangle an ever-growing mess, which has been precipitated by Trudy's spending the night dancing with a group of soldiers. She is pregnant but doesn't remember the name of the father ("Ratsky Ratsky, or something like that," says she) or where and if she was married. Things go from bad to nightmarish before it is all resolved by a typically Sturgian deus ex machina.

Anything goes in Sturges, and his plots are punctuated by circuitous smart-guy dialogue, often delivered at a dizzying pace (He: "I thought he was kind of uneven"; She: "He's more uneven some times than others"; He: "Well, that's what makes him uneven"); by bizarre barbs ("I need him like the ax needs the turkey"); brilliant aphorisms ("Chivalry is not only dead, it is decomposed"); and off-the-wall metaphors (He: "You can't ignore it anymore than you can ... "; She: " ... a horse in a bedroom?").sites/default/files/Unknown-1.jpeg

Eleven Rules

Above all, the films have a literacy rare in Hollywood-a chauffeur explaining the term "paraphrase," or a politician debating the proper use of compound subjects-and yet they also feature the wildest collection of prat:g falls this side of the Three Stooges. Sturges once concocted a list of 11 rules for box office appeal, which neatly summed up his freewheeling approach. According to him: (1) A pretty girl is better than an ugly one. (2) A leg is better than an arm. (3) A bedroom is better than a living room. (4) An arrival is better than a departure. (5) A birth is better than a death. (6) A chase is better than a chat. (7) A dog is better than a landscape. (8) A kitten is better than a dog. (9) A baby is better than a kitten. (10) A kiss is better than a baby. (11) A pratfall is better than anything.

He left out his love for the little guys-the oddball eccentrics who populate his films, such as the detective in Unfaithfully Yours (Edgar Kennedy), who becomes passionate about classical music ("No one handles Handel the way you handle Handel!"). Or the wealthy hot-dog manufacturer (Robert Dudley) in The Palm Beach Story who doesn't hear well, but speaks to the point: "I invented the Texas Wienie. Lay off them – you'll live longer."

In Sturges's best work, the stars may be the focus but the supporting players supply the texture. As critic Andrew Sarris observed: "Sturges created a world of peripheral professionals – politicians, gangsters, executives, bartenders, cabdrivers, secretaries, bookies, cardsharps, movie producers, doctors, dentists, bodyguards, butlers, inventors, millionaires, and derelicts. These were not the usual flotsam and jetsam of Hollywood cinema, but self-expressive cameos of aggressive individualism."

sites/default/files/Unknown_0.jpegA Repertory Company

From the blustery Raymond Walburn to the nasal Al Bridge, the whiny Jimmy Conlin to the pompous Franklin Pangborn, Sturges's people are very distinct types. Although he had a group of ten actors he constantly used, none was more consistently entertaining than gruff, thick-headed William Demarest. As the politician in The Great McGinty, he delivers topsy-turvy insights ("They forget that if it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics"), and as the Amazon explorer Muggsy in The Lady Eve, he offers nothing but disgust for the effete eating habits of the rich ("Give me a spoonful of milk, a raw pigeon's egg, and four horseflies. If you can't catch any, I'll settle for a cockroach.").

There are also marvelous one-shot appearances: Akim Tamiroff as the flamboyant political boss in McGinty ("In this town, I'm all parties. You think I'm going to starve every time they change administrations?"); Charles Coburn as the suave cardsharp in Eve ("Let us be crooked but never common"); Diana Lynn as the savvy daughter in Miracle ("Father, you have a mind like a swamp"); Rex Harrison as the excitable concert conductor in Unfaithfully Yours ("You dare to inform me that you have had vulgar footpads in snapbrim fedoras sluicing after my beautiful wife?"); Mary Astor ("I grow on people. Like moss.") and Rudy Vallee ("[He] might be her tailor, too; she goes out with anything.") as the zany brother and sister millionaires of Palm Beach; and Eugene Pallette as the clearheaded brewer in Eve (Woman: "Anybody's apt to trip"; Pallette: "Not over a sofa!").

And the plots: Only in a Sturges production would you see a film about a dumb advertising slogan ("If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk") or a comedy director of such fictitious hits as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 wanting to make a drama called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Only in Sturges, too, would marriage be labeled as unnecessary (The Palm Beach Story), heroes a sham (Hail the Conquering Hero), and small towns hotbeds of unthinking prejudice (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek).

In Sturges' films, however, cynicism can quickly tum misty and the satire sentimental. "Fish and guests stink after three days," he once wrote. "Your wife isn't a guest, but she definitely is a part of you-your other half, for better or worse ... and you die without her." His romanticism is constantly battling with his cynicism and that struggle is what gives Sturges's best work a powerful, unique resonance. When all the pratfalls are over and the smart lines done, it is the romance that remains. "Why didn't you take me in your arms that day? Why did you let me go?" cries Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) to her lover Charles (Henry Fonda) at the conclusion of The Lady Eve. "Why did we have to go through all this nonsense? Don't you know you're the only man I ever loved? Don't you know I couldn't look at another man if I wanted to? Don't you know I waited all my life for you ... you big mug?" •

FEBRUARY 1991 DIVERSION