Holiday with Preston Sturges
While too often wartime Hollywood put out plots that were as predictable and shelf-ready as the Dewey Decimal System, Preston Sturges was penning sparkling, matchless dialogue and conjuring wild-goose scenarios that ducked easy classification. From 1939-43, Sturges was cinema’s modern-day Midas, mining comedic gold from a mind full of Hays-Code-affronting what-ifs. What if teenage Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) carouses with a band of single-minded marines, drives drunk, has a one-night stand, and discovers that she’s pregnant with a long-gone private whose name might or might not be Ratzkywatzky (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek)? Or how about a rollicking takedown of patriotism during World War II in which a hay-fevered hero named Woodrow… Lafayette…Pershing… Truesmith (Michael Cera’s excitable forerunner, Eddie Bracken) returns to his gung-ho hometown with a few only-in-movies war stories and the backup of six sympathetic marines (Hail the Conquering Hero)? These bold-print premises from the Shakespeare of screwball comedy return to Film Forum on Christmas Eve as fresh, witty, and allergic to the ordinary, yes-sir narrative as the day of their unleashing 60-odd years ago.
Sturges’ ascent to the studio system’s Capra-pocked heights began while bedridden with a ruptured appendix; surely he was looking ceiling-ward when he proclaimed himself a forthcoming playwright. From most, such said-and-done moxie would resound in the Oh-Psh range—between overprotected and preposterous. But after a childhood spent pingponging between America and Europe and hobnobbing with mom’s chums (occultist Aleister Crowley, Isadora “Modern Dance” Duncan), Sturges was groomed, as he would later quote at the end of Morgan’s Creek, to “achieve greatness” rather than “have greatness thrust upon” him. Starting with the aptly titled The Guinea Pig, he achieved that sketched-out greatness along the Great White Way. He would then refine his famous rat-a-tat-tat repartee by writing screenplays, including screwballs for the underrated Mitchell Leisen, and The Power and the Glory, a flashback-filtered climb to the top floor with Spencer Tracy that Citizen Kane would later cite as a blueprint. Sturges’ final credit beside “written by,” however, was in Leisen’s Remember the Night, which, along with his Cinderella-in-the-city romcom Easy Living, comprises the series’ two Sturges-as-screenwriter entries.
Sick of the second-hand treatment given to his dialogue, Sturges would—in 1939—sell the script for his caustic satire on our look-for-loopholes politicians, The Great McGinty, to Paramount Pictures for $1 (upped to $10 for legal purposes) in exchange for directing rights. Bagging the first-ever Oscar for Original Screenplay, The Great McGinty marked the beginning of the fabled five-year run that even the quota-strict Soviets would envy—a creative outpouring that (like Bob Dylan and his amphetamine-addled burst in the mid-Sixties) produced several candidates for G.O.A.T. consideration in the comedy genre: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. In each, Sturges, like a latter-day Pharaoh, stacks miscommunication and mistaken identities into an Egyptian monument of beautifully orchestrated excess. Whether Sturges satirizes the American Dream, marriage, underage/unplanned pregnancy, patriotism, or his raison d’être for filmmaking, each reel exhibits the same rich, frenzied blend of 100 wpm back-and-forths, perfectly-executed pratfalls, narrative surprises both clever and ridiculous (i.e. a mooing cow), and a smattering of social comment. Of course, Sturges’ rhapsodic dialogue is his claim to for-all-time fame—a heady, high-low lexicon stocked with malaprops, witty quips, slangy mouthfuls, sweet nothings, and absurd declarations. A Sturges conman is eloquent enough to spout, “let us be crooked, but never common.”
Of all the director’s AFI-certified smash-hits, Film Forum opens “Essential Sturges”—a series dedicated to his late 4th wife Sandy—with his most underrated classic, Christmas in July. The equivalent of a Sturges’ B-side, it condenses—into 67 sweet, satiric minutes—the Hatfield-and-McCoy conflict between idealism and dollar-sign cynicism that looms over his oeuvre. Musical-habitué Dick Powell stars as the office clerk who, thanks a few larky coworkers, believes that his catchphrase for a coffee company—“If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee…it’s the bunk!”—has won the $25,000 prize. Sturges’ typically ambivalent treatment of the love-trumps-money tale echoes in the series’ concluding two-for: The Palm Beach Story, a brisk, battle-of-the-sexes farce about love, marriage, and bottom-lines with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, and the consummate screwball comedy, The Lady Eve. The latter features Henry Fonda as the well-heeled, bookish herpetologist who goes gaga for Barbara Stanwyck’s charming, cunning ingénue—an improbable romance that famously climaxes with Stanwyck’s risible recount of past amours, each bogus name crosscut with a suggestive, tunnel-entering train. In Sturges’ equal-opportunity world, Colbert and Stanwyck’s dishonesty becomes a character benefit rather than a detriment: it’s not what you’ve done, but what you say you’ve done.
Sturges’ career capstone, though, might be his playful 1942 film-about-a-film, Sullivan’s Travels, in which the director explores the popular artist’s duty to the paying public. Joel McCrea plays the Sturges stand-in who wants to stop making escapist entertainment—like the Busby Berkeley-invoking Ants of 1933—in order to produce a movie-with-a-message, O, Brother Where Art Thou? But to conjure something with “social significance,” the mansion-residing McCrea embarks on an art-and-life-informing odyssey among the hoi polloi with the usual Sturges mischief, like a stint on a chain gang or poor Veronica Lake as the down-and-out siren. With the Great Depression in collective memory, Sullivan’s Travels stands as the golden boy’s clever, polyphonic contribution to the cause (which he states at the beginning of the feel-good classic): simply, to make you laugh your worries away.
Of course, as we’ve seen with the economy of late, after the bubble comes the bust. Sturges fell into the caution-taped area for has-beens with several flops, breaking the unwanted streak once with his brilliant black-and-bitter comedy, Unfaithfully Yours. Adapted from the 1933 short story that Sturges hoped would lead to his directorial debut, “Symphony Space,” the madcap concerto spotlights a famous, razor-witted conductor (Rex Harrison parodying Sir Thomas Beecham) who, in between volleying verbose barbs, reckons that his young wife has made him a cuckold. While orchestrating Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, Harrison envisions some truly rapturous scenes to resolve the hearsay (murder, money, and Russian roulette, respectively), but executing his schemes becomes an exercise in slapstick—albeit one with dark undertones. It’s his final salute to his self-declared rule: “that a pratfall is better than anything.”