Expanding the Legacy of Preston Sturges, American Cinema’s Greatest Comic Genius

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Today is the birthday of the greatest American comic auteur of the post-silent era Preston Sturges (1898-1959). Hear me now and believe me later, as Hans and Franz used to say: Sturges REMAINS the greatest comic auteur since the heyday of Chaplin, unequaled and unsurpassed.

Who else would you substitute? Of his own era, Capra comes closest, but though he had a strong vision, Capra didn’t write his own scripts. I also feel that that though comedy was generally the fabric of his movies, the structure and the primary point of Capra’s films was dramatic and quite serious. Hawks or Wyler or Wilder? Nah, they’re not comic auteurs, they’re great directors who sometimes made excellent comedies. Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd don’t count; though they made talkies we can’t really say they were creatures of the talking era.  W.C. Fields is certainly in the running, but though he starred in his pictures and wrote them, he seldom did more than co-direct with a partner, and then only occasionally. The same goes for Mae West, and she didn’t even direct. After them comes the late, lamented Jerry Lewis, and if you scoff at calling Lewis a comedy auteur within my hearing you’ll get a tongue lashing! Jerry’s direction is his strongest suit in fact — always highly original and always technically excellent. We can’t ignore his performances though, which though they occasionally achieved flights of brilliance could more often be categorized as undisciplined and self-indulgent. His screenplays are perhaps his weakest element — often quite clever and original in the architecture and story ideas, but with dialogue that can’t be spoken of in the same sentence with America’s great playwrights and screenwriters.

A much stronger case can be made for Woody Allen; in fact you might debate me there and possibly win. I have great respect for Allen’s art, but there are a few reasons why I would privilege Sturges over him. One has to do with physical action. Great comedy cinema needs it (I feel), at least some of it. Most of Allen’s comedies are dialogue driven, which is fine, he writes terrific dialogue. But cinema is ultimately about action, at least in part, and comedy action in his films is fairly rare these days. Secondly, Allen’s touch is heavy. His work shows the influence of writers like Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman. Again, that’s valid, he is allowed to express himself in his own unique way (which I wouldn’t change for the world, for I love most of his movies), but at the moment we are discussing America’s ranking comic auteur.  Traditionally, the art of comedy (even when satirical) is invested with a certain, almost Italianate spirit of lightness (rather than a Germanic spirit of grim death). In Sturges I can detect echoes of Moliere, of Shakespeare’s comedies, of Carnival, of Fairy Tales. And lastly (I feel) that American comedy should strongly embrace the point of view of the Common Man, if such a thing exists any more. Allen’s characters are all rich people. Sturges’s characters, while often rich, always know the name of their bartender, and, if the need arises, are only too happy to walk behind the bar and serve drinks themselves. At least I get that feeling. (Sturges rubbed elbows with both classes: his mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was an aspiring singer who ran in Bohemian circles. His stepfathers tended to be her wealthy pigeons: one, the one from whom the director took his surname, was a stock broker; another owned a store. Sturges worked in both businesses before going into the theatre. He also spent much of in his youth in France, a MAJOR influence on his work, and as we all know the French invented screen comedy. You’d be wrong to read cultural pretension into his Francophilia, for he clearly loves his down-to-earth Irish identity as well. Just ask “Sullivan” and “McGinty”.)

Who else? Peter Bogdonovich made one perfect comedy and a bunch of terrible ones, so he’s out. John Waters makes my short list — he’s near the top in fact, but to name him the greatest American comic auteur of the talking era would be an act of perversity even he would acknowledge.

And I’m sorry, none of the SNL/ National Lampoon people, Harold Ramis, John Hughes  etc etc etc even move the needle. We’re talking about about being a GREAT film director, at the highest level, and a GREAT playwright/screenwriter, in a category with the best American writers who have ever put pen to paper. Such ambitions clearly have not even been on the agendas of these people or anyone I can think of for over half a century. Steve Martin has displayed the ambition – – the results have always fallen far short of the mark. I have some good things to say about John Landis, the Christopher Guest stock company, Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Whit Stillman, and others, but in the end, it has to be acknowledged that none of them has made even one movie as dazzling as even the weaker Sturges pictures.

What about Mel Brooks? Mel Brooks absolutely comes second. I would have to give him second place, no two ways about it. But he’s at his best when making satire, parody or burlesque — with the exception of the excellent, underrated The Twelve Chairs, his attempts at “straight” comedy (e.g. Life Stinks) reveal his weakness.

Sturges’ standing is perhaps skewed on account of his brilliance as a writer. I realized something amazing a while back. You know who America’s best comic PLAYWRIGHT is? Also Preston Sturges. It just so happens that because of where we are in the historical timeline that most of his plays turned out to be screenplays. But really…Neil Simon or George S. Kaufman vs. Preston Sturges? No contest.  He writes rings around them. The man plays dialogue and plot points like Mozart plays the keys and stops on an organ. He has the entire history of comic playwriting and comic cinema (including silent cinema) in his BONES. But beyond all his wit and originality and sparkle and charm and humor and natural democracy he also had a daring — an endless font of audacious twists and a diabolical knack for being able to put the oldest comic subject in the world (SEX) over in an age so puritanical you couldn’t say words like “pregnant”, or, well, “sex.”

As to the title of this post: the usual critical line on Sturges is that he had but four great years. From 1940 through 1944 he had an astounding run as screenwriter/director. Then: “he crashed and burned and drank and played himself out, and it’s all very sad.” I think it’s long past time we rewrite the conventional narrative on this comic genius. I’m for overturning these stupid, myopic Tales Told by Idiots — and in favor of celebrating the entirety of a great artist’s career. For my money, Sturges’s years of greatness span more like THIRTY years. 1940-44? To quote the poet, ram it up yer poop shoot. As we did in our earlier post Weep Not for Welles, we hope to begin the rehabilitation of an already great artist :

The master’s career in brief:

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Strictly Dishonorable (play 1929, film 1931)

While I’ve not yet gotten my hands on his first (self-produced) play The Guinea Pig (1929), I had the opportunity to see a revival of Sturges’s second Broadway play Strictly Dishonorable recently (read my review here). And I’ve also seen the somewhat altered 1931 screen adaptation as well as the (unrecognizably bad) 1951 screen version adapted by Norman Panama. The 50s were a terrible era for movies; but the 2os were a wonderful era for plays. Sturges’s comic whiz bang vehicle ran for a year and a half on Broadway and changed his life overnight. In its wake came his lesser theatrical hits  Recapture (1930), The Well of Romance (1930) and Child of Manhattan (1932). His 1931 play A Cup of Coffee became the basis for the film Christmas in July (below).

In the same years he began getting work in Hollywood, contributing to the dialogue in classic films like The Invisible Man, 20th Century, the original Imitation of Life, College Swing, and several others.

Next comes a series of screenplays of which he was the principal author, many of which are as good or better than the pictures he directed himself:

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The Power and the Glory (screenplay, 1933)

Considered a structural model for Citizen Kane, Sturges’s breakthrough screenplay was a rags to riches drama about a railroad tycoon (Spencer Tracy) who commits suicide; former silent star Colleen Moore plays his long-suffering wife. Ironically Sturges got his foot in the door with a highly effective tragedy, as opposed to a comedy. It’s considered one of the best screenplays ever, a model of efficiency, economy, and emotional wallop. Odd that the film itself isn’t better remembered today.

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The Good Fairy (screenplay, directed by William Wyler, 1935)

After The Power and the Glory, Sturges worked on the romantic comedy 30 Day Princess (1934), but he later said that almost none of his work wound up on screen. He next wrote The Good Fairy, which he adapted from the 1930 play A jó tündér by Ferenc Molnár as translated and adapted by Jane Hinton, which had been produced on Broadway in 1931. The story’s European setting and fairy tale structure reminds one of Lubitsch, though Wyler is a perfect director for it. A magical cast, an admirable structure (including a hilarious film within a film), and though the script is an adaptation, the dialogue is characteristically Sturges, as hilarious as any of the films he directed himself. Sturges has the peculiar faculty of being able to make one laugh and cry at the same time. Margaret Sullivan (who was in the original Broadway production of Strictly Dishonorable and who was to marry Wyler during the shoot) plays an orphan girl in her late teens. She tells fairy tales to the other kids in the orphanage, and then proceeds to live one herself. Beulah Bondi is the lady who runs the orphanage; Alan Hale a man comes to hire her to be an usherette for his theatre. Innocent Sullivan meets a scornful but protective waiter played by Reginald Owen, who takes her to a oarty where she is hit on by drunken millionaire Frank Morgan. Sullivan thwarts Morgan’s advances by claiming to be married to a man whose name she has picked at random out of a telephone book. It turns out to be a prideful pauper played by Herbert Marshall. And it all gets entangled from there. Also in the all-star cast are the incomparable Eric Blore, a very young Cesar Romero (as a masher), and Jane Withers and Ann Miller as children. One imagines this film influenced everything from The Purple Rose of Cairo to The Grant Budapest Hotel. Sturges later made this story into the 1951 musical Make a Wish. 

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Diamond Jim (screenplay,  directed by Eddie Sutherland, 1935)

A bio-pic about the flashy millionaire/ gourmand Diamond Jim Brady, best known for his public “friendship” with Lillian Russell. Several hands adapted this script from a published biography; Sturges is credited as final author of the screenplay. Once more, Sturges raises issues of class. This is a rag to riches story. Brady (Edward Arnold) starts at the bottom and becomes a railroad tycoon. Roughnecks guzzling champagne is a favorite theme of Sturges’s — and isnt that what America is all about? But the film is mostly about affairs of the heart. Brady loves a young woman played by Jean Arthur, while also palling around with Russell (Binnie Barnes) and promoting her career. Eric Blore and Cesar Romero are back from The Good Fairy, and William Demarest (soon to become a key member of the Sturges stock company) makes his debut in a Sturges script here.

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Easy Living (screenplay, 1937)

It’s amazing how a Sturges stock company seems to emerge even before the screenwriter was directing. Of course much of it has to do with the fact that these films were all made by the same studio, Paramount, but the continuity is wonderful. Edward Arnold, Jean Arthur and William Demarest are all back from Diamond Jim and future Sturges regulars like Franklin Pangborn and Robert Greig come aboard. Director Mitchell Leisen was far less witty behind the camera than Wyler, Sutherland or Sturges himself, but Sturges’s voice shines through. Again, class issues are highlighted (amazing the extent to which Sturges can persist in exploring this theme without repeating himself). Here, working girl Jean Arthur gets hit on the head by a fur coat that has been thrown out of a penthouse window by millionaire Edward Arnold. Through escalating comic circumstances, the press come to believe she is his mistress, with dire consequences not only for both of them but for the national economy. At the same time, she meets and falls in love with the millionaire’s son (Ray Milland) whom the long man had castigated for being a layabout and is now working in an automat to prove himself. Little does anyone know he has a knack for financial machinations himself, and in typical Sturges fashion through force of character, he puts everything right by the end.

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Hotel Haywire (screenplay, 1937)

Hotel Haywire is one of those major might-have-beens. The film was originally written for for Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland and Burns and Allen. The comical quartet had earlier appeared together in Six of a Kind (1934). But Burns and Allen left the studio and the film was tweaked by another writer for a different cast. Nonetheless it is one of Sturges’s most farcical scripts –very French. A mature couple (Lynne Overman and Spring Byington) have marital problems when the wife finds a compromising item in the husband’s pocket. The husband decides to win her back by trapping her in a compromising situation of her own  in a hotel room…which, unbeknownst to them, is next door to a room occupied by her daughter who is there to elope with her beau. Among the instigators are Leo Carrillo is shady marriage counselor Zodiac Z. Zippe and a vaudeville team that’s turned to sleuthing (the former Burns and Allen part, here played by Benny Baker and Collette Lyons). The absence of Sturges stock players is indicative of the changing of hands, but surely Sturges’s pawprints are more than evident.

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If I Were King (screenplay, 1938)

A biopic of the French poet and criminal Francois Villon, inspiration for other scribblers ranging from Brecht to Bob Dylan to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It shares much in common with costume pictures of the period like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The latter picture seems especially relevant here. There is a “Feast of Fools” theme. A cold and distant (and weird) King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) makes Villon (Ronald Colman) a constable for a sort of joke (thus the title of the film), but we quickly we see that the humane way Villon dispenses justice wins the love of the people. Then he opens the king’s stores of grain open to the all the people. it is like something out of the Bible. And the climax has a bit of Henry V thrown in.  The charm with which Sturges invests this roguish character (thief, womanizer, boozer) will certainly inform many of his later comic heroes. Villon is pleasure loving but good-natured and good-hearted. So many Sturges themes: the common man vs the high born; truth telling vs bullshit; genuine patriotism vs dogma and formality. This movies should be a classic. Adapted from a 1901 play and novel by Justin Huntley McCarthy but Sturges’s stamp is all over it. Sturges even translated some of Villon’s poems from the French for his screenplay. Now, THAT’S a writer.

Never Say Die (co-screenplay, 1939)

Sturges was one of one three screenwriters on this early Bob Hope hit comedy about a guy who mistakenly thinks he only has one month to love. It has some distinctive Sturges touches and he and Hope hit it off well enough that Hope stunt cast him in his film Paris Holiday almost 20 years later.

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Remember the Night (screenplay, 1940)

Another one directed by Mitchell Leisen. Ironically (and somewhat confusingly) it is Remember the Night and NOT Christmas in July that is the Preston Sturges Christmas picture. Though it is sad one! Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman arrested for shoplifting an expensive bracelet. Fred MacMurray is a prosecutor who feels bad for her, and gives her a ride at Christmas — only to be embroiled with her in a series of mishaps and misadventures, over the course of which they fall in love. Beulah Bondi (from the good fairy) returns to play the lawyer’s mother. Requested cuts to this script are what drove Sturges to demand being allowed to direct his own screenplays. MacMurray’s character had initially been written to be more talkative, witty and Sturgeseque.  As originally written, the film probably would have been a good deal lighter, or at least more balanced between light and shadow, rather than the heavier drama that emerged. Sturges enjoyed working with Stanwyck so much that he went on to write The Lady Eve for her. And of course the chemistry between her and MacMurray proved  so great in this film that they went on to co-star in several subsequent films, most notably Double Indemnity. 

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The Great McGinty (1940)

The film that established Sturges as a total auteur for the screen. Like The Power and the Glory it is told in flashback, and like so many of his scripts it is a rags to riches tale, where a man must wrestle with his own conscience. Brian Donlevy is the titular McGinty, who starts out as a bum who’s so enterprising in his repeat-voting con in a crooked election that fixer Akim Tamiroff (Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil) takes him on staff. McGinty rises through the ranks, first as a shake-down artist, then eventually becoming mayor and then governor with Tamiroff’s backing. But despite being the corrupt Tamiroff’s puppet, McGinty has always taken pleasure in doing good for people. Under the influence of his wife (the intriguing Muriel Angelus), he decides to go straight, a decision that lands both men in jail.  The tone of the film is interesting, and unique to to the author: both comical (especially the ending) and serious-minded. William Demarest plays “Skeeters, the Politician”.

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Christmas in July (1940)

Disappointingly, this is not a Christmas story. The title of Sturges’ original 1931 play (A Cup of Coffee) is probably better. Dick Powell is a low-level schlemiel who works in a large office. Hoping to win big money (and thus the hand of the girl he loves and the respect of the coworkers who constantly ridicule him) he enters a nonsensical slogan into a radio contest: “If you cant sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk”. For a prank, his colleagues send him a telegram informing him that he has won. He naively goes to collect his check, and (in a typical Sturges absurdity) the president of the company, assuming all is correct, indeed gives him a check. The “winner” goes on a wild shopping spree with his fiance (Ellen Drew). All comes crashing down when the truth comes out…until the contest committee decides on the real winner — which turns out to be him anyway. I cant help thinking this would have been a perfect part for Joe E. Brown. William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, and Julius Tannen are all in the cast.

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The Lady Eve (1941)

This is probably my favorite Preston Sturges movie, and certainly the one I’ve seen the most (the two go hand in hand). It’s one of the best ensembles of comedy character actors ever assembled — which is especially interesting because its two leads aren’t normally associated with comedy AT ALL. Sturges dreamt up the script for Stanwyck, who had a history of playing fallen women and otherwise brassy dames in dramas, but wasn’t known for comedy. She did a handful of comedies in the wake of this film (Ball of Fire, Christmas in Connecticut), but I think it can be said that in none of them was she used to better purpose than in this film (nor has she ever been sexier). In no comedy can Stanwyck ever be described as “funny” precisely, but in comedies she can be likable and carry her part in the plot (although she is wretched at accents and she has to do one at a certain point in this film). The bigger miracle in this film to my mind is Henry Fonda, also ordinarily a “straight” actor, whom I find genuinely hilarious in this movie. The Lady Eve is about a sophisticated shipboard con (and simultaneous romance), with absent-minded professor (and heir to millions) Fonda being swept off his feet by the vivacious Stanwyck, aide and abetted by her father and mentor (Charles Coburn) and his partner (Melville Cooper). William Demarest gets a bigger part than he had in previously Sturges films, as Fonda’s watchdog/valet. Eugene Pallette is Fonda’s father, a gruff beer magnate. Robert Grieg is the butler. Eric Blore is a fellow grifter called in to help execute the long con.

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Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The first Sturges movie I ever saw and what a great first impression. It’s Sturges’s love poem to the art of film comedy (and not his last one either). I used Sturges and this film to kick one of my chapters in my book Chain of Fools, for in it one can spy homages to Chaplin and Keaton and Mack Sennett, and he kicks off the movie with a dedication that says as much. The very title evokes Swift’s comic epic Gulliver’s TravelsJoel McCrea plays a movie director named John L. Sullivan (like the boxer) who is known for his popular comedies but wants to make a heavy drama called O, Brother Where Art Thou? (the obvious inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ comedy).  He resolves to get out of the Hollywood rat race for awhile so he can experience life as a penniless transient, meeting up with the witty Veronica Lake, who becomes his personal Purviance. But things get a little too real when a fellow hobo is killed by a train and mistaken for him. He is now officially dead, and has lost his memory besides, a real inconvenience when he gets arrested for assault and taken to the county farm. It is when he is here, amongst the most downtrodden people, when he learns the value of comedy. The prisoners are taken on a field trip to an African American church where they watch a Mickey Mouse comedy, and are briefly beside themselves with happiness. He manages to talk his way out of jail, make his way back to Hollywood, and even get the girl. Sturges — and John L. Sullivan — know what people want in a movie. 

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The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Many people say this one is their favorite Sturges comedy and I love it as well. However, Sturges’ movies are always more than just comedies. He has a knack for tapping into powerful emotions that keep us on the hook. In this case: insecurity and jealousy. I can assure you any heterosexual male who is not a member of the wealthy 1% watches The Palm Beach Story with anxiety bordering on queasiness. In this screwball comedy, practical-minded wife Claudette Colbert leaves her husband, a failed, broke architect played by Joel McCrea. Her plan is to divorce him, marry a rich man, and then help him out financially so that he can realize his dreams. Which is somehow simultaneously selfless and cynical in a way that is uniquely Sturges. There are so many characteristic touches, like the absurd, disorienting framing device which begins and ends the film. Events set in motion by a millionaire “Weenie King” who wanders into their apartment and finances the travels of both members of the couple like some geriatric Good Fairy. An enormous digression on the train to Palm Beach, where Colbert is the beneficiary of the largess of a charter group called the Ale and Quail Club, which proceeds to get shit-faced and shoot the train up with their hunting rifles. And then both Colbert and McCrea briefly become romantically entangled (respectively) with wealthy brother and sister Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor — until they come to their senses, ironically helped along by Vallee’s crooning. In the end, a most satisfying picture.

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

This and Hail the Conquering Hero were the 3rd and 4th Sturges movies I ever saw (after Sullivan and McGinty). I caught them on a double bill at the Film Forum in the early 90s. And let me tell you it is a joyous thing to watch a Preston Sturges movie with an audience. This one may be Sturges’s greatest hat trick of all, dealing as it does with the normally verboten topic of pregnancy out-of-wedlock during the age of the Production Code. Small town “fast” girl Betty Hutton does her bit for departing soldiers at a dance, has too much to drink, and then gets in a family way. She remembers that she married the father, but she has no idea who he is — she was so “nice” to so many boys! The responsibility gets pinned on her long time admirer, Eddie Bracken, a sad sack shlemiel who has always loved her and doesn’t mind taking the rap if he gets to be close to her. Bracken was the best face puller in the business,  and let me tell you, audiences LOVE him. How this one got past the censors remains as big a miracle as Hutton’s pregnancy. Best of all, William Demarest, who has had supporting parts in several Sturges films, now has a much larger role, as Betty Hutton’s gun-toting father, the town constable, making life hell for Bracken. And Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprise their roles from McGinty! Frank Tashlin loosely remade the film in 1958 with Jerry Lewis as Rock-a-Bye Baby. 

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Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

This one makes a nice pair with Morgan’s Creek — a second tale of small town America during World War II starring Eddie Bracken. Here Bracken washes out in the Marines due to hay fever. This is especially unfortunate because his late father was a LEGENDARY Marine. He gets job in a shipyard but still sends letters home to his mother giving the impression that he is at the front. One night he buys a bunch of broke Marines beers and sandwiches at a bar and tells them his story. They’re all hilariously sentimental, generous and big hearted. William Demarest, the leader of the bunch, knew his father, who had died in WWI. At his instigation, they phone Bracken’s mother and say he was wounded and is being mustered out, so he can come home. To Bracken’s distress he returns to a hero’s welcome, with a brass band, speeches and a parade. The town pays off the mortgage to his mother’s house, and raises  a monument in his honor. Demarest weaves war stories about him. Then a faction runs him for Mayor. Bracken can’t stand it. Now he arranges a fake call so he can claim he has been called up again. But then decides to come clean to the whole town in a speech (which is great, his political opponent has learned the truth and is about to spill it). Demarest tells the crowd the whole truth.  Bracken is about to scram but then the whole shows up to stop him. They want a man as honest as he is for Mayor. The Marines get on the train, bound back for Guadalcanal. So many WWII comedies are terrible and so clumsy at integrating patriotism…this is one of the few that manage to pull of that amazing trick. And a satire no less, genuinely funny and genuinely patriotic at the same time. Such complex and original feats are what made Sturges a genius.

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The Great Moment (1944)

This troubled film is usually cited as the end of Sturges’ winning streak, although the problems with the movie in its final form are almost certainly due to Paramount’s drastic tampering with what Sturges intended. Sturges had actually filmed the picture in the middle of the hot streak, after The Palm Beach Story and before Morgan’s Creek. It is a biopic starring Joel McCrea as Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist who discovered the effectiveness of ether as an anesthetic. Scientific biopics were popular at the time; The Story of Louis Pasteur had been a hit in 1936. The Great Moment had been in development since 1939, originally intended as vehicle for Gary Cooper. In contrast to all the silly hagiographies Hollywood usually made, Sturges’s notion was to make an IRREVERENT biography, portraying Morton as sort of a bumbling naif who largely got lucky. By all accounts, Sturges’ original was almost certainly a great film, in a class with his previous ones. But the studio massacred it in an attempt to make it more conventional, cutting important scenes, changing the order etc, so that vital pieces are now missing. It was released two years after it was made, after Sturges had left the studio. They even changed the title to something less memorable (previous titles,  Great Without Glory, Morton the Magnificent and Triumph Over Pain were all much better) It was panned by critics then and now, but the reality is that what we are seeing isn’t Sturges’s film. The cast includes William Demarest, Harry Carey, Julius Tannen, Franklin Pangborn, and Grady Sutton.

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The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (Mad Wednesday) (1947/1950)

This film deserves a legendary status, if for ambition alone. Like The Great Moment it is a marred masterpiece, harmed by post-production tampering. After leaving Paramount, Sturges formed a partnership with wealthy cinematic dilettante Howard Hughes  called California Picture. This seemed like a dream deal, total control (he thought) and lots of money. But it was a deal with the devil. He quickly learned that the only control belonged to Hughes, who knew nothing about how to make a movie, and who had no respect for people he was throwing money at. He essentially derailed Sturges’s life and career.

For this ambitious film, clearly intended to be the comic epic to end all comic epics, Sturges persuaded no less than Harold Lloyd to come out of retirement nine years after completing his last film,in order to recreate his role from his 1925 hit comedy The Freshman. The Freshman had ended with Harold’s character winning the big college football game, plus the girl. Presumably he has a bright future ahead of him. Sturges’s surprising conceit is that, twenty years later, Harold is not the go-getter we all projected he’d be, but an obscure clerk in a go-nowhere career. As the film opens, he is fired from even that dead-end job for his lack of drive and ambition. Despondent, he steps into a dive, where bartender Edgar Kennedy gives him his first drink. The resulting drunk sends Harold out on a spree the likes of which will be the making of him. While drunk, he uses his life savings to buy a circus. When he learns that the big top is struggling he causes citywide commotion by bringing a lion with to meet with bankers. The climax on the upper story ledge of a skyscraper is a tribute to Lloyd’s many “thrill comedies” featuring similar scenes, notably Safety Last. 

Lloyd is surprisingly terrific in the film for someone who hadn’t been before the cameras in almost a decade. In some early flashback scenes he convincingly plays himself at age 20, though he himself is 50 years old.  The film is also a Who’s Who of great character comedians of the era including Rudy Vallee, Franklin Pangborn, Lionel Stander, Margaret Hamilton, Jack Norton, Julius Tannen, Jimmy Conlin, etc.

Unfortunately, producer Hughes pulled it from circulation shortly after its release, shot new scenes and re-cut it, re-releasing it in 1950 under the terrible title Mad Wednesday. It didn’t do well in either released version. The version I watched surely must have been after Hughes’s tampering, for it seemed somewhat choppy, lacking the perfect shape of Sturges’s earlier comedies from the 40s, more resembling the odd assembly Hughes’s had given his own movies like The Outlaw. Even with this mutilation and its checkered history, I think the movie deserves enhanced status as a classic, and is an extremely fitting final film statement for Lloyd, so everyone should see it.

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Venedetta (1946/1950)

Sturges had written the first draft of the script for this film, based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1840 novella Colomba, and directed a version of it in 1946, after Howard Hughes forced him to fire the original director Max Ophuls after one week of shooting (it was Ophuls’ first American film). Still dissatisfied, Hughes then fired Sturges and remade the picture yet again with different cast, crew and directors. Little if anything of Sturges work remains in the completed film so we are left yet again to wonder how great his version would have been. Based on what we know of his work, probably fairly terrific. Howard Hughes was just the worst in every way.

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Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Sturges’s first script for 20th century Fox, which he’d begun as early as 1932 (I like its working titles Unfinished Symphony and Symphony Story much better). Rex Harrison plays a classical music conductor who suspects his wife of infidelity. In a typically inventive sequence, Sturges stages three fantasy murder sequences which Harrison imagines while conducting three separate pieces of music. Then he actually does attempt to murder her, bungling the attempts before finally learning that she is innocent. Cast includes Rudy Vallee, Edgar Kennedy and Linda Darnell. The film remains much admired to this day although it was hampered at the time by the fact that Harrison’s mistress Carole Landis had committed suicide just prior to its release. His character in the film is already unsympathetic. Then Harrison himself was revealed to be unsympathetic. It didn’t help audience reception. The film was remade in 1984 with Dudley Moore (himself a classical conductor), Natasia Kinski and Albert Brooks.

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The Beautiful Blond of Bashful Bend (1949)

Sturges’ hilarious and criminally underrated  comedy western, his first film to be shot in color.  It stars Betty Grable in the best performance I’ve seen her give. In this film she seems as good as Betty Hutton, whom the part really seems written for. The Beautiful Blonde essentially has the plot of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, with a gender switch. A dance hall girl (Grable) gets into trouble (she keeps shooting the same judge in the butt) so she as to flee. She and her friend (Olga San Juan) arrive at a distant town and assumes the role of a schoolteacher. Much hilarity! Especially with two dim-witted schoolboys, one of whom is Sterling Holloway. Her love interest is bad boy Cesar Romero. She is eventually returned to her town, but up to her old trouble again. Much smarter and satirical than your average comedy western (Sturges’s stereotype defying treatment of San Juan is just one example). And it’s a great showcase for his comedy chops, being as it is a parody. Sturges’s work after the mid 40s is almost always written off. This movie proves the injustice of that assessment. This was his last American studio film, took a big loss at the box office, effectively finishing Sturges in Hollywood.

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Make a Wish (play, adaptation of The Good Fairy, 1951)

Finished in Hollywood, Sturges returned to Broadway after a hiatus of almost 20 years, adapting his screenplay for The Good Fairy into the musical Make a Wish, which ran for three months. The cast featured Nanette Fabray, Helen Gallagher and Melville Cooper.

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Carnival in Flanders (play, 1953)

Sturges wrote and directed this Broadway musical, based on the 1934 French comedy film La Kermesse Héroïque. It is set in a Medieval Flemish village, where a powerful Spanish lord and all his followers drop in for a visit. The cowardly Mayor plays dead, hoping they’ll all go away, but then the Spanish duke makes a play for his wife. Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote the songs, one of which “Here’s that Rainy Day” became a standard. Bing Crosby underwrote the show and it reportedly had gorgeous sets and costumes inspired by Breughel. Unfortunately the production went through many personnel changes (co-writers, directors and cast) prior to Broadway opening; the show was under-rehearsed for its New York run, and only ran a week. This didn’t prevent Dolores Gray from winning a Tony for her performance. At any rate, the original film had been a hit. I’m willing to bet the book to this musical is up to Sturges’s level, no matter what critics of the time thought.

The Millionairess (1953, unfilmed screenplay)

Katharine Hepburn has starred in this George Bernard Shaw play on Broadway, and hoped to make a film of it as well, co-starring Alec Guinness.  She hired Sturges to write the screenplay adaptation, which is reportedly very funny, but the project never came to fruition.

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The French They Are a Funny Race (1955)

Sturges wrote and directed both English and French versions of this film in Paris. it is based on columns by Le Figaro writer Pierre Daninos about the fictitious English Major Thompson who has trouble adapting to french ways. it starred Jack Buchanan in his last role. The film was a hit in France, but didn’t register when released in the U.S. in 1957.  In America the subject matter was ahead of its time; that sort of thing would become extremely popular in american films throughout the 1960s. But in 1957 no one cared.

Paris Holiday (1958)

Sturges neither wrote nor directed this Bob Hope comedy but he acts in it and it ought to be part of his legend!. It’s a strangely meta production. Bob Hope plays a version of himself, an American comic actor, who comes to paris and looks up an american screenwriter (Sturges, essentially playing himself). also in the film are french star Fernandel and Anita Ekberg.

The following year Sturges was working on his autobiography (ironically titled Events Leading Up to My Death) in his room at the Algonquin Hotel, where he died of a heart attack. I think it is a particular loss that he didn’t live and work another ten or 15 years. Both his Francophilia and his penchant for sex comedy would have served him well in the swinging sixties. One may pose the question, how would he have fared, given that contemporaries like Frank Capra suffered during those times, regarded as hopelessly old fashioned. Given how ahead of his time he was, and the fact that contemporary audiences still howl in delight and surprise at his comedies, I am willing to speculate with great confidence that Sturges would have done just fine — probably would have flourished as never before. He was ahead of his time in so many ways, and remains there.

For more on comedy film history, please get my book Chain Of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. 

 

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4 comments

  1. In Dale Thomajan’s 1992 book “From Cyd Charisse to Psycho : A Book of Movie Bests” Preston Sturges’s “Christmas in July” is cited as having The Best Happy Ending (pages 72-73). It’s worth reading the reasons why. Briefly, there’s an exuberant whirlwind reversal of fortune, of which the protagonists are as yet unaware, which makes it extra “feel-good” for the audience.

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  2. The real-life model for the British conductor in “Unfaithfully Yours” was Sir Thomas Beecham who had some colorful Tennessee in-laws (sisters who started out as spiritualists and who, by bouncing on the laps of Wall Street millionaires were given funds to open their own stock brokerage agency).

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