No film director in history had quite as deft a hand in crafting wild, outrageous comedy as Preston Sturges. The director also wrote and produced his own screenplays, in addition to dabbling in acting, songwriting, and playwriting, among other varied interests. A prototypical “Renaissance man,” Sturges brought a wide-ranging knowledge to his films, reflected in intelligent characterizations, sharp dialogue, and frenetic, furious comedic pacing.
The 2006 release of Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection includes seven of the eight films Sturges wrote and directed within the five-year period of his greatest productivity as a filmmaker (1940-1944). The only title missing from the collection, 1944’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, is sorely missed, if only for its witty, somewhat saucy storyline (a young woman awakens after a party to find herself pregnant and married to a soldier whose name she has forgotten–it’s truly a wonder that this film even made it past the Hays Code!). The film’s exclusion from the collection amounts simply to a matter of ownership: the film belongs to Paramount, not this collection’s distributor, Universal. Thankfully, however, Miracle is available as a stand-alone title on DVD, and is generally inexpensive through Amazon.
Despite the missing title, the films in this collection serve as a wonderful representation of Sturges’ zany plotting and incisive social commentary, and demonstrate the thread of connectedness that links much of Sturges’ work through recurring characters and the reappearance of many of the same actors in consecutive films. In fact, Sturges was one of the first directors to build a loosely-conglomerated “stock company” of actors, including William Demarest, Max Wagner, Robert Dudley, and Frank Moran (to name only a few), most of whom would appear in almost every film Sturges directed during this time period.
Beginning with 1940’s The Great McGinty (for which he won an Academy Award for best original screenplay) and Christmas in July, and continuing through 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero and The Great Moment, the movies presented here all have their respective charms. Allow me, however, to introduce to you the three highlights from the collection: 1941’s The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, and 1942’s The Palm Beach Story.
Though Sturges had been writing films since 1933 (beginning with The Power and the Glory), he was not given the opportunity to direct his own work until 1940, after the success of his last screenplay for Paramount, that year’s Christmas classic Remember the Night (reviewed here). Sturges first met Barbara Stanwyck while working on Night, and he immediately recognized her innate comedic talent. As Axel Madsen reports in his posthumous biography of the star, Stanwyck, the actress declared: “One day he said to me, ‘Someday I’m going to write a real screwball comedy for you.’ Remember the Night was a delightful comedy … but hardly a screwball, and I replied that nobody would ever think of writing anything like that for me … But he said, ‘You just wait.'”
True to his word, Sturges presented Stanwyck with the script for The Lady Eve one year later, and she signed on to do the film opposite leading man Henry Fonda. The film also features the inimitable character actor Charles Coburn as Stanwyck’s father, Eric Blore as Stanwyck’s “uncle,” and Demarest as Fonda’s suspicious caretaker/valet. Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a cardsharp who, with her father, the “Colonel,” cheats passengers on ocean cruises out of their money at the card table. When Jean meets a young snake expert and ale company heir (whom she nicknames “Hopsie”), her initial disdain quickly gives way to love. But when the naive Hopsie discovers the truth about Jean and her father, he spurns her, and she concocts an outrageous plan for revenge. Posing as the British Lady Eve Sidwich, Jean entices the confused but smitten millionaire into marriage, and delights in exacting her vengeance in a most creative way …
Stanwyck plays Jean/Eve with a sly abandon, and her riffing monologue on Fonda’s hapless Hopsie, delivered as she gazes at him surreptitiously through her compact mirror, is one of the many highlights of the film. Fonda plays the bumbling, inexperienced young lover to perfection, and the supporting cast revels in the chaotic plot. The Lady Eve is, arguably, Sturges’ sexiest film, from the sharp, witty banter (barely disguising an unbridled sensuality) to the undeniable chemistry between its stars. It’s also likely Sturges’ best-crafted film: brilliantly directed, acted, written, and produced, and the cinematography can’t be beat–Stanwyck has never looked so luminous on film.
Eve was quickly followed in theaters by Sullivan’s Travels (actually produced in 1941 prior to Eve, but not premiering until January 1942), starring Joel McCrea as an idealistic director and Veronica Lake as his aspiring actress sidekick (who is not given a name in the script and is only referred to as “the girl” in the film). Lake was not the original choice for the role; Sturges initially wanted Stanwyck to star for him again, but she was unavailable. The role became one of Lake’s best-known (though rumor maintains that the director and cast, particularly McCrea, were less than fond of the temperamental starlet), and Travels provided Lake one of the few roles in which she could escape the “glamor girl” typecasting that hounded her career (reportedly contributing to her de-glamorization, Lake was six months pregnant during filming, which forced famed costume designer Edith Head to create a somewhat unsexy wardrobe–complete with hobo costume–that was baggy enough to conceal Lake’s condition). In addition to the two stars, Demarest and Blore also appear in this film, along with other members of the Sturges troop (Dudley and Moran among them). But the movie truly belongs to McCrea, and he gives one of his most effective film performances as John L. Sullivan, a comedy director anxious to produce a serious drama about the plight of the poor during the Great Depression (the proposed title of Sullivan’s opus, O Brother, Where Art Thou? would later be borrowed by the Coen brothers for their 2000 film of the same name starring George Clooney).
As Sullivan states, he wants his film to transcend the “silliness” of the romantic comedies and farces he had always directed: “I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!” Yet, as Sullivan travels around the country (disguised as a hobo, yet followed by a caravan of studio publicity) and experiences the life of a destitute man, he discovers that there are, perhaps, more important responsibilities for the filmmaker other than recording the “suffering of humanity.” Indeed, the movie’s initial dedication, shown as the film opens, seems to sum up Sturges’ ultimate point: “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.” Indeed, if the film shows its audience one thing, it is that there is sometimes nothing more healing, more inspirational, more valuable, than a damn good laugh.
The follow-up to Travels, 1942’s The Palm Beach Story, provides those damn good laughs in spades. Sturges takes the genre of screwball comedy to dizzying heights, and the film remains his most hilarious … and his most confusing, if one looks too directly at that crazy opening sequence (the significance of which film critics debate even to this day). The film stars McCrea as Tom Jeffers, a failing inventor, and Claudette Colbert as his wife, Gerry, who does what she can to force him to succeed despite himself. The film also features Dudley in the most well-known (and most side-splitting) of his roles for Sturges: the Wienie King (yes, you read that right), a “fairy godfather” figure who helps the couple throughout the film.
When Gerry decides to leave her husband and marry a rich man who will finance Tom’s invention (which, adding to the hysteria, is an improbably-suspended airport that would float above a city), she hops a train to Palm Beach in order to obtain a quickie divorce. On the way, she meets John D. Hackensacker III (played by actor/singer Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world, who falls for Gerry after hearing the story of her “brutish” soon-to-be ex. Upon reaching Palm Beach, Tom turns up and tries to convince Gerry to come back, but she introduces him to Hackensacker as her brother, at which point Hackensacker’s flighty sister, the Princess Centimillia (played by a hard-working Mary Astor), falls for Tom. And that’s only the beginning of an insane climax to an already screwy film. Pay close attention to this one; it’s a twisting ride, and you might miss something vital to the relatively intricate plot!
All in all, this is a great collection, though seriously lacking in extras. A documentary on Sturges, or some kind of retrospective or commentary, would be welcome, particularly as Sturges makes such an interesting subject. Still, the films themselves stand alone as well-written, beautifully-crafted examples of what made Sturges so effective a writer/director. The name “Sturges” is (deservedly) synonymous with “comedy,” and one need only watch the films in this collection to understand why.
Upcoming TCM airings:
Christmas in July, December 24th, 9:45PM
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, December 29th, 12PM
The Lady Eve, February 14th, 4PM
Hail the Conquering Hero, February 25th, 6PM