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FEATURES | MAY 24, 2021
Remembering The Hollywood Humorist Preston Sturges
by Julian Hart

When looking back at the state of American cinema in the early twentieth century, the extraordinary and unprecedented rise of Preston Sturges as a director is all the more awe-inspiring. Upon his first directorial effort, Sturges was established as one of Hollywood’s most creative and engaging filmmakers, placing himself among the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks. His radical entrance into directing — specifically, his legendary four-year run, between 1940 and 1944 — remained a seminal period for filmmakers of the current and later generations. His elevation of screwball comedies, the unprecedented turn into a writer-director, and deft satirization of American culture inspired comedy writers throughout the twentieth century; yet his presence as a filmmaker is largely forgotten and viewed as something of an old Hollywood myth today.

Sturges is an intermediate between cultures in cinema, suffusing a combination of European and American sensibilities within his films. Due to the estrangement of his birth parents and his mother’s subsequent marriage to a Chicago stockbroker, therefore adopting Sturges with their marriage, Sturges lived a rather itinerant childhood. He frequently alternated between living in Europe and the United States, spending most of his time in France since the age of three. His mother, a close companion to legendary dancer Isadora Duncan and an ardent admirer of theater and fine arts, was determined to show her son Europe’s finest museums and operas, as well as Duncan’s dance troupes. When in Chicago with his adopted father, the young Sturges took interest in learning the English language and understanding the life of the American everyman. Sturges grew accustomed to the effects of this double life and the dichotomy between cultures in the western world.

The constant shift between regional cultures — between high art and mass entertainment — significantly influenced his perception of human behavior and mass media and informed his filmic style as a writer-director. To Sturges, a film’s sole purpose is to convey what is written in its script. Rarely would he miss an opportunity to tell a joke or comment on the ironies of American life, maximizing the script’s words to the highest degree. Sturges’ writing relies on anchor points in character interaction and dialogue (which he describes as “hooks”) to transition between perspectives. These would be prompts, phrases, or any linguistic convention that ties a line of dialogue to the next. In The Lady Eve, a prominent example occurs as the boat passengers gossip and talk to each other as the film’s protagonist, Charles Pike, boards an ocean liner. Their conversations are ironically both independent of and stimulated by each other, seemingly coalescing into a lineage of misunderstandings and malapropisms that propel a collective dialogue. Each line of dialogue is reliant on the last and reflects the perspective and understanding of the speaking character. In a sense, his scripts are one long narrative string shifting between perspectives and mood, each capturing the character’s follies and successes. In a Sturges film, you can never know exactly when a character might say something hysterical or profound.

  His critical attitudes towards studio filmmaking, social norms, and institutional hierarchies attracted him to discussions and subjects that would never be explored by less daring artists. No aspect of American life was safe from Sturges, and everything from political corruption to conservative culture to the relationship between art and audiences were subjects in his films and stageplays. In The Great McGinty, the rise and fall of a corrupt politician demonstrates the inauthenticities and ironies of American values, primarily in the exploitation of political elections and marriages for personal gain. Sullivan’s Travels follows a film director as he ruminates on his position in a national depression and his role as an artist to a distanced, marginalized audience. At the height of his career, The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Sturges’s most uproarious and audacious project, was (and still is) marked by the wide array of controversial subject matters deftly satirized: drunken elopements, premarital sex, religious conservatism, blind patriotism, sensationalist media, international unity in a devastating global war, among others. Despite being released during the Hays code era, these films are prime examples of how studio filmmakers can make definitive and controversial statements through commercial filmmaking. Sturges seemed, at least to the censorship bodies of the Hays office, to be a constant source of public outcry and contentious reactions from conservative audiences, most notably observed in the massive letter-writing campaign to the Hays office amidst the release of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

To produce films singularly examining American taboos, Sturges had to become proficient in balancing probing discussion with lighthearted comedy. Among his idiosyncratic traits as a filmmaker is his unique ability to create realistic and naturalistically paced dialogue, an ability that prevents his films from being inauthentic or careless in delivery. The concept of screwball comedy is perhaps defined by fast-paced, frenetic-speaking screwball characters (think His Girl Friday’s silver-tongued duo and how efficaciously they burn up the screen), but Sturges created a unique tonality and realism that feels separate from other, more traditional screwballs. Characters pace themselves in conjunction with others, interrupt when they need to be heard, and stop when they are listening. There is very rarely the feeling of rehearsed dialogue in his films and the line readings come across as spontaneous and authentic. When John L. Sullivan argues against sex appeal with film producers in Sullivan’s Travels, he eventually has to concede that his artistically minded American epic must incorporate sex appeal to get made. As the trio of creators unilaterally agree, Sullivan’s film needs “a little sex in it.” That brief aside is given a beat before Sullivan speaks and is given a different, slower rhythm to how each character was speaking before. Where a traditional screwball may zip through the line, Sturges opts to give it a unique mix of reluctance and understanding. The audience, therefore, perceives the irony of what the aside means: the sex appeal is both unwarranted yet necessary for the film to exist, and Sullivan’s reluctance is felt as he gives off a sort of unenthused acquiescence. There’s an abundance of speculation regarding how Sturges develops naturalistic dialogue; most prominently, that he would act out dialogue while his assistant typed the script. Some of Sturges’s closest collaborators praised his acting intuitions as a director as his career went on, a directorial strength evident by the consistent personality and depth of his characters and scripts throughout his filmography.

Before becoming a film director, Sturges mastered his writing style working as a theater writer. Coming off his massive success working in broadway theater, Hollywood executives sought to acclimate the burgeoning writer into screenwriting. Sturges began writing for Paramount after his wildly successful play, Strictly Dishonorable, proceeding on to more studios — Fox, Universal — as the 1930s progressed. His first screenwriting credit, on the pre-code drama The Power and the Glory, brought him acclaim within the film industry and resulted in an unprecedented deal: There would be no rewrites on the script, and Sturges would be paid in a lucrative profit-sharing agreement. Screenwriters at the time were at the bottom of the industry hierarchy; Sturges’s deal was virtually unheard of. The Power and the Glory was widely praised on release, with great critical focus on its innovative use of a flashback narrative structure. The film is based on the life of C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company and grandfather to Sturges’s second wife. (The influence of the film can be seen in later projects that create unconventional narrative structures, among them Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.) With his progression into directing, Sturges further mythologized himself as a Hollywood trailblazer, becoming the first screenwriter to transition into directing, with The Great McGinty in 1940. By the time Sturges entered directing, there were only a handful of American writer-directors, none of whom originated as writers. With his directorial debut, Sturges paved the way for later filmmakers stemming from similar industry positions; Billy Wilder and John Huston, to name a few.

Fascinatingly, The Great McGinty is more a reinvention of Sturges as a filmmaker than a continuation of his role as a screenwriter. The film follows Dan McGinty as he recounts his rise to state governorship working alongside a corrupt campaign manager, simply named The Boss. McGinty is arrested and falls out of public consciousness after distancing himself from The Boss, who touted his relationship with McGinty to the police. Without the usual screwball comedy touches, The Great McGinty could play as a purely cynical tale of a man’s rise to power. However, Sturges’s film alternates between these tones — loving comedy and scathing critique — capturing the farcical and moralizing nature of the story. The character of Dan McGinty is an indictment of American politics that seemingly presents itself as an ironic joke (a man so good at voting fraud that he became Governor). There is an overwhelming sense that McGinty does not belong in a position of power as he frequently gets into fights and spews crass colloquialisms and idioms. The playful exaggeration, admiration for deadpan line readings, and varied vocabulary encapsulates what makes a Sturges script deft in its uniqueness. Yet, upon viewing the film, it is evident that Sturges was still developing a visual style as a director. There is a general lack of stylized visuals as Sturges relies on masters and closeups, with some exceptions interspersed throughout.

After adapting one of his plays into Christmas in July, Sturges directed The Lady Eve, one of his most appreciated and successful comedies during his early-to-mid-1940s run. The Lady Eve is more of a comedy than The Great McGinty, mainly focused on the romance surrounding the film’s subjects. The narrative revolves around the son of a wealthy ale magnate, Charles Pike, as he falls in love with a con artist, Jean Harrington. How the characters are situated in the framework of the film is a classic Sturges set-up, in which the dynamic between Charles and Jean is reversed by the end. The Lady Eve supposes an ironic morality and the idea that people are not exactly who they think they are. Charles is introduced as the protagonist of the film and is viewed as a victim of a seductress. As the film progresses, he eventually ends his relationship with Jean due to her past as a con artist, ultimately morphing into the film’s primary antagonist. Whereas Charles’s attitude towards the relationship would be sensible in reality, the film creates a situation where it is objectionable. Jean becomes an embodiment of true love and overcoming presupposed social norms, while Charles is largely emblematic of class rigidity. Once Jean adopts the guise of Eve Sidwich, they can remain in love and overcome their class disparity. Recognizing identity and relationships largely influences the humor of The Lady Eve as well, such as in the recurring jokes of the differences between beer and ale and the reluctant awareness of Charles’s snake. 

That topic — of false identity — is furthered in Sturges’s Lady Eve follow-up, Sullivan’s Travels, in which a film director, John L. Sullivan, seeks to understand the troubles of the marginalized poor during the Great Depression. To accomplish this, Sullivan adopts the appearance of a vagrant tramp. traveling in train cars to experience the plight of destitute life. The film is a socially relevant comedy about the American socio-economic landscape at the time, but, moreover, it is a musing on Sturges’s role as a humorist filmmaker. Sullivan, as one of the few indirect analogs to Sturges, is concerned with the decision between making a drama or a comedy film; between exposing the hardships of reality or making reality easier to live in. Ultimately, he decides on comedy filmmaking after experiencing several difficult conflicts relating to poverty and mistaken identity. While a vindication of comedy during difficult times, Sturges also contemplates the relationship between filmmaker and audience. As one of Sullivan’s butlers, Burrows, explains, “the poor know all about poverty,” so making a film about the difficulties of economic depression would be condescending and inauthentic. The destitute need to escape economic hardship instead of being told how harsh their reality is. For Sullivan, that means making comedic escapism that helps the poor instead of examining them.

The Preston Sturges renaissance ended in 1944 with the release of The Great Moment, a box office flop that broke his relationship with Paramount and led Sturges to shift to independent filmmaking. After his prolific period in the early forties, Sturges faded into obscurity and entered a stretch of commercial disappointments that he could not recover from. His contemporaries formed more robust and similarly influential legacies, as well as continuing their windy careers with astronomical hits — Wilder with the one-two punches of Sunset Boulevard & Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot & The Apartment, Stanley Donen’s splashy musical masterpieces, the insurmountable and unprecedented rise of Hitchcock — overshadowing the dynamic heights achieved by Sturges. The sheer wit, highly unconventional yet fascinatingly easy to adore, behind Sturges’s scripts is lost between other accomplishments of the era.

Despite the anticlimactic end to his career, Sturges remains an influence for current cineastes and filmmakers. The maneuverability he had around depicting controversial subjects in his films is a prime demonstration of rebelling against censorship, of finding ways of saying the unspoken in times of mainstream conservatism. Sturges’s proficiencies in comedic writing are indisputable benchmarks for aspiring satirists eager to delve into the intricacies of polarizing, contentious topics, and how to present them with imbued personality and singular wit. More than some old Hollywood myth, he remains a potent reminder of the power of studio filmmaking, a monumental icon that is increasingly forgotten as time passes. How can we forget a master of deadpan, a great screenwriter legend that set numerous precedents now viewed as “industry-standard;” the audacious Hollywood humorist Preston Sturges?