Friday, July 23, 2010

#4: Preston Sturges


- “The most incredible thing about my career is that I had one.”

If there was a dark horse to sneak up and steal the top slot in this countdown, it was certainly Preston Sturges. As the series has progressed, I have gone back and forth over who will occupy that first position and in all honesty, I could make a case for each of the top four. In fact, at various times, I’ve floated the idea in my own mind of completing the countdown with each of them. In this case, it was hard to resist the temptation after re-watching all ten of the Preston Sturges films that I own. Sturges, Chaplin and Malick were the only directors that I did this for and it is no coincidence that this refresher course in each man’s oeuvre cemented such prominent placements. It reminded me that I have still not seen a single poor Sturges film, and even more importantly that his top eight pictures are infinitely enjoyable. Even having seen each of them multiple times, I never fail to laugh and smile in the same spots every single time and discover jokes that I overlooked in previous go-rounds. The writing is so well-crafted, the humor so witty and sly to try and slip things past powerful censors of the day; they are light comedies that actually reward close repeat viewings.

Sturges the man is almost as fascinating as the spectacular body of work that he created. His career path is a complete anomaly, not only because of the short window of time in which he shined but for how he entered the film business. Sturges began his career on Broadway, but even his stint there is unique in that he didn’t even begin writing plays until he was thirty years-old. After quickly finding success on the stage, movie executives came calling and lured him to Hollywood. Sturges spent the 1930s working as a writer-for-hire, penning a number of outstanding screenplays like Easy Living and Remember the Night. As wonderful as the dialogue and comedy are in those underrated films, though, it was the astounding seven comedies he made between 1940 and 1944 that account for the Sturges legacy. The legend of how Sturges managed to convince Paramount Pictures to let him try his hand at directing is one of my favorites. Knowing that he had penned a great script, Sturges took it to Paramount and offered a deal – he would sell it to them for only $1 on the condition that he would be allowed to direct it. The discounted The Great McGinty script was good enough to earn Sturges the first ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the film itself remains a classic. It kicked off arguably the most productive four year span from a director in Hollywood history.

It could be argued that Sturges is so well regarded more for his writing than his directing. When I consider his films, I think more of the humor and dialog of the screenplays than I do virtuoso camera movements or great visuals. But similar to my feelings toward Charlie Chaplin, I don’t think it’s necessary to separate the two components of his work. As Sturges himself would acknowledge, the fact that he wrote his own material was pivotal to his success. “I did all my directing when I wrote the screenplay. It was probably harder for a regular director,” Sturges would reminisce. “He probably had to read the script the night before shooting started.” So there is no question that the writing is integral. But I don’t think that Sturges the director should be completely overlooked. Aside from the humor of his dialog, his best films display a great deal of wonderfully choreographed physical comedy which would seem to require more than a sharp pen. His later classic (“later” in terms of Sturges’ career) Unfaithfully Yours is magically handled from a technical standpoint, weaving together dream sequences seamlessly.

In the end, it matters very little whether you want to specifically credit Sturges the writer or Sturges the director. He was the man at the helm of eight of the greatest comedies I have ever seen. He took the sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch, combined his own brand of screwball antics and situations, and the result was a uniquely Sturges mixture of laugh out loud hilarity, poignant social statements, startling sensuality, and tongue-in-cheek subversiveness. To me, Preston Sturges is at the very least the greatest writer-director of comedy to work in Hollywood in the sound era – if not in any era. His films never fail to make me smile.

1. The Lady Eve (1941)
2. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
3. Christmas in July (1940)
4. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
5. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
6. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
7. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
8. The Great McGinty (1940)
9. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)
10. The Great Moment (1944)

11 comments:

  1. Whoa. The biggest surprise yet. Haven't seen any film of Sturges, but this should incite some debate. And I think I know who your top 3 directors are now!

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  2. Wow, long-time lurker here decloaking to express my surprise at this choice. Never saw it coming. I love Sturges and agree that Unfaithfully Yours is right up there with his best, not so much for the slapstick in the third act but for the amazing ways it transitions in and out of the fantasies (and the fantasies themselves). My rankings...

    The Lady Eve
    Christmas in July
    Unfaithfully Yours
    The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
    Sullivan's Travels
    The Palm Beach Story
    Hail the Conquering Hero
    The Great McGinty
    The Great Moment (a really weird one -- I don't think I like it much)

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  3. Dave, this certainly came as no surprise to me. His output might have been relatively small and his period of greatest inspiration relatively brief, but the overall consistency and inspiration of his work convinced me that Sturges would appear high in the countdown. Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck--these wonderful actors did some of their best work for him. If not for Sturges, who would have suspected what a great comic actor Henry Fonda was? He even got a great performance from Betty Hutton (who at her worst can be insufferable) and a good one from Veronica Lake (who at her worst can be just plain bland)! And did anyone ever use character actors better than Sturges? My favorite of his repertory company of supporting performers: William Demarest. I haven't seen "Harold Diddlebock," but of the rest only "The Great Moment" strikes me as a dud. The biggest surprise was your high placement of "Christmas in July," a wonderful film that doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

    I would put "Sullivan's Travels" at #1, followed closely by "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" as Sturges's masterpieces. His near-masterpieces are "Christmas in July," "The Lady Eve," "Hail the Conquering Hero," and "Unfaithfully Yours." "The Great McGinty," while good, doesn't seem to me quite up to the level of the rest.

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  4. For me it was a tossup between the top two on my list, both are excellent though I give the edge to Sullivan's Travel, The seduction scene in The Lady Eve is one of the most hilarious scenes ever filmed. I also want to mention REMEMBER THE NIGHT, Sturges did not direct but wrote the outstanding script, one of my favorite Xmas movies. l need to see The Palm Beach Story.

    Sullivan's Travels
    The Lady Eve
    The Great McGinty
    Christmas in July
    Miracle of Morgan Creek
    Hail, The Conquering Hero
    Unfaithfully Yours

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  5. Well Dave, having been a longtime Good Fellas alumni, (as others here) I have known of your great regard for this towering figure of American cinema, one who stands alone as a director of comedy after the era of the silent clowns. Sturges was a peerless satirist, a purveyor of the human condition, and as you rightly note, an artist who seamlessly combined writing and direction with incomparable originality to create a string of masterpieces that have certainly been unequalled during the sound era. I had the great pleasure of seeing SULLIVANS TRAVELS at the Film Forum 18 months ago with Allan Fish, who was visiting from the UK. It was Allan's only trip to that repetory theatre, and he was thrilled it feature what he considered (I agree) the director's masterowork. But the level of Sturges' work is so consistently extraordinary, that any of a number of his films can rightfully be placed at the top. I am not certain as to what number I would place Sturges on my own list of favorites, but let's just say I'm completely with you on these setiments, and in retrospect am hardly surprised to see his name here at this stage in the game.

    1 Sullivans Travels
    2 The Lady Eve
    3 The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
    4 Unfaithfully Yours
    5 The Palm Beach Story
    6 Hail the Conquering Hero!
    7 Christmas in July
    8 The Great McGinty
    9 The Sin of Harold Diddlebock
    10 The Great Moment

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  6. Dave:

    1. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
    2. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
    3. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
    4. The Lady Eve (1941)
    5. Christmas in July (1940)
    6. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
    7. The Great McGinty (1940)
    8. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
    9. The Great Moment (1944)

    I have little to add to your reasons for Sturges’s high ranking on your list. You have framed his career and his merits well. Given his stature, the brevity of his directorial career astounds: all his greats within an eight to nine year period. One wonders if it is coincidental that during all that time (except Unfaithfully) the world was at war (yet in only a few films was the home front a factor).

    I cannot resist Sullivan’s Travels at one. Sturges certainly knew both the sound and the subject matter. I realize Unfaithfully Yours is an arbitrary two, but I even remember the theatre where I first saw it on release. It took me then and stays with me now. This pick has withstood the withering knowledge that its director disagreed with me. (Although I am very amused by Sturges’s idea that the composer [Sir Alfred] was the writer and director of the dream sequences.)

    I was going to remark on the great contribution that the group of Sturges regulars made to his films, but R.D. Finch has already done so. I will only add that Sturges has said that those players, having succeeded in the early films, had a “moral right” to be in the later films. Not the Hollywood mindset to which we are accustomed.

    Sturges also endeared himself further to me for adamantly refusing to remove Ella Raines from Hail the Conquering Hero after Buddy DeSylva demanded it. DeSylva had arrived late to the project and Sturges thought it unfair to Raines at that late stage. Sturges left Paramount not long theafter. (My interest is that Raines was a boyhood crush that has lingered long into another century.)

    No one seems to care much for The Great Moment. Sturges reported that the studio (Paramount) interfered with the cutting and ruined it. Not much new there.

    Best and thank you. My wife and I have a pool on the remaining three.

    Gerald

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  7. JAFB - I'll be interested to see how your predictions hold out... and get some Sturges in your life ASAP! LOL

    JPK - I agree, Unfaithfully Yours is a great one, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Sturges' career didn't extend a little longer, as that film shows that he excelled outside of his famed four-year run (albeit, only a few years out, but still...). Thanks for stopping by and please join in as the countdown concludes.

    R.D. - I didn't say anything about Sturges' stock players, as I focused only on Preston, but you're absolutely right in pointing them out. They are great, particularly William Demarest. Demarest and Walter Brennan remain the two best I've ever seen in such supporting/spotlight stealing roles.

    John - I agree, Remember the Night is another great one (and really, from the little I've seen from him, Mitchell Leisen is an underrated director). I love The Palm Beach Story obviously, so I highly recommend checking it out. The Sturges box set that is available is well worth looking into it - it's one of the best purchases I've made, movie-wise.

    Sam - I knew that both you and Allan were big fans of Sturges - if I remember correctly, Sullivan's Travels placed #2 in Allan's 40s countdown. I rank it at #4, but as you point out, Sturges really made eight incredible films, so an infinite number of rankings would be acceptable. Sturges was never going to be any lower than #4 and as I said, I came close to moving him all the way to the top. His movies are so fun to watch, it's impossible not to fall in love with them all over again.

    Gerald - Wonderful comments and memories as usual! Something told me that you would be a Sturges fan and your enthusiasm here proves me right. I didn't know that quote from Sturges about his core group of actors having "earned" the right to stay in his films, but that is great stuff and makes me like the man even more. I'll be interested to see if you or your wife peg the final three!

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  8. I keep finding all these wonderful countdowns too late. I discovered the great best of the every decade countdown over at Wonders in the Dark only a few months ago. I have only found this great countdown a few weeks ago, just as it is about to end.

    I wanted to agree that Sturges would also rate high on my list of favorite directors, though maybe not quite so high. That said he only made a couple of duds ("The Great Moment" and the nearly unwatchable "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock") but everything else is pure joy. I'm especially fond of "Sullivan's Travels" but "The Palm Beach Story", "Miracle at Morgan's Creek," "The Lady Eve," and "Hail the Conquering Hero" all rate high as well. You mentioned that Sturges isn't known for his visuals which I think is right. I think his strength as a director was in his ability to work with and get something special out of his actors. In a comment above R.D. mentioned what Sturges was able to get unexpectedly good performances out of Veronica Lake and Betty Hutton. Also, as someone else mentioned, Sturges had his stock character actors that he knew could handle his dialogue. The ability to direct actors cannot be overlooked in assessing a directors status and Sturges clearly excelled there.

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  9. Excellent site, keep it up the good work.

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  10. The pride is the last thing that people try to loose. but it is quite a great quote.

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  11. Sturges is really a good director . Movies like "The Palm Beach Story" is one of the best movies he directed. Nice post.

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