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Hail Preston Sturges

Hail Preston Sturges

Articles - Directing

"Directing was easy for me," Preston
Sturges noted in his autobiography, Preston Sturges on Preston
Sturges, "because I was a writer-director and did all my directing
when I wrote the screenplay. It was probably harder for a regular
director. He probably had to read the script the night before shooting
started and do a little homework."The first Hollywood writer
to graduate from typewriter to director’s chair was born Edmund
Preston Biden on August 29, 1898 in Chicago. Celebrations last
year for the 100th birthday of the creator of some of the smartest
comedies ever to come out of Hollywood included retrospectives,
the reprinting of his autobiography, the publication of Three
More Screenplays
by Preston Sturges and the release of the
films written or co-written by Sturges by Universal Home Video.
Not bad birthday presents, considering the American Film Institute
didn’t see fit to include any of Sturges’s work on its much-publicized
list of "100 Best U.S. Films."

Compared to his writer-director contemporaries, like
Billy Wilder, John Huston and Joseph Mankiewicz, Sturges had a
relatively short career. But in an incredible creative burst between
1940 and 1943, Sturges made the seven films which constitute his
legacy: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve,
Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s
Creek
and Hail the Conquering Hero. Between 1944 and
his death 15 years later, he only made three films and never regained
his momentum in Hollywood. Of his work in film, he wrote, "The
only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever
had one at all."


With Henry Fonda and Barbara
Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941).

At various times in his career, Sturges was a Broadway
playwright, the inventor of "kiss-proof" lipstick, a
restaurant proprietor and the owner of the Sturges Engineering
Company, but he enjoyed transitory success in his endeavors. His
eccentric, flee-spirited mother had dragged young Preston around
Europe, following the trail of her idol, Isadore Duncan. Freedom
(in dress, lifestyle and economy) and living for the moment were
the fruits of this education, not common sense and a respect for
authority. If his upbringing failed to give Sturges the head for
business that would make him a successful entrepreneur, it did
provide an invaluable background for making him a remarkable filmmaker.

A Preston Sturges film moves. Sturges himself said
that one of the reasons he wanted to start directing was that when
others directed his screenplays they did a too slowly. Sturges
wrote situation-based, rather than character-based stories-hard
to believe when the principals have names like Trudy Kockenlocker,
Woodrow Lafayette, Pershing Truesmith, and Harold Diddlebock-which
combined a brilliant, idiosyncratic mixture of social satire with
manic physical comedy. James Agee noted that The Miracle of
Morgan’s Creek
had "enough mental, creative and merely
brillant energy for a hundred average pictures." These are
not, however, screwball comedies. Sturges was far more interested
in satirizing the mores of middle class America
than the wacky peccadilloes of the rich. In Hail the Conquering
Hero, he manages to ridicule hero worship, patriarch; patriotism,
politics, war rationing, mother love and the girl back home at
the height of World War II without seeming mean-spirited.

Claudette Colbert and Joel
McCrea in The Palm Beach Story (1942).

If feminists have impugned
the Golden Age of Hollywood for offering few strong roles for
women, then they haven’t seen a Preston Sturges film. Sturges
women are smart, strong, independent and well aware of their
effect on the opposite sex. “You don’t know very much about girls,
Hopsie,” Barbara Stanwyck cautions Henry Fonda in The Lady
Eve
, “the best ones aren’t as good as you probably think
they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad.”Women like jean Arthur
in Easy Living (written by Sturges), Claudette Colbert
in The Palm Beach Story and Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s
Travels
take matters into their own hands when faced with
adversity. Even Betty Hutton, knocked up by a soldier whom she
might have married and whose name she can’t remember in The
Miracle of Morgan ‘s Creek
, has a shrewd kid sister (the
terrific Diana Lynn) to help her out of trouble.

Whether on his film sets or
at his restaurant, The Players, Sturges enjoyed a loyalty among
those who worked for him. He maintained a corps of supporting
actors who appear throughout his films, many of whom were former
silent screen actors, like Chester Conklin, or vaudeville veterans,
like Jimmy Conlin and William Demarest. Some, like the notoriously
close-fisted Rudy Vallee, later helped Sturges out financially
with the continually cash-strapped Players. Eddie Bracken, a
favorite leading man, was his best man at his wedding to his
fourth wife, Sandy. Sturges was less likely to endear himself
to his producers, however, and his incredible run at Paramount
ended in December, 1943 when he and the studio couldn’t agree
on contract renewal terms (The Miracle of Morgan ‘s Creek and Hail
the Conquering Hero
had not yet been released). Although
his films had made money for the studio and he had a relatively
free reign in shooting his pictures, the growing mutual animosity
between Sturges and producer Buddy De Sylva (a successfial former
songwriter) exacerbated the break-up.

During his lifetime Sturges
made and lost several fortunes, was continually behind in his
taxes, married four times and alienated much of the Hollywood
hierarchy. He loved eating, drinking, curious hats, entertaining,
writing, sailing, traveling, talking and being in love. By the
end, he was shuttling between Paris and New York, scrambling
to make a living by writing for television and theater. He died
of a heart attack on August 6,1959 in NewYork at the Algonquin
Hotel two weeks before his 61st birthday. Shortly before his
death he wrote, “I know that my life, even in these disagreeably
trying times, is complete, although I don’t know exactly why” Because
he lived it, that’s why. MM

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