The Magazine

Rise and Fall

The meteoric career of Preston Sturges

Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Preston Sturges's career stands as one of the most successful -- and curious -- in the history of Hollywood. From 1940 to 1944, Sturges was among Hollywood's highest paid directors, producing a remarkable run of hits, including The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, and Sullivan's Travels, winning an Academy Award and two more nominations along the way. By the late 1940s, however, he was seen by many in the film industry as too unpredictable and demanding -- and too sophisticated for popular taste. In 1948 Sturges completed the fine Unfaithfully Yours. But it failed at the box-office, and in the same year he also wrote and directed The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, a lumbering comic western that did even worse. Less than a decade after his debut, Sturges was professionally finished. He died suddenly, at sixty, in 1959.


In some ways Sturges was simply ahead of his time: an ingenious if uneven filmmaker who felt stifled by the industry's studio system. To be sure, he had a firm grip on the principles of popular comedy; for sheer, shameless frivolity he remains hard to beat. But Sturges's characters, like his plots, are complicated. His comic sense was often tinged with darkness, and his expressions of tenderness offset by a sharp satirical edge. Sturges's favorite author was H. L. Mencken -- and it shows, for Sturges descends in some ways from the journalistic and literary debunkers who gained fame in the 1920s and 1930s: Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and Ring Lardner. Sturges took similarly skeptical views of human nature, finding a marked proclivity for credulity, chicanery, and greed. He routinely satirized not only business and politics, but that most bankable of commodities, romance.


But unlike Mencken, Sturges kept his cynicism in check. In the end, his art owes more to Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Sturges was particularly fond of characters made vulnerable by naivete or eccentricity. Moreover, his movies -- like Dickens's novels -- commemorate acts of kindness and generosity, however oddly displayed. Sturges "could allow that the world runs on greed, delusion, and injustice," wrote one admiring critic, "while he reveled in the crazy exceptions that prove the rule."


Born in Chicago in 1898, Sturges had a childhood that was itself a little crazy. His roving mother, Mary Dempsey, spent years as a kind of aidede-camp to the dancer Isadora Duncan, one of the era's most flamboyant figures. As a result, Sturges spent much of his youth in Europe, shifting from school to school. But he wasn't poor, for his mother, married five times, wisely chose for her second husband a wealthy stockbroker, Solomon Sturges. Amiable and generous, Sturges remained close to his stepson, which may be one reason for the staunch father figures who appear frequently in Sturges's films.


After serving in the First World War, Sturges worked briefly for his mother's poorly run cosmetics company, Maison Desti. An inveterate inventor, Sturges added his own "kissproof lipstick" to the firm's faltering product line. Before he turned to writing plays in 1927, Sturges also patented an air-cooled mini-car, a vertical takeoff plane, and "an intaglio photo-etching process that I thought was going to make me rich."


It didn't. But writing did, at least for a time. Sturges was a chronic spendthrift who spent much of his working life digging out from debt. In 1929 he scored a Broadway success with Strictly Dishonorable, his second play. Moving to Hollywood, he began to write film scripts, including The Power and the Glory, released in 1933. Starring Spencer Tracy as a railroad tycoon, The Power and the Glory's novel use of flashback and voice-over narration -- as well as its focus on a prominent man's puzzling personality -- almost certainly influenced the era's most acclaimed film, Citizen Kane (1941).


Many of Sturges's scripts were never produced or were heavily revised. He did succeed, however, with Diamond Jim (1935) and Easy Living (1937), and in the process refined his style and themes. Diamond Jim tracks the career of a compulsive tycoon whose ascent to the top ends in gluttony and gloom. Easy Living, directed by Mitchell Leisen, follows a fetching working girl who, thanks to a few foul-ups and a lot of good luck, moves from rags to riches overnight. Easy Living is passably directed, but the writing is pure Sturges -- a deft blend of smart dialogue and physical humor of the broadest kind. Sturges's style is simultaneously lowbrow and highbrow: slapstick and sophistication combined. It's what you'd get if the Three Stooges teamed up with S. J. Perleman. Its tone is also mixed. Easy Living unfolds like a fairy tale, with social commentary and romantic comedy swirled in along the way.


From the start Sturges wanted to direct his own scripts, and in 1940, with The Great McGinty, Paramount finally gave him the chance. The film's main character is a hulking street tough who collects payoffs for the crooks who run city hall. McGinty, played by Brian Dunlevy, proves so skilled at his thuggish trade that his political bosses offer him promotion -- to mayor. McGinty smartens up for the part, sporting top hats and swanky suits. And for the sake of appearances he marries his level-headed secretary, the divorced mother of two small children. "Women got the vote," notes one of his handlers, "and they don't like bachelors."


To his surprise, McGinty finds delight in the soothing routines of domestic life. As mayor, however, he remains a model of cronyism and graft, funneling funds straight into the pockets of his shifty pals. Mencken once described the typical politician as a "professional sharper and sneak thief," and The Great McGinty offered an uncomfortable civics lesson at a time when the names of Boston's James Michael Curley and Chicago's Big Bill Thompson were fresh in the American mind. After winning the governorship, however, McGinty starts to reform. Inspired by his wife, McGinty stops mixing with bagmen, vowing to put the public's good before private gain. But Sturges denies him a predictably happy Hollywood ending. Exposed by his accomplices, McGinty flees the country to avoid jail. He finds himself back at the bottom, tending bar in some unnamed banana republic. McGinty begins the film as a comic heavy, but ends up as a figure of pathos -- wrecked less by the ironies of fate than his own character and wasted past.


Sturges's next film, Christmas in July (1940), deals more lightly with similar themes of wealth and success. Jimmy MacDonald, its central character, lives in a poor neighborhood in New York's lower East Side. Effectively played by Dick Powell, Jimmy is diligent but ingenuous, a lowly clerk at the big Baxter Coffee Company. His dreams soar, however, when -- along with two million other hopefuls -- he enters a slogan-writing contest sponsored by a competing coffee brand. Jimmy's entry seems sure to lose, for it's based on the preposterous proposition that coffee doesn't really stop sleep. But some cruel co-workers trick Jimmy into believing that he has, in fact, won the contest, and -- following a chain of comical improbabilities -- he presents himself at the company's headquarters and duly collects a $ 25,000 check.


Radiantly happy, Jimmy and his attractive fiancee proceed to splurge. First, however, they head straight for Schindel's spiffy department store to buy gifts for all their relatives and friends, determined "not to forget anybody." When Jimmy returns triumphantly home with hundreds of presents -- toys, clothes, furniture -- his neighborhood is transformed into an unlikely setting for merriment and good cheer. It's Christmas in July.


Unlike The Great McGinty, Christmas in July ends brightly for Jimmy and his fiancee -- as well as for the Baxter Coffee Company and its obtuse and blustering boss. Much of the film's humor is gentle, even sentimental; indeed, in the main, it offers a Frank Capra-like tribute to the persistence and decency of the common man. But Sturges, as usual, can't resist shifting gears, and there are moments when Christmas in July -- like Capra's own Meet John Doe (1941) -- darkens considerably. Thus Jimmy's festive neighborhood party gets messy when men from Schindel's turn up, hopping mad, insisting that Jimmy played Santa Clause with a rubber check. The apoplectic owner of the rival coffee company also arrives, charging Jimmy with fraud and demanding his arrest. Now the crowd grows angry and menacing. Words heat up; threats are exchanged; children turn sinister; objects are thrown. A thin line, the merry movie reminds us, divides a happy crowd of neighbors from a murderous mob of strangers.


Sturges finished The Lady Eve only three months after the premier of Christmas in July -- proof of his remarkable productivity and popularity. A critical success, The Lady Eve remains one of Sturges's most widely admired works. Its title character is Jean Harrington, played by Barbara Stanwyck, an alluring temptress and con artist who makes her lucrative living by cheating at cards. In search of suitable dupes, Jean and her amiable but crooked father board a cruise ship, where they soon spot Henry Fonda's character, Charles Pike.


Pike is handsome and rich, the heir to a beer fortune, and Jean's father calls him "as fine a specimen of the sucker species as I've ever seen." But Jean finds him a fine specimen -- period. She doesn't want to fleece him; she wants to marry him. Like any good Sturges script, The Lady Eve takes serpentine turns. But Jean, a self-described adventuress, is utterly determined to catch Pike, who is passive and aloof, a toter of books. She proves effective. Aboard ship, Pike, an amateur herpetologist, shuns the flirtations of an array of women, preferring to sit alone reading about snakes. But in no time Jean has Pike literally kneeling at her feet -- a hooked male drunk on perfume.


Sturges, married four times, was considered good copy by the gossip columnists. In fact, given his turbulent romantic history, it's tempting to see in Sturges's depiction of Jean Harrington an echoing of Mencken's notorious claim that women are crafty, manipulative, and too readily romanticized by gullible men. But further familiarity with Sturges's work suggests otherwise. Sturges is clearly intrigued by women who, like "the Lady Eve," blend sophistication with a generous spirit and feminine charm. In the end, Jean Harrington acts nobly, putting love above lucre, and Stanwyck simply glows in Sturges's light. She never looked sexier.


The lead character in Sullivan's Travels (1942), Sturges's next film, is a rich Hollywood director who has previously turned out such cinematic froth as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939. But now he wants to explore "the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is." He aims to direct a work of "stark realism," a "true canvas of suffering humanity" entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? Thus Sullivan disguises himself as a hobo and, with nothing but a dime in his pocket, sets out to discover "what it's like to be poor" by hitching rides and hopping freights.


Much to his irritation, however, Sullivan isn't alone. He's followed by a public-relations crew sent by his studio: a busload of colorful eccentrics, two of them played by William Demarest and Frank Moran, gifted character actors who show up regularly in Sturges's films. Eventually, Sullivan ditches his zany colleagues and meets a wise-cracking, disenchanted young actress memorably played by Veronica Lake. In fact "The Girl," as Sturges's script calls her, steals the show in Sullivan's Travels: She's a saucy mix of innocence and worldliness, part angel, part scamp. But then, as Jean Harrington informed Pike in The Lady Eve, the best girls "aren't as good as you think they are, and the bad ones aren't nearly so bad."


Sullivan and the Girl stand in soup lines, sleep in box cars, and collect tales of woe. Predictably, they fall in love before returning to the luxuries of Hollywood and the comforts of home. Still, Sullivan's generous impulses remain strong. Once again, dressed as a tramp, the director hits the streets of Los Angeles, passing out five-dollar bills to beleaguered souls. Sullivan's good deed backfires, however, when he's cornered by a vicious wretch who beats him unconscious and bolts with his cash.


What follows, as one critic notes, abruptly transforms Sullivan's Travels into a cross between It Happened One Night and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Sullivan, dazed for weeks from his beating, finds himself charged with assault and sentenced to a grim prison complete with sweat boxes and savage guards. But it's here that Sullivan gains fresh insight into art when, as a rare treat, he and his fellow inmates watch a rollicking cartoon. Sullivan notices that, as the prisoners laugh, their troubles vanish. Like Sturges himself -- whose earliest comedies appeared in the midst of the Depression -- Sullivan concludes upon his release that "meaningful" art doesn't demand preachy realism and that humor too is a valuable gift, an essential balm in a troubled world. Sturges dedicates Sullivan's Travels "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."


Sturges continued his roll through the early 1940s. His next film, The Palm Beach Story -- completed less than a year after Sullivan's Travels -- proceeds with confidence and verve. Its central character, Gerry Jeffers, is a spirited young woman (Claudette Colbert) who decides reluctantly to divorce her husband, an insolvent inventor (Joel McCrea). Gerry and Tom live over their heads in glamorous Manhattan, and she hates counting pennies amidst so many diamonds and furs. So she travels to Florida, where she meets a mild-mannered millionaire named Hackensacker, played perfectly by another Sturges regular, Rudy Vallee.


Like several of Sturges's more likable characters, Hackensacker finds great pleasure in giving his money away. He showers Gerry with gifts and nearly wins her hand. And like Sturges's other comedies, The Palm Beach Story ends up endorsing traditional values in its own madcap way. Gerry returns happily to her husband, and Hackensacker finds his own suitable mate. Indeed, like many traditional comedies, The Palm Beach Story concludes with a grand wedding scene, and implies that all's well that ends well -- or at least as well as can be expected in a world that Sturges, in Sullivan's Travels, likened to a "cock-eyed carnival."


Sturges showed a similarly sure hand in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Its main character, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) discovers that she's become pregnant after a long night of revelry with her friends and lonely soldiers stationed at a nearby base. Dimly, Trudy recalls getting sloshed that night and impulsively marrying a war-bound soldier whose name she can't quite recall: Razkiwatski, perhaps. Trudy does, finally, find herself a husband, and -- amid much comic hoopla -- delivers sextuplets to boot. The film's rather risque premise made Miracle of Morgan's Creek one of Sturges's most controversial and profitable films.


At the height of his success, Sturges was one of the richest, most sociable, and most ambitious men in show business. But he spent wildly, invested poorly, and turned increasingly to drink. He opened a restaurant, The Players, on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Initially, The Players was a great success, attracting celebrities and tourists alike. But Sturges badly managed the restaurant, which he sold, desperate for money, in 1953. For Sturges, who spent much of his free time schmoozing with guests, it proved a particularly disappointing flop. California Pictures -- Sturges's most ambitious business venture, begun in collaboration with the unstable Howard Hughes -- also sputtered, stalled, and, perhaps inevitably, dissolved. In 1946 the studio released The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, which Sturges wrote and directed as a comeback vehicle for Harold Lloyd, one of the great comic stars of the early days of film. But from the start Diddlebock was burdened with difficulties, including an oddly leaden script and Lloyd's constant meddling with Sturges's directorial decisions. The result was a mess of clunky scenes and tired gags that did nothing to further Sturges's career, or Lloyd's. Lloyd even sued Sturges, claiming that Diddlebock seriously damaged his reputation.


In fact, the final decade of Sturges's life resembles one long pratfall: a fairly steady slide into alcohol and unexpected anonymity. Sturges did find a measure of happiness in his fourth and final marriage. He continued to work sporadically as a screenwriter, director, and actor. He investigated several intriguing collaborative proposals involving, among others, Michael Wilding, Carlo Ponti, and Howard Hawks. But his later success was severely limited, his grand plans came to nothing, and his bills continued to mount. "The Nietzschean theory of living dangerously is splendid," he observed near the end of his life, "but should be modified to live dangerously with a small income."


Trouble certainly surrounded the 1948 Unfaithfully Yours, widely considered Sturges's last important film. The studio head, Darryl Zanuck, was wary of Sturges's improvisational methods and not only hovered over the film's production but -- to Sturges's immense irritation -- closely supervised its final cut. Worse, Rex Harrison, the star of Unfaithfully Yours, found himself at the center of a national scandal when his lover, the actress Carole Landis, committed suicide only weeks before the film's release. At the time, Harrison was still married to another, more prominent actress, Lilli Palmer. The press pounced on the story, and Unfaithfully Yours was buried by bad publicity.


Harrison's character in Unfaithfully Yours is Sir Alfred de Carter, a famous orchestra conductor who has come to suspect that his beautiful young wife has been unfaithful. As his suspicions mount, Sir Alfred grows increasingly obsessed with the notion that a man who can so deftly lead a large orchestra has so little control over his own life. Sturges's inventive spirit was often evident in his art: He loved to experiment with a variety of techniques -- including flashbacks, zoom shots, freeze frames -- that only much later became commonplace in American films. Unfaithfully Yours includes a much-celebrated sequence in which Sturges zooms into Sir Alfred's anguished mind as he stands at his podium, before a packed house, conducting skilled versions of three famous classical works. As he performs, Sir Alfred lets his imagination hunt for the most fitting response to his wife's alleged infidelity.


Conducting Rossini's Overture to Semiramide, Sir Alfred concocts an elaborately foolproof scene in which he murders Daphne in a rage of bloody revenge. During a subsequent piece -- Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini -- he suavely challenges Tony to a lethal game of Russian roulette. But during Wagner's reconciliation theme from Tannhauser, Sir Alfred permits his better side to rise. With graciousness and tact, he sends Daphne off with his blessing and a magnanimous check.


Much of the comedy in Unfaithfully Yours comes from Sturges's deflating of Sir Alfred, whose smooth and pompous facade slowly cracks. After the concert, Sir Alfred, still seething, decides to pursue his murderous scenario, which proves far more difficult in practice than within the chamber of his own imagination. Before Sturges is finished with him, the suave conductor is turned into a stumbling, fumbling clown who also realizes, not surprisingly, that he's wholly incapable of killing his wife. So Sir Alfred opts for the high road. He forgives Daphne and prepares to bid her adieu -- a gesture that proves unnecessary when, in the end, she convincingly professes her loyalty and love.


Sturges probably intended the modest and unflappable movie director in Sullivan's Travels to be the idealized picture of himself. But it is Sir Alfred in Unfaithfully Yours who actually represents more of Sturges: his vanity, his impetuousness, and his volatility -- together with his talent, his sophistication, his sentimentality, his success, and his failure. Sturges's rise was meteoric, and so was his fall. The last years of his life, from the failures of Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend in 1948 to his death in 1959, saw some domestic contentment, with his new wife and children. His career, however, was in tatters -- as perhaps it had always been doomed to be.


Certainly the booze hadn't helped; the 1940s were hard days for men who couldn't hold their liquor, with the temptations and pressures to drink everywhere, particularly for a man who wanted to be an openhanded and popular restaurateur. But even without his drinking, Sturges contained parts that didn't seem to belong together. He had H. L. Mencken's sneer at the American "booboisie" -- and he had a profound admiration for the American common man. He had the sophistication of a worldly figure whose wealthy boyhood was spent in the great capitals of Europe in the ambit of Isadora Duncan -- and he had a deep sentimentality about small-town American life. He had a vision of human beings as corrupt, foolish, and hard of heart -- and he spent his best years making frenetic comedies that usually ended with the triumph of common sense and human generosity.


The astonishing thing is that he put it all together even for the short period he managed. Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film in 1948, hailed Unfaithfully Yours as the work of "an agile, adult mind." And indeed, Unfaithfully Yours, at once silly and elegant, superbly illustrates Sturges's mature understanding that all men have their flaws; that generosity, however, always becomes us; and that forgiveness, often difficult, is the most generous gift of all.




Brian Murray teaches in the Department of Writing and Media at Loyola College in Baltimore.