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.