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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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.