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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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.