PRESTON STURGES

by Peter Bogdanovich
June 8, 2011 12:28 PM
10 Comments
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In 1973, I did an Esquire column about screenwriters, focusing largely on the first writer-director of the talking era, the mercurial Mr. Preston Sturges, who got so fed up with seeing his scripts mangled by inferior directors that he made an unprecedented deal with Paramount: he would direct his own screenplay for one dollar. The superb result was the brilliantly satirical political comedy, The Great McGinty, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. This was followed by seven more comedies over the next four years, each one of similar vintage quality (except for The Great Moment, which was somewhat wrecked by studio interference in the cutting), an amazing outburst of creativity that remains unchallenged to this day; six further masterpieces that have stood the test of time and changing tastes: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Palm Beach Story, and Sullivan’s Travels. If you haven’t seen every one of them, you are missing seven treasures of delight, wit and hilarity---human and wildly funny---among the finest of American comedy.

The article I wrote was later reprinted in my collection, Pieces of Time, titled “Screenwriters and Preston Sturges,” and this has been uploaded on author-critic Clive James’ website, to which we hereby supply the link. All these fabulous films are available on DVD (or through Netflix) so if you haven’t seen them, there’s no excuse for not catching each and every one as soon as you possibly can!

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10 Comments

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  • Maddy Mud | August 11, 2011 4:48 AMReply

    I brought "Christmas in July" into the breakroom for Universal Tourguides. Of course, the fact that it was black&white; immediately turned off a lot of the 20-somethings, but I managed to get more and more to come in, and by the end, I had almost the whole breakroom filled. I made a lot of Sturges converts that day, in a room where Tarintino is thought to be the first and last of cinema gods ...

  • Mark J. McPhdrson | June 15, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    Two words: Captain Mcgloo. As much as I love each of Sturges' masterpieces, I agree with Mario that it's an oversight to exclude "Easy Living" from the list, and its hard to reconcile that priceless film, written by Sturges, with his frustration over other director's mangling. There are moments of pure Sturges in "Easy Living" most memorably the raucous automat scene, when chaos breaks out and anything might happen. But the film has a sweetness that Sturges would have sharpened out, and I am glad that Liesen frustrated the overwhelming and concussive force of Sturges' comic instincts.

  • John C | June 14, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    Hail the Conquering Hero & The Miracle at Morgan's Creek are my two favorites; with the latter having the
    best use of deus-ex-machina in film history.

  • Jesse | June 13, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    Many years ago I had the pleasure of going to the Film Forum many days in a row when they had a Sturges festival. I was in heaven seeing his great (and near great) films on a big screen. I've been a staunch fan ever since. One thing (he actually does it twice) that astounds me in Miracle of Morgan's Creek is the incredible tracking shot of Norville and Trudy (then later on Trudy and her little sister) walking through the entire town in one continuous take. Beautiful. Love your blog, Peter.

  • PB | June 11, 2011 8:01 AMReply

    Thank you, Mario, for the kind words on "Texasville" (I hope some day to get the director's cut onto DVD---it's much better, 25 mins. longer).
    Blake, I usually agree with everything you say---and have meant to comment favorably on all your previous brilliant comments---but I can't concur on the Leisen films: "Easy Living" looks deeply strained to me (the Automat is really
    poor), and though I adore Stanwyck in just about anything, "Remember the Night" doesn't do much for me. I used to like "Midnight", but saw it again recently and found it not so good at all. Same with "Unfaithfully Yours"---repetitive and labored compared to the Paramount ones. "Mad Wednesday" is only OK to me (Lloyd couldn't play dialog well). But appreciate the thoughts from all of you---thanks for caring enough to comment.

  • Mario Vitale | June 10, 2011 11:35 AMReply

    My favourite Sturges film is “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” too. It’s satiric, of course, but I can see a sentimental undercurrent in it. For me this movie is linked with Orson Welles’ masterpiece “The Magnificent Ambersons”, as far as subject, situations and planning of many sequences are concerned.

    Peter, I don’t know if someone says this sometimes: “Texasville” is my favourite film of yours. I watch its last 10 minutes very often. I think it’s one of the greatest films in the 90s.

  • Jon O. | June 10, 2011 8:53 AMReply

    I've loved all of Sturges' masterpieces (the six from 1940-44, as well as the two postwar films mentioned in the previous posting) for many years now, and for me, "Hail the Conquering Hero" rises above the rest. It has Sturges' patented fast pacing, but with a minimum of slapstick, and was bold enough to satirize both those who had the audacity to be opportunistic during wartime and mob mentality. It also comments on the sacredness of civic duty - without an ounce of preachiness or sanctimoniousness. The marines are mythically portrayed, appearing out of the mist at the beginning and disappearing into the steam of a departing train at the end, as if they were Providentially sent to set young, disillusioned Woodrow Trusmiths's (Eddie Bracken) life on its proper course - as well as the direction of the community in which he lives (and wartime viewers). Stalwart William Demarest turns in a stellar performance as the sergeant, and former boxer Freddie Steele (as Bugsy), who would stand out the following year in "The Story of GI Joe," was quite memorable as an upright marine and Woodrow's conscience. It's a must-see. But then, so are all the other Sturges films mentioned above.

  • Blake Lucas | June 8, 2011 8:20 AMReply

    No argument of Sturges' brilliance in all the films you name (and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS too), my own favorite being THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, handily one of the greatest of all movie comedies.

    But your implicit dismissal of directors of his earlier scripts both above and in the piece seems to me very unfair to Mitchell Leisen, who did beautifully with EASY LIVING and even more so with REMEMBER THE NIGHT, which however great its script, is brought to the level of endlessly rich masterpiece by Leisen, who is great with the actors, negotiates the changes of tone from comedic to dramatic with exquisite poise, has more visual style than Sturges, and perhaps along with this, more warmth and heart that this story needed. I'm glad Sturges didn't direct this particular one--and it might be acknowledged that none of his own directed films is like it. Again, I'm not writing this to diminish Sturges. But Leisen is underrated, perhaps criminally so, and Billy Wilder too underestimated Leisen's realization of the three Wilder/Brackett scripts Leisen directed, especially MIDNIGHT.

  • Doug Krentzlin | June 8, 2011 5:56 AMReply

    Only "seven masterpieces," Peter? How could you leave out UNFAITHFULLY YOURS? (Which is my personal favorite of Sturges' comedies, by the way.) And the Harold Lloyd comeback vehicle THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK may not rise to the level of "masterpiece," but it isn't easily dismissed, either.

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