Today’s Hollywood comedies are a lacklustre lot. If they’re not completely puerile and catering to the lowest common denominator, then they’re saccharine sweet and ultimately as unsatisfying as a quick sugar hit. Anyone looking for snappy, intelligent dialogue and interesting characters with more to them than good looks and a permanently youthful appearance either has to wait for the next Coen Brothers movie or check out the work of one of the greatest exponents of the comedy genre: Preston Sturges.
Sturges, who died exactly 50 years ago, produced movie comedies which have not only stood the test of time, but have also influenced generations of writers and filmmakers, of whom the Coen Brothers are the most overt examples. During a flurry of intense creative activity in the early 1940s, Sturges, a maverick character with an insatiable lust for life, made a string of unforgettable films which quickly established him as the master of comedy in much the same way as Hitchcock was the master of suspense.
The sexy screwball comedy of The Lady Eve, the high-octane hilarity of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story, and the poignant tragi-comedy of both Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero, all helped to make Sturges a familiar name to wartime cinemagoers. At the height of his success, he was Paramount’s top director. More importantly, he was Hollywood’s first writer-director, paving the way for the likes of the better-remembered Billy Wilder.
But his determination to have complete control over his work led to a falling-out with his home studio. In just a few years, he went from being Hollywood’s boy wonder to being one of its forgotten men.
So who was this pioneering filmmaker – and where did his genius come from? Of Sturges’s achievements, filmmaking was only one on an incredible list which also included perfecting a kiss-proof lipstick, owning and running two restaurants, penning pop songs and Broadway plays, and inventing a silent engine. He was, as the French director Rene Clair, observed: “like a man from the Italian Renaissance, wanting to do everything at once”.
The greatest single influence on the young Sturges was his mother, Mary Biden, who married his father in 1897 and spent the duration of the marriage trying to get rid of him. Sturges later said: “Mr Biden never sounded like much of a husband to me, but it must be remembered that he was one of Mother’s very first ones, and like the celebrated Mrs Simpson, she did better later.”
Sturges was born in 1898, and in 1901 Mary married Solomon Sturges, an eminent Chicago financier. Even after her marriage, she spent much of her time in Europe with her new friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan who persuaded her to dress in Grecian robes. Sturges later wrote: “When I look back at what I was exposed to as a child, I realise how extraordinarily lucky I was never to have become a male interpretative dancer with a wreath of gold leaves around my head.”
Sturges claimed to have had a bellyful of culture in his childhood, but his bohemian upbringing had a profound effect on his filmmaking style. His films blended European sophistication with snazzy American dialogue and humour, and were populated by the kind of oddballs that his mother so readily attracted.
The young Sturges tried various careers and although brilliant at whatever he did, he was always restless. In an interview with four years ago, his widow, Sandy, told me: “He read a book entitled Two Lifetimes in One – or How Never to be Tired, and he said that it had changed his life. He said that to rid your body of fatigue and restore your vivacity, you just need to lie down for 15 minutes in total peace and quiet.”
In 1928, Sturges read a tome entitled A Study of the Drama, and realised he had found his vocation. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was written in just six days but became a long-running Broadway hit. Brought to Hollywood in 1932, he wrote an original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, based on stories told to him by his second wife, socialite Eleanor Hutton, about her ruthless tycoon grandfather. But Sturges was not happy with the resulting film, and decided that he had to get into the “directing racket” himself.
Over the next six years, while he freelanced as a screenwriter, his frustration increased. Finally, in 1940, he made Paramount an offer they couldn’t refuse: the script for The Biography of a Bum for $1, provided they let him direct it. Retitled The Great McGinty, it was the first film to have the credit “written and directed by” and it won Sturges the first Oscar in the newly created category of Best Original Screenplay. A box office smash, it is said to have influenced aspects of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and it confirmed Sturges’s theory that “good dialogue is the cheapest insurance a producer can buy”.
With the 1941 screwball romance The Lady Eve, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as a sexy cardshark who first cons and then falls in love with goofy Henry Fonda, Sturges established himself as the king of comedy. He was to the movies of the 1940s what Woody Allen was to 1980s films or what the Coen Brothers are to today’s: a unique, almost self-contained operation with his own stock company of memorable character actors.
The movie which earned Sturges the genius tag was Odyssey-like Sullivan’s Travels which he wrote to demonstrate that “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh”. Strikingly original, it moved gracefully between knockabout slapstick and stark realism, between raucous badinage and poetic philosophising, between scenes of life-affirming laughter and those of human suffering. Unusually long sequences free of dialogue but full of visual eloquence, blend into scenes which feature some of the fastest exchanges of the screwball era. It catapulted Veronica Lake to stardom and revealed Joel McCrea’s hitherto untapped flair for comedy – a discovery which he attributed solely to Sturges’s dialogue and direction. It is without doubt a masterpiece.
In 1944, Sturges tested the loyalty of his studio and courted controversy with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The story of a small-town girl who falls pregnant to a GI, it brilliantly blended slapstick with pathos. Sturges managed to get this ahead-of-its-time movie past the censors to give Paramount another hit.
Sturges’s reign as the king of comedy ended later that year with Hail the Conquering Hero, a satire which summed up many of his thoughts about patriotism and the public’s readiness to accept anything at face value – a recurring theme in his movies. By the time the film was playing in cinemas, Sturges had fallen out with Paramount over its apparent lack of faith in his 1943 drama The Great Moment.
By 1959, Sturges had finally found happiness in his private life, with a fourth wife and their two young sons. He was offered a huge advance to begin work on his autobiography provisionally entitled The Events Leading Up to My Death.
On August 6, 1959 Sturges wrote: “These ruminations, and the beer and coleslaw that I washed down while dictating them, are giving me a bad case of indigestion. Over the years, though, I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak it.” With typical Sturges irony, croaking it was exactly what he did.