The King of Comedy
The American filmmaker Preston Sturges had a supreme gift for making people laugh without representing the world as better or worse than it is. It was worse than usual during the Depression and World War II, when, from 1933 (the year he finished a first draft of The Great McGinty) to 1944, Sturges wrote and directed seven comedies: McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. In them, politics is rigged, poverty is immune to charity, bosses are petty dictators and workers live on dreams of jackpots, romantic love is either a luxury of the rich or a fabrication of the con artist, and small-town America’s morality is the kind that ostracizes an unwed pregnant girl while embracing a bogus war hero. Yet these movies sent waves of euphoria rolling through the audience.
They did it again at a recent Sturges festival at New York’s Regency Theatre, whose audience could have watched most of the films, repeatedly, on Public TV over the past two years but seemed to sense that a Sturges film is best experienced communally, Maybe the present depression is one reason for the renewed interest in Sturges. He dealt with poverty and wealth in a skeptical way that an audience today can enjoy without making the allowances that it does for Frank Capra’s movies.
But Sturges’s surface vitality—his ricochet dialogue and pacing, his company of wild character types—isn’t a ploy to distract you from, or resign you to, delusion and injustice. He drew on a deeper vitality, unsparing but confident. He had a genius for making a value call forth its opposite. The cynicism, for instance, of the heroine in The Lady Eve: she’s a cruise-ship cardsharp who preys on rich, stupid men. Other filmmakers might have set her up as a bitch due for moral overhaul, or “rounded out” her character with psychology. But as conceived by Sturges (and as played by Barbara Stanwyck; with bemused seductiveness), she is the essence of cynicism; not a closed system but an open challenge to the world to offer up, if it can, pure innocence. And it can, it can: it offers up Henry Fonda, as a virginal snake-biologist ale-fortune heir. “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.”
In The Great McGinty, total political corruption manufactures its own opposition: a “repeat voter” (paid by the party) rises through the machine to the governorship, and goes honest—a choice so violently unusual that its momentum flips it over again. In Sullivan’s Travels, a well-heeled director of movie comedies dresses like a hobo and sets out to experience poverty so that he can make socially relevant films. Sturges never questions his full sincerity, and neither does Joel McCrea (for whom the role was written). But Sullivan’s sincerity is McCrea’s intelligent civility with its teeth set on edge. In his …