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 crankiness, and in the way the freight trains he hops keep depositing him back in Hollywood, you can sense the force resisting him, the system he wants to buck—a system that keeps the rich from comprehending the poor.
In James Curtis’s entertaining biography, Sturges is described by Edwin Gillette, his longtime “engineer/secretary,” as “very conservative, but…apolitical.” And Sturges is quoted (referring to McGinty): “A man is what he is. So was he made. So will he be.” But a Sturges movie doesn’t feel like that. A man may be what he is, but when that provokes everything he isn’t to rear its head, the result is dynamic. A character secure in some controlling skill—how to care for exotic snakes, lure a strange man to pay for her train ticket, conduct an orchestra—is thereby launched on an uncharted rampage of extremes.
In Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges’s most weirdly elegant comedy, made in 1948), an English symphony-orchestra conductor, played by foxy young Rex Harrison, has such control of his life’s sophisticated veneer that he invites chaos. His early scenes are so reparteeconscious that they cry out for someone to shake him up—and sure enough, a dowdy, envious relative volunteers a private eye’s report on his wife’s infidelity. His debonair disbelief leads him to fling away, shred, and burn the document in an escalating frenzy of repression—which, in turn, forces anxiety to bloom, in three vengeful fantasies, while he’s conducting Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Exquisitely matched to the three musical styles, these fantasies of aestheticized control (including a shockingly icy murder with a straight razor) merge into hilarious slapstick when he tries to act them out: he’s purged by sheer bungling.
Repartee and slapstick, wealth and poverty, greed and generosity, beauty and homeliness, exile and community: Sturges makes each generate its opposite. Any single authority galvanizes Sturges and his characters into resistance—into accidents and exceptions, in “an open forum where everyone down to the cross-eyed bit player gets a chance to try out his oratorical ability. A nice word-festival, very democratic….”* Sturges’s reputation is as a dialogue artist; he was also a nonstop dialectician.
In 1907, when Sturges was eight, his parents offered him a choice. He could stay in Chicago with Solomon Sturges, his stepfather, whom he adored and considered his father. Or he could go with his mother, Mary, to live in Paris. (A culture-vulture and bolter, she had divorced his real father when Preston was a baby, fled Chicago for Europe, and lived for a few years with Isadora Duncan, parking the child with Isadora’s mother in Switzerland, with a governess in Bayreuth, in a Berlin Gymnasium or the handiest concert or opera house.) Curtis describes the confrontation, which took place in Preston’s room at night:
The boy said, “I want to stay here with Father.”
And Solomon said:
“I am not your father.”
In stupefaction the boy looked at him for a moment, then to his mother to see if he was kidding, then back at his father. Then he started to cry….
He cried long enough to sober his father, to awaken the servants, and the neighbors, who began phoning. Then Mary cried, and in desperation, Mr. Sturges rushed down the stairs to the glass case in which he kept the trophies, medals, cups, and awards he had won in school and college,…gathered them all up in his arms and ran back up to the bedroom, where he laid them, one by one, at Preston’s feet. They were finely crafted, and golden, and…the one Preston liked best was a high bicycle made of gold with a sapphire in the hub of the big wheel and a diamond in the little wheel in back. The crying ceased, and, presently, his father became his father once again…. Despite his express wish, Preston was eventually taken to Paris to live.
Apparently this account comes from a typescript that Sturges dictated in 1959, the year he died, at sixty-one—an unfinished autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death, covering his first thirty years. (Curtis has “drawn heavily” on it—a nice service, especially when he quotes—but there are no footnotes, just a lot of “Sturges said”s.) The little scene, with its Oedipal bedroom setting, accumulating crowd of bystanders, witty jeweled visual detail, and emotional somersault, is so artfully Sturgesesque that I wonder if Sturges himself touched up the memory, shaping it as he would for a screenplay. It recalls, say, the sequence in Christmas in July when a young clerk (Dick Powell) is fired and then—hoaxed into thinking he’s won a coffee-slogan contest with “If You Don’t Sleep at Night, It Isn’t the Coffee, It’s the Bunk!”—has a delusory shopping spree on credit, showering his parents and neighbors with new furniture and toys.
Curtis says Sturges was “fond of telling” that childhood story. Dramatic items from his autobiography, with their clear parallels to his movies and their ready-made interpretations (Mother “wedged art into me from every side,” which “poisoned my existence”—hence his comedy’s refusal of the “deepdish”), were being retailed back in the 1940s, in magazine articles with blurbs like “The Toscanini of the pratfall…lives his own legend.” In 1944, in Time magazine, James Agee succumbed to (while, in The Nation, questioning his own taste for) this terrific copy: the boy wearing a Greek chiton (courtesy of Isadora) to his first day of school in Chicago; the creator of “kissproof” lipstick for his mother’s cosmetics firm: the freelance inventor; the mid-life failure whose ruptured appendix “saved his life”—who taught himself playwriting in the hospital bed and became the toast of Broadway with a comedy that propelled him to Hollywood. The Time piece colored the already colorful facts (it took him at least thirty days to write the hit play, not “six”): Time-ese, studio publicity, or Sturges showmanship.
Fictionalizing the life of a real man gave Sturges his first success us a screenwriter. C.W. Post, the cercals magnate who committed suicide in 1914, had a granddaughter whom Sturges met on a train to Palm Beach just after a flop play and the loss of his hit play’s earnings in the stock-market crash. They eloped, she promised to bankroll his next play, and then, inheritance intact, she left him—$100,000 in the hole. He took a couple of rewrite jobs in Hollywood, saying, “I hope that this bread cast upon the waters will return as ham sandwiches.” It returned as prime beef: his first original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, an ironic tragedy based on the millionaire Post’s rise and fall. (Orson Welles, reports Curtis, joked that it was “extremely poor taste” to mention the movie in his presence: its subject, mixed tonalities, and achronological structure anticipated Citizen Kane by almost a decade. Sturges looked rather like Welles playing a lounge lizard, with croupier mustache and oiled pompadour.) After a cliffhanger period of bank closings and financial crisis at the studio, The Power and the Glory, starring Spencer Tracy, opened in 1933 to critical raves and strong New York box office. Nationwide it flopped.
Sturges was pragmatic about changing the facts of a man’s life, even in biography. In 1935, in a screenplay called Diamond Jim, he had Brady, who died of a heart attack induced by indigestion, intentionally eat himself to death. In 1944, though, in his writing and direction of The Great Moment (a biography of a dentist who discovered the anesthetic use of ether), he invented a mildly comic character for the man but argued that it would be wrong to alter the mostly dull events except by ingeniously manipulated time shifts. When the movie was recut chronologically by the producer (it flopped), Sturges left Paramount, where he had made his first seven superb comedies. He formed California Pictures Corporation (motto: “Non Redolemus Pisce—We Do Not Smell from Herring”) with a partner he could really trust. Howard Hughes.
What Sturges would have called his “third act” was a frantic, sad mixture of underappreciation (especially for Unfaithfully Yours) and overreaching. “To have a play you must have a climax,” he said, “and it is better not to have the climax right at the beginning.” He was painfully conscious of the shape of his life, and Curtis honors this by letting him, as they say, “dialogue in” his own finish—dictate a “miracle ending” like the joking flights of movie fancy that end his comedies. Near death, once the third highest-paid person in the country, broke and living on the Hotel Algonquin’s charity, thinking about his two children and two of his four wives, Sturges said, “I am probably merely between fortunes…and this time unless they plug me during the getaway…the boys will all be dressing at Brooks Brothers…and their mothers at Balenciaga.”
* * *
HUSBAND (ominously): Have you ever heard of Russian roulette?
WIFE (blithely): Certainly, I used to play it all the time with my father.
My mother was an alcoholic. Her alcohol was two percent blood.
—The King of Comedy
With Sturges, comedy is a dialogue, and a joke is purifying, even when it introduces a new uneasiness (as does the Freudian punch line above). Many people say Sturges makes them feel anxious; they must be unnerved by the quick mood swings, which to me seem actively healthy, like the perpetual adjustments of a mind or body to ward off disease—nothing like the locked indecision of anxiety.
Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The King of Comedy, harks back to Sturges in its talkative scale, vivid bit-part characters, and story of a nebbishy failure on a collision course with success (like Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). But Scorsese is attracted to ritualized obsession, and The King of Comedy is an anxious monologue. It has Sturges’s speed, but with the transitions blurred to a sustained tremor.
The central character is Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an office messenger and autograph hound who idolizes Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the comedian-host of a TV talk show (modeled on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). When Jerry is assaulted by fans at the stage door one night, Rupert helps him into a limo and then jumps in too. Claiming to be an aspiring stand-up comic, he plays on Jerry’s apprehensive exhaustion, extracting a hollow “Call my office” about an audition. Naive, deluded, egged on by fantasies of intimacy with stars (he talks casually to life-sized cardboard cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minelli in his room in his mother’s house in New Jersey), Rupert becomes an obnoxiously cocky supplicant at Jerry’s office and even at his country house, sure he was invited for the week-end. Here a cold rebuff sinks in—so the next day Rupert and an accomplice, a lusting female fan of Jerry’s, abduct him on the street with a fake gun and extort a deal. Rupert goes on TV while she holds Jerry hostage.
The movie enters Rupert’s head, dramatizing his fantasies to show his belief in them. But Rupert doesn’t weight the movie at its center, the way Travis Bickle did in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. (Bickle was an evil center, but at least you knew where you were.) Rupert is as lightweight and synthetic as the cardboard dummies in his room. A dupe in both senses of the word, he’s the product of childhood trauma plugged directly into a TV set. His only value is celebrity glory; even alone, his behavior is audience-oriented shtick, broken only by primitive yelling when somebody ruins his timing.
Robert De Niro seems to have thought out (and overthought) his performance as a process of subtraction. In his first big scene, in the limo with Jerry, he pours on the charm as seductively as a make-out artist with a woman in the back seat; going through his paces for Jerry, working a set of dimples I never noticed before, he’s likable and funny. Bit by bit, De Niro pares him down; by the end, at the TV show, he’s a robot whose answer to “You’re under arrest” is “I think I should get made up.”
In Scorsese’s New York, New York, with the richly motivated and detailed character of a macho jazz musician, even De Niro’s windiest comic improvisations had a Sid Caesar-like virility; they used rambling circumlocution as a male prerogative. With Rupert, a figure both hollow and schematic, De Niro is thrown back upon the resources of comedy-sketch acting but denied the freedom to explore them. With a silly mustache and facetious delivery (what Johnny Carson calls a “sketch voice”), he does tight obsequiousness and effeminate “show biz” mannerisms—things that sketch actors like Dan Aykroyd and John Candy do more enjoyably because they’re not nursing a secret plan.
Hampered by his—and the movie’s—concept of Rupert, De Niro often looks as if he misjudged the level of comic reality that the other actors were on. Sandra Bernhard (a stand-up comic, in her acting debut) as Rupert’s accomplice, Masha, is a rangy, thicklipped figure of erotic fury—a streetcrazy bacchante voracious for her Orpheus Jerry’s flesh—who grows steadily more believable. Masha’s swings from rage to gentleness are no more authentic than Rupert’s sitcom drone, but they free the actress’s improvisational skills to suggest the pained person inside Masha, and to shape comedy in patterns that the audience can readily appreciate. Once she and Rupert have Jerry in their clutches, she turns bizarrely maternal, dressing Jerry in a sweater she knitted and wondering if the color is right for him. Rupert has no reaction, just a task: making Jerry phone his office and read the hostage demands off prepared cue cards (a sketch writer’s idea). And even that task loses its shape, cluttered by De Niro’s big sunglasses, funny hat, and gags with mixed-up cue cards.
De Niro’s performance is a calculated gamble that only works in one way: as a reminder that we can be excited by watching some kinds of crazy people, like Masha (or Travis Bickle), but not the affectless ones, like Rupert. At the center of this movie is a vacuum—which puts heavy demands on Scorsese’s directorial presence to supply meaning and feeling.
Scorsese has always commanded a powerfully emotional expressive technique. Most lavishly, for Raging Bull, he masterminded stunning work by his cinematographer, sound experts, and editor, to express not only the physical passions of De Niro’s Jake La Motta but the soul that Jake couldn’t confront in himself. Scorsese answered the yearning in De Niro’s eyes for that spiritual dimension. With Rupert Pupkin, a shell of comic tics, the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration looks punishing: De Niro supplies the body—a hunched, submissive body—and Scorsese supplies pain.
The King of Comedy is the director’s anxious monologue. Its quicksilver ambivalence is like an anxiety attack being monitored by a precision instrument. Throughout, you can almost hear Scorsese’s staccato voice saying, “Is this funny?”
Working in an edgy, spare style, he plots Rupert’s tunnel vision in variations on a single image: a corridor with an audience at the far end. The funniest of these is a scene in a long, narrow Chinese restaurant, where Rupert, flush with success at having met Jerry, is emboldened to woo a former high-school classmate. He tries to impress her by boasting about the signatures in his autograph book, while the “audience,” the only other customer, a man at a distant table behind his back, laughingly mimics his gestures.
Rupert is being a smug showoff. (“Mel Brooks,” he says tutorially, “he’s an ‘on’ comic.”) But he’s also struggling through an unfamiliar mating ritual, and the laughing man in the background is like a hyena. Outside of Rupert’s fantasy, New York is a jungle. In Times Square, he fights a mob for the only working telephone in a row of them, and stands at it for hours in a contorted position (to conceal that he’s just expecting a call): an animal defensively hogging the only waterhole. When Jerry Langford takes a midtown stroll, he moves like a loping show animal uncaged for exercise; Masha picks up his trail and he senses her presence, quickens his pace, then breaks into a desperate run from the predator: an episode from Wild Kingdom. (Sturges did something of the kind, in his 1956 The French They Are a Funny Race, about an Englishman’s anthropologically detached view of French behavior.)
The glimpses of sweetness are so few that they are piercing. A single shot of Rupert’s New Jersey neighborhood—a sunny street with a river view—is a sudden shaft of normal beauty that declares its irrelevance to his airless life in reception areas and fantasies. It’s so poignant that it need only be shown once. On Rupert’s ill-fated visit to Jerry’s house, the camera catches for a moment—moving in almost imperceptibly—a framed mantel photo of Jerry as a child. The boy’s open face, now hardened into the celebrity’s fixed, self-protective mask, silently completes Jerry Lewis’s spartan, mordant performance, shaping a whole life.
The apparently sweet side to Rupert’s obsession is its dream of interracial love. Rita, the woman he now has the courage to court, is a beautiful black former cheerleader, played by Diahnne Abbott (who sang “Honeysuckle Rose” with a gardenia in her hair in the Harlem nightclub in New York, New York). Abbott has a honeysuckle naturalness, and her Rita is the only character toward whom it’s possible to feel purely tender. She senses that Rupert’s urgency really has nothing to do with her; her satin eyes fill up when she says, “What do you want from me, Rupert?” He visualizes their wedding on the Jerry Langford Show, with Rita in white tulle and Victor Borge at the piano.
The sweet dream mixed in with Rupert’s ambition sours when he brings Rita along to Jerry’s country house. She thinks they were invited, and in a peach polyester cocktail dress and straighthaired wig, she looks tacky and defenseless. When Jerry returns from golf to find them cavorting through his immaculate mansion to a Ray Charles record, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” it could be that his horror is increased by her being black. That puts you on Rupert’s side for an instant before you turn against him: his fantasy hurt Rita. Humiliated, she steals a tiny ornamental box from the coffee table, and then apologizes for the intrusion. Rupert turns on her: “Don’t listen to her. She’s a girl who works in a bar. She wants to spoil everything.” This cutting, dynamic sequence destroys not just Rupert’s illusions about Jerry but the audience’s illusions about Rupert, whose racial fantasy blows hot or cold with the Nielsen rating. It’s only an exaggeration when, in answer to Rupert’s “I made a mistake,” Jerry snarls, “So did Hitler.”
“I want to, just, put on some Shirelles. I want to be black. I wish I was Tina Turner,” intones Masha, alone at last with a bound and gagged Jerry in the dining room of her parents’ townhouse, a corridor of amber gloom flickering with hundreds of votive candles. In a one-way conversation brilliantly shaped by Sandra Bernhard, Masha’s insanely controlled dinner-party patter lurches, as she sweeps all the dishes off the table, into a sort of cannibalistic ritual.
The King of Comedy has inescapable undertones of Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, which drew abuse for its central figure’s deranged view of blacks and, later (while Scorsese was still working on The King of Comedy), for an alleged influence on John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. The King of Comedy was written back in 1972 by Paul Zimmerman, a former Newsweek film critic; as directed by Scorsese, it tempts the Taxi Driver thoughts to surface—perhaps so he can defuse them.
Unfortunately, they are indulged at the end of the movie, in an ambiguous coda (devised by Zimmerman and Scorsese during the filming), set two years after Rupert’s arrest for abduction. He either is, or imagines being, paroled and catapulted to fame by an autobiography and a blitz of magazine cover stories about his felonious TV debut. In a shiny red suit, he’s last seen pinned in the studio lights of another, unspecified TV show—a glassy-eyed star. Bloating a taut little movie with this fancy bummer that fills your head with clichés about Media Mythmaking is a ghastly mistake. It doesn’t share a joke with the audience, like Sturges’s “miracle endings”; it makes the audience into dupes: if you laughed at Rupert’s jokes, you made a criminal a star. And in raising the specter of the controversial Taxi Driver ending, it courts more anxiety, and more press maunderings about movie violence, with a self-destructive irony: the actor whom John Hinckley mimicked is wearing, in Rupert’s apotheosis, the queasy smirk of the former Bedtime for Bonzo actor in the White House.
The King of Comedy expresses anxious doubt about the social impact of celebrity—and of comedy. Preston Sturges tackled a similar doubt when he sent Sullivan, the famous director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft, on his travels through a nation haunted by poverty and racial injustice. Sturges claimed that the doubt was Sullivan’s: “I am not Sullivan. He is a younger man than I, and a better one—a composite of some of my friends who tried preaching from the screen.” Sullivan’s Travels is a defense of comedy, but a confident one. Whatever doubt Sturges felt survives only in his style of dealing with it: taking it apart and hurling the components at each other. In such a way, he arrived at overall common sense.
Eventually Sullivan finds himself, unable to prove his identity, on a brutal Southern prison farm. One night the prisoners are taken to a church, where the black congregation will charitably treat them to a movie. Sturges shows the blacks, oppressed yet in dignified control of their own sphere, admonished by their minister not to shrink away from the lowly prisoners: “We’re gonna share our pleasure with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves.” Movingly, they sing “Let My People Go”; then they and the prisoners view a Disney cartoon about Pluto trapped in flypaper. Sullivan looks around at the laughing faces, and he breaks up too. “Hey,” he says, “am I laughing?”
“It’s very funny,” says Martin Scorsese, himself playing the TV director of the Jerry Langford Show when Rupert makes his debut. What’s “funny” is a joke that Rupert has written (about the show’s writers having all been executed by a firing squad). Up to this point, Scorsese’s intense concentration has held two values in suspension: violence and comedy. The world he has shown is much narrower and meaner than Sturges’s. Its reflexes are those of predators and sitcoms, its jokes hostile and full of pain, its beauties few and isolated (Rita trapped behind a bar, a child from the past, a sunny street, an old Samuel Fuller movie shrunk to a small TV screen behind Jerry’s back). Sturges, enjoying his fictional world, populated it with a stock company of eccentric actors; in The King of Comedy, many striking faces and voices in bit parts register as “real” (among them, in fact, are Scorsese’s parents, friends, and business associates)—as if actors’ warmth, like Shelley Hack’s performance as Jerry’s assistant, wasn’t enough to comfort the director.
Even so, Scorsese manages to deliver the line that okays laughter. It’s a nervous OK (he rattles it off and walks away)—no more than a nudging dispensation to laugh at Rupert’s comedy act. If we can, the anxiety cracks into its two components. Scorsese leaves the other half, violence, in the hands of justice: an FBI man who takes Rupert away, after his minutes of televised glory, with the advice to get down on his hands and knees before the judge and plead for mercy for his terrible comedy material. With that, the true ending, Scorsese’s acute, fretful artistry finds a wonderful release—for the audience and for him.
Manny Farber and W.S. Poster, "Preston Sturges" (1954); reprinted in Movies, by Manny Farber (Stonehill Publishing Co., 1975).↩
Manny Farber and W.S. Poster, “Preston Sturges” (1954); reprinted in Movies, by Manny Farber (Stonehill Publishing Co., 1975).↩