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.”
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).↩