Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges
Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges
Young and fashionable crowds spilling over into the street, turned away nightly after vain attempts to gain admission to The Lady Eve or Christmas in July: such was the unanticipated spectacle provided by a recent Preston Sturges retrospective at New York’s Film Forum, which ended going into overtime in order to accommodate the eager hordes. Out in the lobby, alongside copies of the newly published memoir Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, a collection of memorabilia testified to Sturges’s success at shaping his own legend, from his invention of a kissproof lipstick to his elopement with the Hutton heiress (an escapade which made the front page of The New York Times). In each of the photos on display Sturges managed to turn himself into a perfectly judged comic icon, an amalgam of whimsical moustache and flamboyant headgear, the glittering eyes promising initiation into unimaginable realms of gnostic zaniness. It was a sweet triumph, however posthumous and belated: Sturges presented entirely on his own terms, enjoying the unconditional success he courted so energetically.
The retrospective—assembling nearly all the movies he directed, wrote, adapted, inspired, or (in one instance) wrote subtitles for—was above all a festival of language. The inclusion of films written for other directors (like Diamond Jim and Remember the Night) or adapted from his plays (like Strictly Dishonorable and Child of Manhattan) focused attention on Sturges as a literary figure, a playwright who switched to movies because they were “handy and cheap and necessary and used constantly…instead of being something that one sees once on a wedding trip, like Niagara Falls or Grant’s Tomb.” From the speakeasy of Strictly Dishonorable, Sturges’s 1929 Broadway hit, to the tavern of the late and commercially disastrous The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, of 1947, and most especially in the eleven features he wrote and directed between 1940 and 1948, his abstract interiors hum to the most consistently lively dialogue that any American has written for stage or screen. Who else wrote such distinctive lines? The juxtaposition (in Remember the Night) of yodeling, bubble dancers, corsets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “My Indiana Home,” hypnoleptic catalepsy, and the remark “In China they eat dogs” establishes more clearly than any screen credit what territory we are in.
It is peculiar that movies made only a few decades ago have attained an almost Elizabethan richness and strangeness—at least in comparison with the monosyllabic dialects of today’s screenplays. Sturges was hardly unique in his mix of high and low diction, his keenness for the verbal peculiarities of senatorial orators and gum-chewing soda jerks, of backwoods preachers and polyglot card sharps. The talents of Ben Hecht, Jules Furthman, S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Clifford Odets, Robert Riskin, Charles Brackett, and countless others combined to create that vernacular palimpsest of the Thirties and Forties which has so often been pastiched but never improved upon. Where Sturges stands out is in his degree of self-displaying stylization. He breaks every rule of …