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 movies by putting language at the center and making the whole film swirl around it.
For all that he learned from screwball directors like Gregory La Cava and Leo McCarey, Sturges never emulated their improvisatory approach. Every line had to be delivered precisely as written. His direction of actors took place inside his head, as he wrote lines tailor-made for the people who would be reading them. His stock company of character actors became extensions of himself, as if his unconscious could bubble forth most naturally in the accents of Porter Hall or Jimmy Conlin or William Demarest. The result is a sense, rare in movies, that all the characters have been conceived by a single mind: it is a universe of logomaniacs, keeping themselves alive by speech, and each is some form or aspect of Preston Sturges.
The saturated texture of his movies does not come primarily from visual effects or expressive acting. Indeed, often he deliberately flattens both photographic space and vocal intonation in order to heighten the impact of what is said. Straightforward, relatively unexpressive actors like Joel McCrea and Dick Powell are ideally suited to give him the kind of line readings he wants. Characteristically he plunges us into the middle of an animated dialogue, as if we walked into a room where an argument between strangers was going on. The three-way debate in the screening room in Sullivan’s Travels (an amazingly long one-take sequence), the noisy crisscrossing banter of the marines in Hail the Conquering Hero, the rooftop dialogue of the lovers in Christmas in July, the shipboard colloquies of Fonda and Stanwyck in The Lady Eve: these flurries of talk knock us off balance, forcing us into a mode of breathless attention in an effort to catch up.
The back-and-forth of what he called “hooked” dialogue went well beyond the norms of movie repartee. By the time we get to the end of his first acts we’ve already had a movie’s worth of language. The magnificence of his dialogue resides in what makes it difficult to excerpt. There are few one-liners or punchlines: the words careen off each other with manic expansiveness. In other comedies one laughs at specific gags. With Sturges, on the other hand, whole scenes and, at his best, whole films are suffused with an unbroken undercurrent of gathering hilarity: a mood which in Christmas in July or Hail the Conquering Hero is indistinguishable from the onset of an anxiety attack.
The sources of that anxiety have been raked over by a surprisingly large number of commentators: the Sturges literature already embraces two serviceable biographies (the one by Donald Spoto concentrates more on emotional portraiture, while Curtis fills in the show-business background), critical studies by James Agee, Manny Farber, André Bazin, and many others, an edition of five screenplays (with superb commentary by Brian Henderson)—and now, thirty-one years after Sturges’s death, a sort of autobiography. It is a curious book. Sturges undertook to write his memoirs in 1959, producing, according to his editor Robert Lescher, “an unfortunate manuscript…prolix, repetitive, often distasteful—really just terrible”; it only went as far as 1927. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges is presumably a much-edited version of this draft (portions of which had previously shown up in the biographies by James Curtis and Donald Spoto) supplemented by material from letters, diaries, and magazine articles.
The surprisingly seamless result is certainly fun to read. On his worst day Sturges was capable of putting together absolutely amusing and satisfying sentences. He writes of his father, whom he barely knew: “Among his possessions was a revolver, with which he often threatened to shoot himself, and my mother, who didn’t like him, would urge him to go ahead.” Of his mother’s best friend Isadora Duncan: “Isadora met Gordon Craig and began a torturing relationship, apparently spawned in an irresistible physical attraction but nourished by their mutual adoration of the genius of Mr. Craig.” On his realization of the extent of his first wife’s wealth: “Much as I disliked the un-American idea of marrying a lady with a dowry, I must admit that little Mrs. Godfrey’s little private income put everything in a faintly different light.”
He revels in an ornate vocabulary, achieving wonderful little bursts of humor by the mere deployment of such words as “contumely” or “freebooter” or “pyrogravure.” All in all it is probably quite like listening to one of the after-dinner monologues in which Sturges would spin out tales of his remarkably hectic childhood and early youth: tales of the fractured years when he was shunted between his adoptive father, the Chicago businessman Solomon Sturges, and his mother, Mary Dempsey, who crisscrossed Europe in company with the beloved Isadora, while indulging in an extravagant succession of name changes (Dempsey to d’Este to Desti), marriages, liaisons, religious conversions, artistic epiphanies, and money-making schemes. From this childhood, which brought him into early contact with the likes of Enrico Caruso, Cosima Wagner, Elsie Janis, Theda Bara, L. Frank Baum, Evelyn Nesbit, and Lillian Russell, Sturges constructed a legend more frenetic than any of his scripts.
That so little of his inner life is revealed in these memoirs hardly comes as a surprise. He was by choice a man of brilliant surfaces, an ebullient figure who might have been invented by Feydeau or Lubitsch. The anecdotes intend to charm and amuse, not harp on pain or anger. Whatever suffering Sturges betrays he wraps in a wry and self-deprecating manner. But the feelings come through clearly enough, whether in a story about his shock upon learning at age eight that the adored Solomon Sturges was not his real father, or in his laconic summary of what followed: “Despite my express wish, I was not left in Chicago, but taken to Paris to live, and I did not see my father for many years.”
His father, he asserts, was the person he loved most; but that is about all he has to say about him. Of his mother there is much more to tell—in fact she manages to upstage her son in his own memoirs. She makes a marvelous character, a quintessentially Sturges character, with her mixture of scatterbrained enthusiasm and cold-blooded calculation. Keenly aware of what colorful copy she provides, Preston almost succeeds in transforming her into a lovable eccentric:
She was…endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed fervently. Often, twice was enough…. This then is what I mean by “according to my mother.” I would not care to dig too deeply in some spot where she indicated the presence of buried treasure, nor to erect a building on a plot she had surveyed.
On one level his mother’s outrageousness delights Sturges; the mere fact of accompanying her on her travels has made him a man of the world, rich in exotic experience. He depicts a woman whose grandiose artistic and spiritual aspirations did not detract from her skill as a hustler. Preston is quick to detect the ruthlessness under the aestheticism, and he makes it clear that for all Mary’s strenuously exercised joie de vivre, she had little interest in tending to the emotional needs of her son, who was parked with a series of random caretakers while Mary took off. The closest he comes to a direct accusation is this: “Every so often a beautiful lady in furs would arrive in a shining automobile with presents for everyone. This was Mother, of course…. After a little while, I would be able to talk to her haltingly in English.”
It would be poor form for him to show his hurt any more bitterly, but he gets revenge by his satiric demolition of everything she took seriously. His accounts of her husbands and lovers leave an aftertaste of sullen jealousy, exploding into outright (and understandable) rage when he comes to her brief but intense involvement with the notorious self-proclaimed necromancer and antichrist Aleister Crowley: