Preston Sturges takes charged: the first time Hollywood let a screenwriter direct his own scripts, the result was an outburst of crazy but popular wartime comedies.
By 1940, Preston Sturges had been in that boat for 10 years. A sought-after, cutting-edge screenwriter, he wanted to direct his own screenplays, to bring his stories to life as he himself envisioned them. So he made a crazy pitch to the executives at Paramount Pictures: he would sell them the script for a comedy, The Great McGinty, for just $1 if they would let him direct it. They agreed (though studio lawyers insisted on upping the price to $10 for reasons that remain unclear). With that, Sturges became the first of a new breed: the writer-director.
To Sturges's credit and good fortune, The Great McGinty was a hit. It even won an Oscar--the first-ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, a category introduced for 1940 films. For Sturges, the film set the stage for more such projects. In a five-year creative outburst, he would write and direct seven snappy comedies, perfectly timed to cheer American moviegoers when they needed it most--during the dark and difficult years of World War II.
Wartime Americans flocked to Sturges films--even the American-in-chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to archivist Sarah L. Malcolm of the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, Roosevelt's calendar for September 14, 1944, mentions that he watched Sturges's new film Hail the Conquering Hero that day at the Second Quebec Conference, a top-level US-British meeting in Canada. Like all of Sturges's wartime movies, Hail the Conquering Hero, a valentine for the US Marine Corps, was tailor-made to bolster morale.
Sturges had gotten his start as a writer in, of all places, a US Army camp. Born in 1898, he was of military age in time for World War I. In 1917 he became a lieutenant and pilot in the US Army Signal Corps's Aviation Section (soon renamed the US Army Air Service), but he remained stateside. While in flight training at Park Field near Millington, Tennessee, Sturges wrote a comic strip titled Toot and Loot for the post's weekly newspaper.
Sturges's life and relationships before and after the war gave him ample fodder for characters and story lines. Born Edmund Preston Biden in Chicago, he grew up amid affluent chaos, close to the world of performance art, fashion, and European culture--and turbulent relationships. His surname came from his adoptive father, stockbroker Solomon Sturges, his mother's third husband and seemingly the only stable person in his upbringing.
Young Sturges had worked in the stock market with his adoptive father before the war. Now, leaving the army, he went to work for his free-spirited mother, Mary Dempsey. Among other things, Dempsey had pursued an affair before the war with British occultist Aleister Crowley, acting as one of his "scarlet women," a conduit for what he claimed were mystical revelations. Dempsey owned the Maison Desti fashion and cosmetics emporium in Paris and New York City, and Sturges now became a manager of the US branch. He had some experience, having managed the enterprise's location in seaside Deauville, France, as a teenager while his mother spent time with her friend dancer Isadora Duncan.
By 1927, Sturges had led Maison Desti through tough times, even developing a lipstick that wouldn't wear off from kissing. He married (for what would be the first of four times), then his mother abruptly showed him the door. He was unemployed.
After a failed stint as an inventor, Sturges tried his hand at writing plays. His first production, The Guinea Pig, was well received in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1928. So he raised funds to open it on Broadway on January 7, 1929. It was a success, running into March. On September 18 of that same year, his comedy Strictly Dishonorable opened at Broadway's Avon Theater, and it was a hit, running for 557 shows ending in January 1931. Strictly Dishonorable earned Sturges serious money, and attention from Hollywood. But high living and a subsequent string of failed plays, some of which he paid to produce, soon left him hurting for stable income. So, in September 1932, he moved to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter for Universal Studios.
The Universal job didn't work out, so Sturges started writing on his own. He managed to sell The Power and the Glory (released in 1933) to Twentieth Century-Fox for a handsome settlement, and after that doors opened at Universal, Fox, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with Sturges accepting assignments and limited-term contracts to write screenplays. In 1940, he approached Paramount with The Great McGinty, which he had written back in 1932, and his groundbreaking stint as writer-director was off and running.
The Great McGinty was a satire of American politics, released during a presidential election year, something firmly in the Sturges spirit. It introduced moviegoers to three signature idiosyncrasies of Sturges films. First was the casting. Sturges consistently chose from a set group of supporting actors (William Demarest, Joel McCrea, Harry Rosenthal, and Arthur Hoyt are all examples). Second was the thick, prolix dialogue. In Sturges movies, everybody has an opinion and articulates it. Third was the mix of outright slapstick and sparkling, sophisticated dialogue.
This combination ran through The Great McGinty and the six comedies that followed it during Sturges's concentrated stint as a writer-director: Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).
The Great McGinty is the tale of Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), an out-of-work bum who advances himself by committing voter fraud for his city's political machine. Eventually, the machine's boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides to run McGinty for mayor, but for that to work McGinty must marry. His nominal wife (Muriel Angelus), however, turns out to be honest, and the result is a string of troubles.
Christmas in July follows Jimmy tm MacDonald (Dick Powell), a coffee company employee who enters a slogan-writing contest for a competitor. He mistakenly receives what he believes to be the winner's prize as part of a prank carried out by his co-workers and starts spending it--not knowing he has received the money in error.
STURGES HIT HIS STRIDE in The Lady Eve, described by the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael as "a frivolous masterpiece." Henry Fonda stars in his career's only comedic film role, as dim-witted multi-millionaire Charles Poncefort Pike, inheritor of a beer brewing company, and Barbara Stanwyck is worldly-wise card sharp Jean Harrington, who uses feminine wiles to steal her many victims' money. Pike studies snakes as a hobby and seems to know more about them than about women. "Neither performer has ever been funnier," wrote Kael.
In The Lady Eve, Sturges shows moviegoers that in the battle of the sexes, men are doomed--the film's title refers to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Harrington, who nicknames Pike "Hopsie," torments him--often tripping him to get his attention, sending him flying to the floor (and Sturges insisted that Fonda do his own pratfalls). Asked why she is attracted to Pike, Harrington replies, "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."
Sturges has Pike's sidekick Muggsy (William Demarest) do a hilarious impression of Adolf Hitler, saying "Guess who I am!" These passing references to current events and newsmakers let Sturges's viewers know the film is set in their own time.
The Lady Eve was the highest-grossing film in the United States in 1941, remarkable considering that Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon were released the same year. It earned tens of thousands of dollars for Sturges and was an international hit.
That same year, Sturges turned out Sullivan's Travels. Joel McCrea plays John Lloyd Sullivan, a popular and high-minded director of Hollywood comedies (as Sturges was) with titles such as Ants in Your Plants. Sullivan decides his films are unworthy of a world on the brink of war, so he sets out to make a socially relevant film by going incognito, dressed as a tramp, to investigate the lives of the poor. The rich, spoiled Sullivan is hopelessly out of his league.
Alongside the expected slapstick and irony, Sturges reflects on poverty in Sullivan's Travels. Sullivan's butler tells him "Poverty is a plague. It is to be shunned." When Sullivan eventually gets back to Hollywood, he tells his studio bosses, "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh." Then we see a montage of the film's characters' faces laughing. Diana Jacobs, in her 1992 book Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, reveals that Sturges "was always distressed by the plight of the poor.... He wondered about his own attitude toward fortune: how does a lucky man confront an unjust world?" The main point of Sullivan's Travels, she says, is that "suffering does not discredit joy. They co-exist."
Sturges loved to deflate what he viewed as pompous American institutions: the military (Hail the Conquering Hero), politics (The Great McGinty), big business (most of his movies), and the press (Christmas in July). In The Palm Beach Story, he eviscerates marriage. In fact, the film's original title was Is Marriage Necessary?
The Palm Beach Story stars Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert as Tom and Gerry Jeffers, a bickering married couple. He's a struggling inventor, and times are tough. She comes up with the idea to divorce so she can marry a wealthy man, thereby getting Tom the money he needs to complete an invention. He is repelled by the idea, but Gerry takes a train to Palm Beach, Florida, to get the divorce. On the train she meets rich John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who becomes infatuated with her. When she tells him she's leaving her husband because he beats her, Hackensacker responds, "That is one of the tragedies of this life--the men who are most in need of a beating are always enormous."
Tom discovers where Gerry is headed and flies down to Florida to confront her. He gets the money for the airplane ticket from an aging businessman known as the Wienie King, easily the most peculiar and sage-like character Sturges ever created. Tom stops Gerry from divorcing him, talks Hackensacker into giving him the money he needs, and eventually wins back the love of his wife. Happy ending.
The Wienie King is this film's most memorable character by far. ("Lay off 'em," he tells everyone he meets. "You'll live longer.") Played by Robert Dudley, who appears in five other Sturges films, he is old, thin, frazzled, loud, and nearly deaf. The Jefferses first meet him when their building's manager, mistakenly believing their apartment is available for rent, shows it to the Wienie King and his wife. Sturges puts solemn, profound words in the Wienie King's mouth: "Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone, our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That's hard to say with false teeth!" The Wienie King is Sturges's tribute to America's wise elderly people, whom he believed had much to offer younger generations.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero both came out in 1944 and had war-related storylines. In the first, Sturges does the remarkable job of making a film that addresses the wartime problem of young American women getting carried away with impulsive romantic and/or sexual relationships with military personnel. One of the film's charms is the youth of the two lead characters: perky Betty Hutton, playing Trudy Kockenlocker, was 21 years old and Eddie Bracken, as Norval Jones, was 22 when filming began.
Kockenlocker is a girl full of patriotic spirit who disobeys her father (Demarest) and goes to a dance for departing soldiers. She's a great dancer, and jitterbugs with numerous GIs until she bumps her head against a low-hanging decoration and seemingly suffers a concussion.
The next morning, Trudy remembers that she married someone, but can't remember who. Then she discovers she's pregnant (though the word "pregnant" is never spoken). Neighbor boy Norval Jones, exempted from military service by a health problem, is in love with Kockenlocker and tries to hatch a plan to salvage her reputation. But nine months later, she gives birth to sextuplets on Christmas Eve. We never find out who the father is and, we conclude, neither will Hutton.
When Kockenlocker gives birth to her sextuplets, we get a series of reaction shots from people around the world. We even see Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (played by Jack Oakie, who played Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film The Great Dictator) go berserk. "Mussolini Resigns!" screams a newspaper headline. Then Adolf Hitler hears the news, and he too goes ape. A headline announces, "Hitler Demands Recount!"
Set in an unnamed Midwestern state, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is Sturges's attack on societal conformity. Sturges parodies everything in the movie, even the brisk pace of American wartime life. "Everyone moves quickly but ends up fallen or unkempt, and success itself is problematic," notes author Donald Spoto in his 1990 book Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges.
In the 1990 autobiography Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, edited by the writer-director's fourth wife, Sandy Sturges, the filmmaker explains that in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, "I wanted to show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents' advice and confuse patriotism with promiscuity...."
Hail the Conquering Hero, the last of Sturges's WWII-era comedies, is his magnum opus, satirizing American hero worship, mother-love, and patriotism--all while the US was engaged in the Second World War! Eddie Bracken stars as Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, son of a famous fallen marine of World War I. We meet Truesmith at a bar drowning his sorrows. In walk six marines (led by Demarest as Sergeant Julius Heffelfinger). They're broke, so Truesmith buys them beers and proceeds to tell them his problem: he has been discharged from the US Marine Corps due to hay fever, but he had told his mother he was already overseas. One of the six marines, Bugsy (played by former middleweight boxing champ Freddie Steele), has mother issues. After learning Truesmith's hometown, he slips away and calls the operator to get Truesmith's mother's phone number. Then he calls and tells her that her son is back in the States.
Now what? Easy, says Sergeant Heffelfinger: he and his fellow marines will take the train home with Truesmith and tell his mom how proud they were to serve with her son. But news of Truesmith's return gets out, and most of the town is gathered at the station to welcome him home. When the train pulls in, mayhem ensues. Truesmith and his gang get to his house where, true to Sturges's love of poking fun at stereotypes, Mom is in the kitchen making dinner and baking pies. At the end of the film, Truesmith publicly admits his fraud. The townsfolk forgive him, and the marines board a train to return to their military unit.
Racism is an unfortunate part of the American persona, and Sturges gives us a brief glimpse of it in Hail the Conquering Hero. Taking a jab at the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, he puts a clearly Asian character in the middle of the welcome-home gathering with a massive sign written in Japanese. The homecoming's organizer shoos the Asian character off screen.
Syrupy-sweet mother-love comes in for a ribbing, too. Sturges liked to call himself a songwriter, and for Hail the Conquering Hero he wrote a cloying piece titled "Home to the Arms of Mother." We hear it at the beginning, its lyrics as sappy as the title, and strains of it return later.
Hail the Conquering Hero mercilessly satirizes frantic wartime patriotism. The ultimate example is when the townsfolk cheer lustily for the returning Truesmith, though most of them have no idea why.
With the end of World War II came an end of sorts for Sturges. His run of box office successes dried up, and California Pictures Corporation, a 1945 venture with millionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes, died suddenly when Hughes changed his mind. After making two films with Twentieth Century-Fox as writer-director-producer, Sturges found himself unemployed in 1949.
For the rest of his working life, Sturges endured a sequence of false starts, promising projects that fell through. By 1959, he was living with his family at New York City's Algonquin Hotel, working on an autobiography for Henry Holt and Company.
THIS MOST UNIQUE OF AMERICAN FILM DIRECTORS, ever the master of comedy, died in an obliquely humorous way. He had developed heart trouble in middle age. Sitting in a New York bar one afternoon, he quaffed beer after beer while eating multiple containers of coleslaw. He developed indigestion that helped spur a heart attack that killed him on August 6, 1959, just a few weeks shy of his 61st birthday. Leave it to Preston Sturges to find a way to make even his own death grimly humorous.
Sturges remains one of only two screenwriters to earn Academy Awards nominations for Best Original Screenplay on two films released in the same year (the other is Oliver Stone). Sturges's came for 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.
Biographer Jacobs notes that "the protagonists in [Sturges's] comedies are flawed heroes." Author Ray Cywinski voices the same perception in a memorable phrase from his 1984 book Preston Sturges: A Guide to References and Resources. Sturges's scripts, like the novels of Charles Dickens, says Cywinski, offer us "crazy people with crazy names." And for movies made amid the craziness of the war years, it was a formula for success.
MARK WEISENMILLER is a news reporter and author living in Tampa, Florida.
Caption: Preston Sturges was a screenwriter in the 1930s. He was very successful, but like all screenwriters, he had to hand over any fictional world he envisioned to someone else to bring it to life on the big screen. Until he demanded more.
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Caption: Above: Preston Sturges gave away his script for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures nearly for free just to get the opportunity to direct the film. Opposite: Screwball comedy, with its slapstick elements married to witty dialogue, was a successful genre for Sturges. Soon to follow 1940's McGinty in the screwball mold were The Lady Eve, starring Henry Fonda (top left) and Barbara Stanwyck, and Sullivan's Travels, both released in 1941, the latter two days before the Pearl Harbor attack.
Caption: Sturges (center) and the stars of 1942's Palm Beach Story. Claudette Colbert (second from right) was a long-time veteran of screwball comedies. Cast opposite Clark Gable in the 1933 classic It Happened One Night, she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Caption: Sturges spent the war years perfecting his signature brand of comedy. Some critics thought he reached the height of his craft with 1944's Hail the Conquering Hero. Sturges himself said it was the one of his films "with the least wrong with it."