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Monday, October 21, 2019

Where Genius Had a Price Tag

Home Front Comedy's Best Friend

I’m at last evolved to a point of liking Preston Sturges. Despite previous complaints of him, something whispered that it was not Sturges’ failing, but mine. Having re-watched most of the Paramount comedies, his greatness finally is plain, but to that add this: Sturges as onscreen funny is matched by fascination with the offscreen man whose luck ran calamitous as any H’wood artist achieving status, and then losing it. I still don’t fully understand how fate could have dealt Sturges such ruin. Did vultures sit in wait for a first slip, and then swoop? Like Orson Welles, Sturges a lot like Welles, there was genius talk, behavior to relish the crown, then collapse the outcome of hubris reckless-displayed. Reading books (the best by James Curtis, plus auto-bio notes Sturges’ widow assembled) made me want to call back decades and say, No, Preston, don’t speak so much truth to power. But to flip side of coin, Sturges had much insight to life, understood reality of people … how else would his pictures be so fine? He could be humble too, sadly where too late being so. There was his last meeting with Paramount heads, them resolved to keep him on humiliating terms or not at all, either OK because they were fed up, and Sturges, alone in this front office arena, begging to salvage the job and place he called home (“I love Paramount!,” to cold response). If ever I wanted a happier dreamland ending, here was it, but not to be. Why couldn’t Sturges the gifted scribe compose a happier life story for himself?

Among Paramount Comedies Not the Brain-Children of Preston Sturges ...

Sturges with Veronica Lake
Was any artist, writing and directing, more valued by an industry than one who over and over delivered great comedy? Think of those that did. Not many, but herewith a few from decades at respective peak: Chaplin in the teens (his summit an ongoing one), Lubitsch for the 20’s and beyond, Capra as 30’s supreme creator, then Sturges, who for wartime years had no peer. His was the Big Brass Band, noisy sure, but wasn’t most of home front humor? To successors, I’ll name Wilder for the 50’s, maybe Blake Edwards in the 60’s, and … Mel Brooks with the 70’s? Do please nominate others, or alert me if I’ve left someone out (not forgetting Keaton and Lloyd, but they weren’t credited for full creative oversee until later scholarship outed them). Anyone with sense knew Sturges was something utterly fresh at humor, plus heart, slapstick, sophistication. They hadn’t seen miracles like his wrought since It Happened One Night. Sturges was around long enough never to be an overnight sensation, so there was no calling him an upstart, dues paid over a decade writing for others to interpret. Sturges made a gift of his directing debut (The Great McGinty) as demonstration of ability to Paramount, knowing they’d pay dear once he clicked, that a foregone conclusion so far as Sturges saw it.

Sturges worked like a hound, needed (he said) but four hours sleep a night, and did initial features in less time, and for less money, than Para was otherwise resigned to. McGinty was liked, Christmas In July behind it, both profitable. Critics knew oil had been struck, Sturges as back-of-camera “star” more colorful than personalities he wrote for and directed. The Lady Eve was among bigger noises of 1941, as revolutionary laugh-wise as magic conjured by Welles and Citizen Kane from a same year. Paramount understood for comparative lame-ness of humor they otherwise sent forth. Look sometime at Skylark, also from them in 1941(TCM has used it, and in HD). You might be amused, no doubt would be, given time travel to a first-run house hosting hundreds, but Skylark is small beer beside The Lady Eve, this no secret then, let alone now. Racing horse that was Sturges left a Mark Sandrich or Mitchell Leisen at start gates, Para stars known for comedy at their best advantage working for him. Sturges got brasher as he advanced upward, Sullivan’s Travels stops-out when silly, somber where its writer-director went off comedy’s preserve to try something new. Folks arriving in a final third (lots did in days where it didn’t matter what time you showed up at theatres) figured Sullivan's for melodrama, which to showmen meant Buyer Beware. Complaints told Paramount, and Sturges, that there was limit to innovation.

Sturges knew he wasn’t infallible, at least from hindsight: “The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem … There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it. It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.” These were words dictated years past the fall, when Sturges wrestled with reasons why he lost it all. “Mistakes,” in say, the mid or late 50’s, would read as bold foresight by those watching Sullivan’s Travels from 60’s-forward vantage. Sturges' mood flip would be admired, imitated, by filmmakers later. What was Bonnie and Clyde but bank robbers on a cross-country, Sullivan-like spree? We are less shocked by sudden shifts because Sturges laid a template, one with more influence than the writer/director could appreciate during his lifetime (Sturges died in 1959). Of immediate copiers, there were plenty. I wonder if George Stevens’ The More The Merrier would have sprouted without Sturges’ films ahead of it.

How do we know if a thing is funny, or not, without an audience to confirm it? Most film mavens watch alone, or with one or two doing them the favor of accompany. I looked at No Time For Love this week to compare a boilerplate Paramount comedy with what Sturges was doing for them. It had Claudette Colbert with Fred MacMurray, and was directed by Leisen. I laughed --- alone in the room I laughed --- so guessed this was a riot in 1943. No Time For Love was scribed by four of Para personnel, according to credits, hardly product of a single creative force. Studios functioned best in this way, no one man indispensable to steady outflow of commercial product. Sturges, like other wunderkinds, was more than vague threat to those the system could take or leave, which in Hollywood, as in life, was just about everyone, Sturges a bigger talent than any, and he knew it. Just that was enough to seal his fate. Any little thing that went wrong became a big thing. Sturges’ fifth project was an unpopular idea about the man who developed anesthetic. Called Triumph Over Pain, Paramount let Sturges make it, then took the negative (their option under the contract), and shredded near-whole of what the writer-director did. He begged to be allowed to fix the mess for plentiful and eminently sensible reasons. Head man Buddy DeSylva, who appears to have really had it in for Sturges, said no. Triumph Over Pain went out as The Great Moment, which it was not for pay windows. Para brass held Pain/Moment against Sturges even as he delivered roaring hit that was Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, followed by popular Hail The Conquering Hero. Observers had to wonder how Paramount could let such an asset get away. I am yet baffled. There must have been some serious animus at play here.

Sturges Dictates to Secretary Jean Lavell
It’s sad to read of Sturges falling in with head case that was Howard Hughes. Crazy is crazy however much money you have. Sturges had been raised by oddballs, was distinctly one himself, so being duly tolerant of eccentricity, mistook Hughes’ serious unbalance for that. Fault over The Sin of Harold Diddlebock can be shared by Sturges and Hughes, or maybe the idea of Harold Lloyd coming back under Preston Sturges direction was a flawed one. It pleased Sturges to think that he could revive Lloyd’s flavor of comedy; they actually had much in common, even if outcome for Diddlebock was isolated runs, then withdrawal by Hughes, whose property the negative was. Zanuck of Fox came to a rescue, then wished he hadn’t, as Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend both lost money. It was figured that Sturges had lost his touch. That happened to funny folk before, and would again (Wilder a 60’s follower-in-decline). I looked for quotes as to what went wrong for Sturges, one theory advanced by Eddie Bracken, who should know: "Preston had a tremendous ego … Most of his hits came when Jean Lavell was his secretary, and she was the only person he really listened to. There’d be a meeting about a project and if he was going overboard, or becoming excessive, which was his tendency, Jean would tell him, “Why don’t you do this or that instead?” and he might argue, but he’d usually do it. Jean played a large part in the success of Sturges’ great movies … When he left Jean and Paramount and went over to Howard Hughes and Fox, his pictures didn’t turn out so well.” So could it have been that simple? A secretary’s quietly moderating voice? Remarkable how so often it is the littlest things that make all the difference. Not saying Bracken was accurate, but he was there, and the rest of us weren’t. Food for thought, whatever the truth.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, anyway I look at it, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is brilliant. As for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, as soon as it became available on DVD I bought it. It ain't shabby.

Who knows what causes an audience not to respond to a great work? Certainly not myself. Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL thudded with the critics and with the public.

As far as I am concerned the best we can do is not try to figure out what we did wrong.

From what I have read Buddy DeSylva had an axe to grind with Sturges that he ought to have laid aside. But then Hollywood has a history of killing the golden goose.

Paramount, saved from bankruptcy by Mae West's first two starring films, then caves into the censors robbing her films of the vitality that made the public respond to them.

I did not know until I read you that THE GREAT MOMENT is not the picture Sturges meant us to see. It's hard to imagine how he could have done it better.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS for me is perfect. Did not know there was a problem with the ending. It's right for me and the folks I have shown it to.

Glad you have experienced a change of heart for the better about Sturge's work.

All industries hate genius because genius can't be manufactured on an assembly line.

Product can be. Product is what industries need to survive.

"An art form requires genius. People of genius are always troublemakers, meaning they start from scratch, demolish accepted norms and rebuild a new world. The problem with cinema today is the dearth of troublemakers. There’s not a rabble-rouser in sight. There was still one, but he went beyond troublemaker to court jester. You’ll find students masquerading as bad ones, but you won’t find the real article, because a genuine bad student upends everything."—Henri Langlois.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

What I can always depend on in a Sturges movie is one hysterically funny scene that has me laughing like a madman. No other director has that effect on me.

More people should discover "Remember the Night", one of the best Xmas movies ever. Had Sturges directed his own script, it would definitely be considered a classic.

Oh, and "Diddlebock" might be imperfect but is underrated. A restoration is in order.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great post! I have often thought Sturges was kinda biographer-proof. Several books, articles and many book chapters about the guy, yet the writers always seem so over-awed with his huge personality and you-can't-make-this-stuff-up life story that they barely do justice to his amazing talent. The Curtis book may be the best, but even his misses the mark for me (and I would rank it as the only outright dud from this otherwise superb writer.) The Donald Spotto bio is particularly offensive; he makes it clear he doesn't think much of Sturges as a director, considers THE LADY EVE a 'meh' and outright hates UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. But, oh, that crazy life story!

Sturges did have a spectacularly fascinating personal life but, for me, it is easily overshadowed by his ability as a writer which, in turn, is eclipsed by his talent as a director. Yes, I think Struges was an even greater director than screenwriter. Look at those early dialogue scenes in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS and THE PALM BEACH STORY or the mirror sequence in LADY EVE. Fantastic!

Reading contemporary reviews, it's interesting how many critics carped on how the man would seem to start out working on a film using an idea rather a plot. Mind you, they complained about this! I suspect many writers and/or directors were and are most jealous of this facet of his genius. He was constantly coming up with goofy ideas to build on, then working them into stories. In this regard I think the closest recent comparison is Woody Allen. Think of his earlier films like ZELIG, PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. An apt one sentence description of any of those wouldn't be a plot synopsis but an explanation of their base concepts. Just like THE GREAT McGINTY, THE PALM BEACH STORY or MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.

Oh, and my favorite? As an old retired advertising hack, of course I'd pick CHRISTMAS IN JULY!

12:06 PM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

"The Palm Beach Story" has one of the greatest endings in comedy movie history.

3:20 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky thinks Preston Sturges is a towering genius in Hollywood. Like Tex Avery in the cartoon world, there is no one who really compares.

The demise of Sturges is very sad, probably a combination of bridges burned and Sturges losing his funny, perhaps because he had simply burned himself out, or he had said all he had to say.

Do not know how else Sullivan's Travels could have ended, but that "Gee!" is a little disappointing.

Stinky would take any of Wilder's '60s comedies, except Irma La Douce, over anything Edwards did.

And Stinky would also like to ask Mr. Bracken how many great films Sturges' secretary was associated with after they parted ways. Stinky doubts that Eddie was very close to the creative process.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

It's always good when we can help a kid as it seems this piece has done.

9:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following e-mail from Tom Sturges re his father and a book just out, co-written by Tom, with Nick Smedley, and entitled "Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood's First Writer-Director."

Hey good afternoon...

Wanted to say thank you for all that you had to say. It reads like it took you a while to figure out what PS was all about and why he mattered, and matters still, but it would appear that you did in the end. Better late than never!

I've just written a new book on him that came out in September and I am forwarding a piece about it by Susan King that just published in the LA Times.

She got the story mostly right, and paid a lot of respect to both of my parents, their tough situation, my co-writer Nick Smedley and me.

The photo is the result of two hours of mayhem with a photographer who could have come out of
central casting and who my dad would have probably liked a lot.

Again, thanks for the well written and well thought out article.

Best and kindest regards,


10:51 AM  

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