The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges
In just four years, 1940–44, Preston Sturges wrote and directed seven classics reflecting the America he loved and laughed at–a fast-talking, unpredictable melting pot that seems more real than the visions of Frank Capra or John Ford. Then his luck ran out.
By Douglas McGrath
Of all the stupid vanities in a business that specializes in stupid vanities, the possessory credit takes the cake. That credit is the one that appears at the top of a film saying, “A film by _______,” the blank then implausibly being filled by the name of a single person, the director.
Let’s not get into how many other people—starting with the writer and continuing in essential ways through the cast, cinematographer, editor, and composer—influence the quality of a film. (Try to imagine the original choice of Shirley Temple instead of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz or Mae West rather than Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard to understand how dependent a film’s tone is on the contributions of all its elements.)
The possessory credit is silly for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s redundant: we’ll see whom the film is by when we get to the other credits. But if anyone deserves this credit, it would have to be someone who has created a world in which the speech and actions and people, in which the tone and tenor of events, are as obviously the creation of one artist as a passage of Twain’s is obviously a passage of Twain’s and not of Charlotte Brontë’s, as a Renoir is never confused with a Picasso.
It is safe to say that no one ever mistook a film by Preston Sturges for a film by anyone else. This is not something you can say of most directors, including many fine ones: George Cukor, William Wyler, John Huston. While one might expect that it was George Cukor who directed Roman Holiday instead of William Wyler, one could never imagine anyone but Sturges behind any of the manic yet buttery pictures that bear his name.
Though the events in his films often border on the unreal, ironically his world resembles ours more than most movies do, because the Sturges universe is so ungentrified. The characters in a Sturges film are slickers and hicks, frantic, contemplative, melancholy, literate, sub-intelligent, vain, self-doubting, sentimental, cynical, hushed, and shouting. A hallmark of most artists is the consistency of their world—one thinks of the delicacy in René Clair’s work, the droll, intoxicating understatement of Lubitsch, the painful clamor of Jerry Lewis. But the Sturges world seems the product of a multiple-personality disorder. (Sturges used to dictate his scripts aloud to a secretary as he wrote them, and when he did, he convincingly played all the parts.) I can think of no other artist who keeps the delicate and the explosive so close together.
This collision of tones perhaps took its cue from his life. He was born in Chicago at the end of the 19th century. His mother, Mary, divorced Preston’s father when Preston was not quite three and moved with her son to Paris. On her first day there she met the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan. Though Sturges would at times resent his mother’s fast friendship with Duncan, he owed the Duncan family an enormous debt. Almost as soon as they arrived in Paris, Sturges, always susceptible to respiratory trouble, came down with a pneumonia that no doctor could tame. Isadora Duncan’s mother arrived with a bottle of champagne, from which she fed him lifesaving spoonfuls until he was restored. “Champagne and Pneumonia”—it could be the title of a Sturges movie. It also aptly calls up the conflicting elements at work in his films: the effervescent and the feverish.
Preston Sturges, center, flanked left to right by Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, and Rudy Vallée on the set of “The Palm Beach Story”.