On this day in 1898, the great film writer and direct Preston Sturges was born. It is best to think of his as a writer, although his films were energetically shot and edited. But his scripts are really some of the best ever. He wrote exclusively comedies that are generally considered screwball. And they were very often that, but I think that is a bit tight a fit for what he did.
His first film as writer-director was The Great McGinty. It tells the story of Dan McGinty, a man who rises through the ranks of the state’s corrupt political system to be governor. Along the way, he marries his secretary because he needs to be married for appearances. The problem is that he falls in love with her, decides to be honest, and has his political life fall apart. It is one of my favorite films. Here is a great scene with the political boss (Akim Tamiroff) explaining to McGinty (Brian Donlevy) why he has to get married:
Sturges next film is equally silly but more conventional, Christmas in July. Then came one of his best, The Lady Eve. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as a con arts who falls in love with her mark played by Henry Fonda:
And then came what is widely considered Sturges masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels. I’m not that fond of it, but I do love Veronica Lake. It tells the story of a famous comedy director who wants to travel the nation undercover and find out what life is like for the poor souls who aren’t famous movie directors. Eventually, he actually finds trouble and learns important lessons about life. The film is mostly interesting for a few references to it in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Palm Beach Story is perhaps the perfect screwball comedy. It is silly in the extreme with a wonderfully preposterous ending. It is a whole lot of fun:
Sturges next did one of the most bizarre films ever, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Basically, it is all one big exercise in making a film about premarital sex without getting stopped by the censors. But it is well worth checking out. Betty Hutton in the lead is irresistible. And Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy reprise their roles from The Great McGinty in it.
After that came another excellent film, Hail the Conquering Hero. Sturges made a couple of films after that but I won’t talk about them because (1) they are generally not considered all that good and (2) I haven’t seen them. I highly recommend getting, Preston Sturges—The Filmmaker Collection. It includes all his major films with the exception of Morgan’s Creek.
Happy birthday Preston Sturges!