Preston Sturges made some incredible movies in a very short space of time. Over the course of five years, from 1940-1944, he wrote, produced and directed some of the most memorable movies of the era. Wonderfully satirical and full of sharp, clever dialogue that resonates just as strongly today. He won an academy for The Great McGinty and was nominated twice for scripts in the same year with Hail The Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
Sturges honed his skills as a scriptwriter in the 1930’s before making his directing debut with The Great McGinty. In his prime he was the only person in Hollywood besides Charlie Chaplin who wrote, produced and directed his own movies.
Despite the popular and critical success of his movies Sturges was too independently minded to keep in with the studio system – Paramount in particular. A partnership with Howard Hughes gave him the independence he craved but the end of the second world war marked a major change in the type of movies audiences wanted to see – erudite, satirical comedy was out and the moody world of film noir was in.
You can see the Sturges influence in modern directors like the Coen brothers and Woody Allen. Here then are our picks of five of his must see movies.
The Lady Eve (1941)
This is perhaps the perfect movie comedy, with a runaway heiress? Or, in this case, heir?double identities, barbed wit, inspired pratfalls, and the Sturges collection of supporting characters. One could ask for no more. Beer scion Fonda would rather spend his time chasing snakes up exotic rivers than running the family business, until he becomes fascinated with con girl Stanwyck and her crooked pop, Coburn, on an ocean liner. Of course, she falls for Fonda and then loses him when he learns of her occupation. She gets another chance in the guise of visiting royalty and charms everyone at a reception in her honor, including Fonda’s tycoon father Pallette. Our favorite line: after Fonda has most of the formal dinner and drinks spilled on his tux and, finally, on his out-of-season dinner jacket, Pallette intones, “Why don’t you put on a bathing suit!” Well, you have to see it. Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Story.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Henry Fonda, Eugene Pallette,
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Perhaps the greatest of Sturges’s many great comedies, this balances a gimlet-eyed satire of Hollywood with an unsentimental affirmation of the movies’ ability to lift people from their daily lives. When director Joel McCrea tires of the witless comedies for which he has a natural talent, he determines to illustrate on-screen the suffering of the American people in their darkest hour. The studio bosses correctly remind him that he knows nothing about suffering, so McCrea sets out on a mission to acquire firsthand experience of real people’s lives. In his first attempt, the studio flacks and his gentleman’s gentleman make a sham of his sincerity, though he hooks up with waitress and aspiring actress Veronica Lake. But on his next outing, McCrea loses everything: his money, his name, his memory, and his freedom when he’s given the bum’s rush by a railroad cop. But in the work camp, McCrea and his hardened, beaten-down companions revel in a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and the director resolves to find a way back to his calling. The script is fast, twisty, and funny, and Sturges’s usual supporting characters are magnificent.
Cast: Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, Robert Warwick
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
One of the high points in Sturges’s career is this screwball comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a husband and wife whose scheme to finance his inventions leads to a wild excursion to Palm Beach. In a plan that McCrea finds a little too sophisticated, Colbert plans to divorce him and find a rich husband whose money will bankroll his airport design. Into their lives steps the half-deaf “wienie king” – one of Sturges’s most eccentric characters in a filmography loaded with them–as well as billionaire Vallee, his carefree sister Astor and her incomprehensible companion, and a train full of tipsy hunters led by Demarest. The dialogue’s snappy, the situations teeter on the edge of insanity, and the whole is a delight.
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, William Demarest, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
While this celebrated screwball comedy may not rise to the sophisticated heights of his previous masterpieces The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), Sturges’s familiar blend of fast dialogue and zany slapstick is still apparent. Hutton finds herself pregnant after a night with a soldier she thinks was named “Ratsky-Watsky or something like that” and needs to find a husband, a position that falls to milquetoast bank clerk Bracken. What follows is a chaotic assault on everything sacred in WWII America: motherhood, the military, and family values. The characters of McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), who appear briefly in the 1944 film The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, were the central characters in the 1940 film The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges’s directorial debut. Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Cast: Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Another comic gem from writer-director-producer Sturges. At the start of WWII, Eddie Bracken eagerly enlists in the service only to be soon discharged for his chronic hay fever. His hometown lays out the red carpet when he’s mistakenly credited with bravery at Guadalcanal. The Sturges gang’s all here, with particularly hilarious showings by Demarest and Pangborn. Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Cast: Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn