Many critics have noted that the life of Preston Sturges played like one of his movies – crazy and comedic, with lots of twists and turns. He was a man of many ambitions who became the first – and arguably, the greatest – writer/director in Hollywood history.
Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898. His mother, Mary, was an independent woman who dumped her husband when Preston was an infant and sailed to Europe with her son to pursue a singing career. In Paris she met the dancer, Isadora Duncan, and moved into her studio when they are said to have become lovers. Returning with Preston to the U.S. in October of 1901, Mary married Chicago stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who adopted the boy; Edmund P. Biden was now Preston Sturges.
At sixteen, Sturges quit school to manage the New York branch of Maison Desti, a successful cosmetics company his mother opened in Paris, and became so good at the cosmetics trade that he invented the first kiss-proof lipstick.
After the war, Sturges returned from the Army Signal Corps and married his first wife, Estelle, a divorcee with a trust fund. She divorced him in 1927 and he returned to his stepfather in Chicago, broke and brokenhearted. He tried songwriting, with little success. Taunted by an actress girlfriend that she was only dating him to get material for a play she was writing, Preston decided to write a play of his own. “The Guinea Pig” opened on Broadway on January 7, 1929, to good reviews. In September of that year Preston’s second play, “Strictly Dishonorable,” opened to raves.
Sturges’s next few plays were failures, as was his second marriage to another heiress. By 1932, Sturges was penniless and single again. So, like a character from one of his movies, he was off to Hollywood to repair his fortunes. He intended to stay a short while. He stayed for one of the greatest careers of all time.
Sturges first worked on an unproduced adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “The Invisible Man” for Universal. Next he wrote another drama, “The Power and the Glory” (1933) on speculation (without a paid advance). A producer liked the script and gave Sturges $17,500 and a percentage of the profits. This was one of Hollywood’s first “percentage deals” and caused an uproar among the conservative studio chiefs; unfortunately it was more of an uproar than “The Power and the Glory” caused at the box office. It bombed, leaving Sturges a percentage of nothing.
Sturges worked on many scripts through the 1930s, including “The Good Fairy” (1935), “Diamond Jim” (1935), and “If I Were King” (1938). By 1936 he was one of the top-paid writers in Hollywood at $2,500 per week. He bought a big house in the Hollywood Hills, opened a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, and got married for the third time. But it was an old script about a vagrant who becomes a governor that changed his life and Hollywood forever.
“The Great McGinty” (1940) had been written by Sturges back in 1932. Sturges wanted a shot at directing it. In exchange for giving him the director’s chair, Paramount paid only one dollar for the script. It was a gamble that paid off for everyone. In 1940, Sturges wrapped “The Great McGinty,” then wrote and directed two other comedy classics, “Christmas in July” (1940) and “The Lady Eve” (1941). Sturges won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty” in 1941, then wrote and directed “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) and “The Palm Beach Story” (1942).
World War II was raging and so was Sturges’s career. He added the title of Producer to his next few films. The results included “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) and “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944), regarded as two of the greatest screwball comedies of all-time. By the end of WWII, Sturges was flying high, until he formed a partnership with a man who knew a thing or two about flying high himself – Howard Hughes.
Hughes, the aviation multimillionaire, formed California Pictures Corporation with Sturges in 1945. Like a bad plane, the partnership quickly crashed and burned. Sturges wrote, produced and directed “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” (1947) and undertook the same chores for “Vendetta” until Hughes pulled the plug. Sturges went to Fox and wrote, produced and directed two failures. During this period, his third wife left him.
The 1950’s found Sturges out of the Hollywood mainstream. He dabbled in playwriting but scored his biggest financial hit when the State of California bought the land under which his home stood to make way for the Hollywood Freeway. Sturges re-married for the fourth time and started a new family. Rejuvenated, he was half-finished writing his autobiography when he died on August 6, 1959.