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
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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