Friday, November 27, 2009

Preston Sturges: Master of the Cockeyed Caravan, Part 1

Edmund Preston Biden Sturges was one of the most influential motion picture directors of the twentieth century. As a writer-director, Sturges produced seven films in three years. Of those seven films, six were box office and critical successes. Today those six films are considered unqualified classics.

A genius is born
Sturges was born at the turn of the twentieth century (1898) in Chicago to Mary Estelle Dempsey and Edmund C. Biden. The marriage was not a success with Mary divorcing Biden in 1901. That same year, she married Solomon Sturges, a man from a prominent Chicago family. Solomon adopted  Mary’s son, who was then known as Preston Sturges.

After first getting some schooling in Chicago, Sturges’s mother decided to divorce Solomon and move to Europe, enrolling young Preston in boarding schools in France and Switzerland. Like a screwball character from one of his future movies, Sturges’s mother led an eccentric life. As the best friend of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, Mary Estelle went to concerts, plays, and museums, often with young Preston in tow.  When Sturges was 15 years old, he worked backstage for Duncan during her New York performance of Oedipus Rex.

Flying solo
When World War I broke out, Sturges volunteered. He trained as a pilot and although he didn’t fly during the war, he earned his wings and was commissioned Second Lieutenant of the Aviation Section of the Signal Officers Reserve Corps of the Army of the United States.

After trying his hand at song writing and other various pursuits, Sturges wrote and produced a play called The Guinea Pig. It received respectable reviews, although it ran for only 57 performances. His next play, Strictly Dishonorable, was a critical and financial success. Unfortunately, his next few plays were flops of fantastic proportions, so the career in the theater wasn’t destined to be a long one.


  1. You'll find traces of Sturges' personal history in several of his films. He pokes fun at the patricians and their lifestyle, but the influence of having been surrounded by artists and intellectuals is evident in his work.

  2. Very true...he makes fun of all classes equally, but his humor is never mean-spirited.


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