Sunday, December 6, 2009

Preston Sturges: Master of the Cockeyed Caravan, Part 3

A writer-director is born
As the story goes, Sturges sold the screenplay for The Great McGinty to Paramount for $10, under the condition that he would also be allowed to direct. Since this seemed like a fairly reasonable risk for the studio, they acquiesced.

The Great McGinty (1940) didn't have big stars to pack the movie palaces, but it did have good reviews from some of the top critics of the day. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said this: "In the trade they call them 'sleepers'—these pictures which come drifting in without benefit of much advance publicity and which turn out delightful surprises." And a delightful surprise it was, and with its success, Sturges was on his way to the big leagues. At the 1941 Academy Awards, Sturges took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Without taking a breath, it seems, Paramount released another film in 1940 written and directed by Sturges,  Christmas in July. Again, the film had no big stars, and again, Crowther called the film "another of those one-man creations by Preston Sturges for Paramount, is just about as cunning and carefree a comedy as any one could possibly preordain . . . ." Crowther ended his review by saying,  "As a creator of rich and human comedy Mr. Sturges is closing fast on the heels of Frank Capra."

The lady is a champ
It wasn't too long for the folks at Paramount to realize that Sturges as a writer-director was turning into a goldmine. Armed with a big budget and top-flight movie stars, Sturges jumped into production of The Lady Eve (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, both turning in brilliant performances under his direction. Sturges was at his peak. At the end of 1941, The New York Times named The Lady Eve the best picture of the year, beating Citizen Kane!

Veronica Lake is on the Take
More hits followed in the financial success of The Lady Eve: Sullivan's Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) , and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). In a span of roughly four years, Sturges wrote and directed seven classic films! If you count The Great Moment (1944), a film that Sturges fan Crowther praised, you can make it an even eight classics in four years. It appeared that Sturges could do nothing wrong.

The shooting star crashes to earth
Almost overnight it seemed, things started going south for Sturges. At the height of his fame, he left Paramount and formed California Pictures Corporation with Howard Hughes. Nothing much came from this venture and eventually Hughes shut things down, bought RKO, and left Sturges without a home studio or any projects on the horizon.

Phoenix rising at Fox?
It would be four years before Sturges would release another film. Darryl Zanuck, at Twentieth Century Fox, hired Sturges to write and direct Unfaithfully Yours (1948) starring Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell. The film, although popular in the eyes of some critics (yes, Crowther was still a fan), didn't fare as well with the public at large. The humor, gags, and amazingly complicated narrative were all there, but as Crowther noted, "... a shade of something fatal to a champion may be perceived in his new picture at the Roxy. That's a slip in his timing and his speed. Like a boxer who takes too long a lay-off, Mr. Sturges has slowed up a bit. And this is something which his public will be the first to note and deplore." And the public did take notice and Unfaithfully Yours didn't turn out to be the next great Sturges hit. Sturges had one more chance at Fox with The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949) starring Betty Grable. But by then, the magic had completely rubbed off. The film was a disaster for Sturges and the studio. Sturges fan and supporter, Crowther ended his review of the film with this zinger: "Put out in Technicolor, The Beautiful Blonde looks good. But, to paraphrase the theme song, it looks pretty well shot in the end."

A lasting legacy
Although Sturges's film career basically ended with The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, his legacy lives on in the ground-breaking comedies he wrote and directed at Paramount. The body of work he produced in those four short years is a feat that has yet to be matched.

Preston Sturges was a man of uncommon intelligence and one of the most talented writer-directors to come out of Hollywood. He paved the for other writer-directors like Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder, and most importantly, he left us his wonderful films that still amaze, surprise, and delight us to this day.

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