Preston Sturges on TCM Today

by Bob Schwartz

Preston Sturges

If you are quick, and have never seen any of the irreplaceable movies written and directed by Preston Sturges, Turner Classic Movies is devoting part of today to him. If you don’t manage to catch them there, and love movies, and can find the best of these elsewhere, find them and watch them.

As TCM describes his work

Featuring razor-sharp wit and astringent dialogue, writer-director Preston Sturges ranked as one of American cinema’s most gifted creative talents.

We take for granted the unified title of film writer-director, but seventy years ago, Sturges invented and perfected that role. He was Woody Allen before Woody Allen, and with all respect for what Allen has managed to do, none of his work is funnier or more biting than the best of Sturges. There were misses, but the best of Sturges includes three movies released in just two years, between 1941 and 1942. Here’s a summary from TCM:

Sturges went on to direct “The Lady Eve” (1941), a complex romantic comedy about a bumbling snake hunter (Henry Fonda) who becomes the prey of a cool, sexy con artist (Barbara Stanwyck). Fonda and Stanwyck enjoy a shipboard romance but he rejects her when he learns of her unsavory past, and in order to win her man, Stanwyck reinvents herself as a British noblewoman. In one of the most memorable set pieces in film, Stanwyck takes a moment on their honeymoon to regale her new husband with a list of every love affair she has ever had. As the scene progresses and Fonda’s jealousy increases, Sturges skillfully employs the soundtrack as a counterpoint; the train enters tunnels with its wheels clacking and whistles blowing, a storm develops and the score swells. Marvelously acted, “The Lady Eve” was a hit for Paramount and boosted the stock of all involved.

 

Paramount gave Sturges free rein with his next films, starting with perhaps his most personal, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), a satire that focused on a comedy film director (Joel McCrea) who wants to make more meaningful motion pictures. Determined to experience poverty firsthand, he sets off as a hobo with an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) in tow. For a comic piece, “Sullivan’s Travels” had a dark undertone with the ultimate moral being that people don’t want to be reminded of their situations, they want escapism. As Sullivan says near the end of the picture, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.” The following year, Sturges wrote and directed “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), a satire on business and greed about a woman (Claudette Colbert) who leaves her inventor husband (McCrea) for a millionaire (Rudy Vallee). When the husband arrives in Florida, he is pursued by Vallee’s sister (Mary Astor) with unpredictable results. The film owed much to the French farces that once captivated a youthful Sturges.

If you see these movies, today or some other time, you won’t forget them, you will want to see them again, and you will wonder how you ever missed them. If you love comedy, and especially if you love comedy with witty language at its heart, and have been disappointed by those who say you “must” see this classic comic genius or other but come away thinking “boring”, “horribly dated” or “stupid”, these are for you. Brilliant, timeless, unforgettable. There was only one Preston Sturges.

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