Preston Sturges - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Edmund P. Biden in Chicago, 29 August 1898; adopted by mother's second husband, Solomon Sturges. Education: Educated in Chicago (Coulter School); Lycée Janson, Paris; Ecole des Roches, France; Villa Lausanne, Switzerland; and in Berlin and Dresden. Family: Married 1) Estelle Mudge (divorced 1928); 2) Eleanor Post Hutton, 1932 (annulled 1932); 3) Louise Sergeant Tervis (divorced); 4) actress Anna Nagle (known professionally as Sandy Mellen), three sons. Career: Managed mother's cosmetic shop in Deauville, then New York, early 1910s; runner for Wall Street brokerage firm, 1914; enlisted in Air Corps, attended School of Military Aeronautics, Austin, Texas, 1917; returned to cosmetic business in New York, invented kissproof lipstick, 1919; turned business over to mother, worked in various jobs and as inventor; playwright, from 1927; The Guinea Pig ran 16 weeks on Broadway, 1929; scriptwriter from 1930, moved to Hollywood, 1932; directed own screenplays, from 1940; also manager of Sturges Engineering Company, producing diesel engines; began association with Howard Hughes, 1944; moved to Paris, 1949. Awards: Oscar

Preston Sturges (right) with Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert on the set of The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges (right) with Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert on the set of The Palm Beach Story

for Best Original Screenplay, for The Great McGinty , 1940; Laurel Award for Achievement (posthumously), Writers Guild of America, 1974. Died: At the Algonquin Hotel, New York, 6 August 1959.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


The Great McGinty ; Christmas in July


The Lady Eve ; Sullivan's Travels


The Palm Beach Story


Hail the Conquering Hero ; The Miracle of Morgan's Creek ; The Great Moment


Mad Wednesday (+ pr)


Unfaithfully Yours (+ pr)


The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (+ pr)


Vendetta (co-d with Ferrer, uncredited)


Les Carnets du Major Thompson ( The French, They Are a Funny Race )

Other Films:


The Big Pond (Henley) (co-sc, co-dialogue); Fast and Loose (Newmeyer) (sc, dialogue)


Strictly Dishonorable (Stahl) (sc, play basis)


The Power and the Glory (Howard) (sc); Child of Manhattan (Buzzell) (sc, play basis)


Thirty-Day Princess (Gering) (co-sc); We Live Again (Mamoulian) (co-sc); Imitation of Life (Stahl) (co-sc, uncredited)


The Good Fairy (Wyler) (sc); Diamond Jim (Sutherland) (co-sc)


Next Time We Love (Edward Griffith) (co-sc, uncredited); One Rainy Afternoon (Lee) (lyrics for "Secret Rendezvous")


Hotel Haywire (Archainbaud) (sc); Easy Living (Leisen) (sc)


Port of Seven Seas (Whale) (sc); If I Were King (Lloyd) (sc)


Remember the Night (Leisen) (sc)


I'll Be Yours (Seiter) (screenplay basis)


Strictly Dishonorable (Frank and Panama) (play basis)


The Birds and the Bees (Taurog) (screenplay basis)


Rock-a-bye Baby (Tashlin) (screenplay basis); Paris Holiday (Oswald) (role as Serge Vitry)


By STURGES: books—

Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges , edited by Brian Henderson, Berkeley, 1985.

Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges , edited by Sandy Sturges, New York, 1990.

By STURGES: articles—

"Conversation with Preston Sturges," with Gordon Gow, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1956.

Interview, in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

On STURGES: books—

Cywinski, Ray, Satires and Sideshows: The Films and Career of Preston Sturges , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Gordon, James R., Comic Structures in the Films of Preston Sturges , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Curtis, James, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges , New York, 1982.

Cywinski, Ray, Preston Sturges: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1984.

Dickos, Andrew, Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1985.

Spoto, Donald, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges , Boston, 1990.

Jacobs, Diane, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges , Berkeley, 1992.

Rozgonyi, Jay, Preston Sturges's Vision of America , Scotch Plains, New Jersey, 1995.

James, Harvey, Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges , New York, 1998.

On STURGES: articles—

Ericsson, Peter, "Preston Sturges," in Sequence (London), Summer 1948.

Kracauer, Siegfried, "Preston Sturges or Laughter Betrayed," in Films in Review (New York), February 1950.

King, Nel, and G.W. Stonier, "Preston Sturges," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer/Autumn 1959.

Farber, Manny, and W.S. Poster, "Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies," and Eric Jonsson, "Preston Sturges and the Theory of Decline," in Film Culture (New York), no. 26, 1962.

Houston, Penelope, "Preston Sturges," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1965.

Budd, Michael, "Notes on Preston Sturges and America," in Film Society Review (New York), January 1968.

Sarris, Andrew, "Preston Sturges in the Thirties," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970/71.

Corliss, Richard, "Preston Sturges," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1972.

Rubenstein, E., "The Home Fires: Aspects of Sturges's Wartime Comedy," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Spring 1982.

Rebello, S., and J. Curtis, "King of Comedy: The Rise of Preston Sturges," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1982.

Rubinstein, E., "The End of Screwball Comedy: The Lady Eve and The Palm . . . ," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Spring-Summer 1982.

"Preston Sturges Issue" of Positif (Paris), July/August 1984.

Schickel, Richard, "Preston Sturges: Alien Dreamer," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1985.

Henderson, B., "Sturges at Work," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1985/1986.

Brown, Geoff, "Preston Sturges Inventor," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

Sarris, Andrew, "Comedies with Bite," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.

Shokoff, James, "A Knockenlocker by Any Other Word: The Democratic Comedy of Preston Sturges," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), vol. 8, no. 1, 1988.

Douin, J.-L., "Le Feydeau d'Hollywood," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2273, 4 August 1993.

Corliss, R., "Still Talking," in Film Comment (Denville, New Jersey), vol. 28, no. 6, November-December 1992.

Schnelle, F., "Niemals müde: oder zwei Leben in einema," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 7, no. 8, August 1990.

Youngerman, Joseph C., "The Olden Days according to Youngerman," DGA (Los Angeles), vol. 20, no. 3, July-August 1995.

Doak, Robert, in Journal Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 25, no. 2, Summer 1997.

Parla, Paul, and Donna Parla, "Newfound Faith. Rediscovering the Elusive Faith Domergue," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), no. 59, February-March 1997.

* * *

As a screenwriter, Preston Sturges stands out for his narrative inventiveness. All of the amazing coincidences and obvious repetitions in such comedies as Easy Living and The Good Fairy show Sturges's mastery of the standard narrative form, as well as his ability to exaggerate it and shape it to his own needs. Moreover, in The Power and the Glory (an early model for Citizen Kane ), Sturges pioneered the use of voice-over narration to advance a story.

Along with John Huston, Sturges was one of the first of the sound-era screenwriters to become a director, and those films that he made from his own screenplays take even further the narrative experiments he began as a writer in the 1930s. He continued making comedies, but often he combined them with elements that more properly belonged to social dramas in the Warner Brothers tradition, even though Sturges himself worked primarily for Paramount. The Great McGinty , for instance, deals with big-city political corruption. Christmas in July , despite its happy end, analyzes an American dream perverted by dishonesty and commercial hype. And Sullivan's Travels , even as it mixes aspects of It Happened One Night and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang , examines the uses of comedy in a society burdened by poverty and social injustice.

With The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve , Sturges goes from combining genres to parodying the standard narrative form. Traditionally, in the classical narrative, elements repeat from scene to scene, but with slight differences each time. The story, then, becomes a series of episodes that are similar, but not obviously so. The Palm Beach Story , however (although we cannot be sure of this until the end), deals with two sets of twins, one pair male and the other female, and Sturges takes full advantage of a practically infinite number of possibilities for doubling and repetition.

In The Lady Eve , there are no twins to call our attention to how Sturges exaggerates the typical narrative. But the central female character, Jean, changes her identity and becomes Eve Harrington, an English aristocrat, so she can double-cross the man who jilted her when he found out she made her living as a con artist. So in this film, too, Sturges provides us with some obvious doubling. In fact, The Lady Eve divides neatly into two very similar parts: the shipboard romance of Charles and Jean, and then the romance, on land, of Charles and Jean-as-Eve. In this second half, the film virtually turns into a screwball comedy version of Vertigo. Charles falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like another woman he had loved and lost, and who, indeed, really is that woman.

The Lady Eve is most interesting in the way that it stands narrative convention on its head. Charles Pike, a wealthy ale heir, looks for snakes on the Amazon, but as soon as he leaves the jungle and heads back to civilization, the hunter becomes the hunted. This inversion itself is hardly remarkable, either in literature or the cinema. What does stand out as unusual is that the predators are all women. Pike boards a luxury liner steaming back to the United States, and every unmarried woman on board decides to end the voyage engaged to him, to "catch" him just as Charles had been trying to capture reptiles. Few films from this period feature such active, aggressive female characters.

Sturges works out the notion of feminine entrapment not only in his script but also through his visual style. On board, Jean plots to get Charles, and Sturges shows us her predatory skill by letting her capture Pike's image. In the dining room, Jean watches as various women attempt to attract Pike's attention. She does not want him to see her staring, so she turns away from Pike's table and holds a mirror to her face, as if she were giving a quick re-arrangement to her makeup. But instead she uses the mirror to watch Charles. Sturges cuts to a close-up of the mirror, and so we share Jean's point of view. As spectators, we are used to an appreciative male gaze, and are accustomed to a woman as the subject of that gaze. But here, once again, Sturges reverses our expectations. In his tale it is the woman who plays the voyeur. As an added show of her strength, it is Jean who apparently controls the images through her possession of the mirror. She thus captures an unknowing Charles within the frame of a looking-glass.

Sturges's most interesting achievement may be his 1948 film, Unfaithfully Yours. Here, he shows the same event three times. While fairly common in literature, this sort of narrative construction is extremely rare in the cinema. But even in literature, the repeated event almost always comes to us from the points of view of different characters. In Sturges's films, we see the event the first and second time through the eyes of the same man: an orchestra conductor plots revenge on his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity, and he imagines two different ways of accomplishing his goal. Then, the next repetition, rather than being imaginary, actually depicts the conductor's attempts to murder his wife. So, since the conductor acts once again as the main character, even this last repetition comes to us from his point of view. The film stands out, then, as a remarkable case study of the thoughts and actions of a single character, and as one more of Sturges's experiments in narrative repetition.

During the early and mid-1940s, critics hailed Sturges as a comic genius. But after Unfaithfully Yours , over the last eleven years of his life, Sturges made only two more films. Upon leaving Paramount, he set out to make films for Howard Hughes, but the attempt was an illfated one, and Sturges's standing in the critical community declined rapidly. For several years, though, a reevaluation has been underway. Sturges's sophisticated handling of sexual relations (which the heiress in The Palm Beach Story refers to as "Topic A") make his films seem remarkably contemporary. And there can be no doubting Sturges's screenwriting abilities. But only recently have critics come to appreciate Sturges's consummate skills as a filmmaker.

—Eric Smoodin

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