The Profound Surfaces of Preston Sturges

In 1941, when Preston Sturges, the master of the screwball comedy, won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, he stumbled onstage and attempted a joke. Sturges, who won for “The Great McGinty”—a satire about a poor man, in an unnamed American city, who fails upward until he becomes governor—wasn’t fond of institutions and their puffed-up accolades, and his speech, which ridiculed the ceremony, was particularly on brand. “Mr. Sturges was so overcome by the mere possibility of winning an Oscar,” he said, “that he was unable to come here tonight, and asked me to accept in his stead.” The room went quiet, Sturges recalled, and he slunk back to his table. His gag had bombed.

Or had it? In truth, everyone in the room likely knew who Sturges was. By the time he made “The Great McGinty,” he was one of the highest-paid men in Hollywood, pulling in ludicrous sums for a single screenplay. His contract with Paramount insured that he could direct his own scripts, minting him as one of cinema’s first major auteurs. In 1940, he had released two films (“McGinty” and “Christmas in July”), shot another (“The Lady Eve”), and opened the Players Club, a rowdy, two-story restaurant and night club on Sunset Boulevard, where he held court among industry nabobs. If Sturges’s speech was coolly received, it was not, as he suggested, because “nobody knew what I looked like.” The more probable reason is that, in a room packed with vain celebrities, nobody found it even slightly amusing that a person, when offered a moment of glory, might pretend to be someone else.

But Sturges was a fan of false fronts. He believed that how someone presented himself—his actions, his appearance, whatever name he chose on a given day—was as revelatory as any “true self” within. He was not a director who sought to probe the depths of humanity. The exquisite irony of being alive, he thought, was that, despite our genuine desires, we still had to walk around in the meat suits of our bodies, trying to get by. There was an essential tension between who we believed we were and the person others saw, and this tension lent life its absurdity, its richness, and its potential for surprise.

Take “The Lady Eve,” perhaps Sturges’s most beloved film, in which Henry Fonda plays Charles (Hopsie) Pike, a lanky heir to an ale fortune who dabbles as a snake expert. While travelling on a cruise ship, Hopsie falls for a con woman named Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). After realizing that Jean has been deceiving him, he sulks off to his Connecticut manor, where he encounters Jean again, though this time she has disguised herself as Lady Eve Sidwich, a louche aristocrat. The zany setup involves several layers of self-deception: There is the idle rich boy who thinks he’s a bona-fide scientist (he is not) and the grifter who thinks she’s pulling off a brilliant ruse by slapping on some diamonds (she is not). Jean believes herself too pragmatic to fall in love, and Hopsie believes himself too clever to fall into a woman’s trap. (They’re both wrong.) Although Jean can’t see herself clearly, she has a hawklike ability to spot the delusions of others. She knows how to pick a vulnerable mark precisely because she shares Sturges’s eye for people putting on an act.

An early scene makes this especially vivid. In the ship’s dining room, Jean, who has not yet spoken to Hopsie, spies on him with a mirror from her evening bag. A carrousel of young women are trying to attract the bachelor, who sits alone, reading a tome titled “Are Snakes Necessary?” Stanwyck’s commentary on the spectacle—a spin on a technique that Sturges called “narratage,” in which a character delivers a monologue during a montage or a flashback—is wry and chatty, as though she were a mouthpiece for the audience. (You can draw a straight line from Jean Harrington to “Fleabag.”) As one glossy-haired débutante decides whether to make her approach, Jean digs in: “You see those nice store teeth, all beaming at you? Oh, she recognizes you! She’s up! She’s down! She can’t make up her mind! She’s up again! She recognizes you! She’s coming over to speak to you! The suspense is killing me!” The repetition, paired with a certain ditziness of tone, captures the silly, often disingenuous dance of flirtation, its choreographed guile. Of course, Jean is trying to seduce Hopsie, too; she’s both inside the scene and critiquing it, a heckler trapped onstage. Sturges passes no judgment on this fact. It’s enough, for him, that it’s funny.

Few genres are more desperately tied to the tracks of their times than comedy. It’s still enjoyable to see Abbott and Costello joust over a linguistic misunderstanding, but an act such as “Who’s on First?” was much funnier in 1938, when audiences knew that it was mocking the nicknames of popular baseball players. Humor tends to wilt through the decades; what was once a bite becomes a sloppy kiss. Not so with Sturges. In 1990, the Times critic Vincent Canby, writing about a New York showcase of the director’s work, argued that Sturges’s films not only balk at narrative convention but buck expectations so completely that each viewing feels like a radically different experience. “When, at last, a movie fails to change, one may be sure the movie is dead, ready for chilly embalming at the hands of academe,” Canby wrote. “This retrospective demonstrates that anyone who attempts to embalm Sturges does so at risk.”

Of course, the embalming had to come eventually. In “Crooked, but Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges” (Columbia), the veteran film critic Stuart Klawans performs the kinds of close, obsessive readings that one rarely encounters outside a graduate seminar. By analyzing Sturges’s every move, Klawans hopes to pin the director down—to “read” his films as if they were “reasoned arguments about subjects of real concern.” In the book’s opening pages, Klawans informs us that he will not be offering “yet another overview of Sturges’s life.” There are plenty of other books for that, including studious biographies by Diane Jacobs and by James Curtis, as well as Sturges’s unfinished memoir, which his fourth and final wife, Sandy Sturges, cobbled together for publication in 1990, thirty-one years after Sturges died.

Still, the broad strokes are worth noting. Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898, to a travelling-salesman father and a mother named Mary Dempsey. Dempsey was a creative type, the sort of searcher who, in the Gilded Age, was known as an adventuress. When Sturges was a toddler, Dempsey tried to become a singer in France, but her career fizzled, her marriage ended, and she returned to the U.S. to wed Solomon Sturges, a buttoned-up financier who treated Preston as his own child. Dempsey refused to stop wandering, however. She went back to Europe, changed her name to Mary d’Esti, took an interest in witchcraft, and began palling around with the modern dancer Isadora Duncan. She went by many names and told many fabulous lies. She said that she had been fifteen when Sturges was born, that she had attended medical school, that she was descended from Italian royalty. Sturges later wrote, “My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth. . . . She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed fervently. Often, twice was enough.”

D’Esti schlepped Sturges around like a steamer trunk, but she regularly shipped him back to America, where he stayed with his stepfather for months at a time. As a result, Sturges’s childhood was marked by whiplash: between home and Europe, between a rigid capitalist ethic and a sybaritic salon culture. It is not difficult to see how this created a bemused sense of dissociation, along with a healthy skepticism of his parents’ best intentions. His mother wanted him to be sophisticated, but in practice this meant dragging him to the opera and alienating him from his peers. His stepfather wanted him to go into finance—Sturges worked for several New York stockbrokers as a teen—but he didn’t care for the field, and he joined the Army during the First World War.

“You make a great point, but can you not?”

Cartoon by Sofia Warren and Ellis Rosen

A turning point came in 1927, when Sturges was in his late twenties. He was working for his mother’s perfume business in New York, and d’Esti and Duncan were travelling in Nice. Duncan decided to join a dashing French auto mechanic for a car ride, and she insisted on wearing a red silken scarf that d’Esti had given her. According to Sturges’s memoir, Duncan called out “Mes amis, je vais à la gloire”—“My friends, I am off to glory”—before the car peeled out. Her scarf, flapping in the breeze, became caught in the car’s front wheel, snapping her neck and killing her. The accident devastated Sturges’s mother—she died three years later, still distraught—but subtly imprinted on Sturges as a prime example of how an action meant to be glamorous could, instead, render a scene darkly absurd. That year, he began dating an actress who confessed that she had only pretended to find him charming, and that she was using him to test her ideas for a play. Sturges, as revenge, decided to write one himself. He finished it in just a few months; then he wrote another, “Strictly Dishonorable,” in less than a week. It ran on Broadway for a year.

By 1932, Sturges was living in Los Angeles and being paid exorbitant fees to write comic screenplays. But, when directors adapted his work, something was getting lost. They would play it too straight, or move too quickly through kooky side plots, though Sturges felt that much of a film’s energy could spring from a bit player with a handful of lines. In 1939, he sold “The Great McGinty” to a Paramount producer for ten dollars, with the stipulation that Sturges oversee the project himself. This marked the birth of the writer-director as a concept, and the start of one of the hottest streaks in film history. Sturges churned out seven pictures for Paramount in four years, including classics such as “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek,” and “Hail the Conquering Hero.”

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