Turn of the Screwball

Everyday people: Eddie Bracken (center) and company in Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero

You see, sir, rich people and theorists--who are usually rich people--think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn't, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague: virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice, and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study... Will that be all, sir?

--Burrows the butler, Sullivan's Travels

That the brilliant lines above are spoken by a butler makes the following assertion practically inarguable: Preston Sturges is the greatest writer of dialogue the American cinema has ever known. More open to debate is whether that line from Sullivan's Travels (1941) stands as the greatest in the whole Sturges oeuvre, competing as it does with dozens of rhythmic bons mots delivered by such hypereloquent working folks as Madame LaJolla (The Great McGinty), Mayor Noble (Hail the Conquering Hero), the Maxford House Coffee boss (Christmas in July), the Wienie King (The Palm Beach Story), the Southern Queen's purser (The Lady Eve), and the elderly tailor whose office sits across the hall from the private dick's in Unfaithfully Yours. Casting your own vote may well require a visit to each of these seven Sturges masterpieces, playing in new prints at Oak Street through February 2.

But regardless of which Sturges creation has the grandest gift of gab, what's significant is the writer-director's palpable affection for even his most minor characters to whom he gave not sentences to speak but paragraphs packed with prodigious wordsmithing and philological fury, signifying this: Do not underestimate the average man. "He had a sense of otherness such as no other Hollywood director ever had," the auteurist critic Andrew Sarris once opined of the director's democratic impulse. Which isn't to say that Sturges's movies are the sort of preachy tracts that come with lofty titles like O Brother, Where Art Thou?--just that this '40s-era filmmaker had a little faith in humankind, not to mention a now-extinct aesthetic of comedy that favored big words and bigger opinions.

In the world according to Sturges, it's the writer's responsibility (or the actor's, or the character's) to put on a verbose performance using all of his ability, "realism" or commercial etiquette be damned. Indeed, notwithstanding the silent downtrodden of Sullivan's Travels (screening Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.), Sturges's screenplays don't bother much with sounding modest or naturalistic--a fact that predictably earned him enemies among those in the industry with less talent and nerve. Coincidentally or not, the flamboyant title character of The Great McGinty (Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.) gets chewed up by the corrupt political machine for daring to speak truth to power--and so, too, Sturges fell from Hollywood grace in the late-'40s after an amazing hot-streak of eight impeccably incisive movies written and directed over the course of five years. (To this day, Sturges remains underrated in the mainstream, as evinced by his absence from the American Film Institute's recent Top 100 list.)

The fruitful tension in Sturges's movies between high culture and lowbrow high jinks seems to stem from the artist's own colorfully Sturgesesque life. Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1898 and raised throughout Europe as the child of bohemian socialites who ran with Isadora Duncan, he invented "kiss-proof lipstick" at his mom's cosmetics company, flew with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and otherwise remained largely idle until the age of 30, when a bout of appendicitis brought him into proximity with a book about the art of drama and he started writing Broadway plays. "The only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood," he once wrote, "is that I ever had one at all." Indeed, after nearly a decade of screenwriting for other people's movies, he became the industry's prototypical writer-director by deliberately lowballing the sale of his Great McGinty script to Paramount in order to earn a job behind the camera. His price for the screenplay in 1940: one dollar.


A fellow Sturges admirer recently asked me to tell him something about the man that he might not know--which I did, and I'll relate it here: Preston Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel in 1959, roughly 20 minutes after completing a nostalgic portion of an autobiography he'd planned to call The Events Leading Up to My Death. (This material, along with various letters and journal entries, was reassembled by his widow to create the book Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges.) I think the point of this mildly morbid anecdote is that, big words aside, Sturges's wicked sense of humor involved an epic conception of life as a long, crazy, and essentially downward spiral lifted by a great moment or two of glory amid a surplus of the absurd.

Accordingly, just about all his films are ironic rags-to-riches(-to rags) stories--with a little sex, that is. His heroes can be either uninhibited men of action or cowardly chumps, but they usually follow similar trajectories and/or land in the same humbled place. His female characters are generally the sole keepers of moral virtue, though they're not always blessed with the power to assert it. His black characters, save a precious few, are grinning shoeshiners or humiliated servants--this being the one greatly regrettable element of Sturges's work. Especially in the scathing Hail the Conquering Hero (Monday and Tuesday at 5:30 and 9:15 p.m.), the American public in Sturges films is gullible above all, easily sold on anything having to do with consumerism, patriotism, or heroism. "Everything that means happiness costs money," laments Dick Powell's inept sloganeer at the start of Christmas in July (January 27 and 28 at 6 and 9:35 p.m.)--and, true to that sentiment, he takes no time flat to start swaggering once the greenbacks from a radio contest are mistakenly placed in his hands.

Sturges's movies may be erudite, but they're not above crude slapstick: The Palm Beach Story (February 1 and 2 at 5:40 and 9:20 p.m.) kicks off with a silent-movie-style action sequence to make D.W. Griffith green with envy, depicting the violently chaotic goings-on during a couple's wedding day; and the double-entendre-laden flirting in The Lady Eve (Friday through Sunday at 5:30 and 9:20 p.m.) is shattered when the horny hero's pet snake sends his leggy love interest (Barbara Stanwyck) into a fearful tizzy (call that a visual double entendre). Still, Sturges's exhaustingly outrageous films often yield heady themes that fly in the face of the American Dream, so that even an ostensible farce such as Unfaithfully Yours (January 27 and 28 at 7:30 p.m.) exposes male sexual paranoia as darkly and disturbingly as any film noir, while The Great McGinty and Sullivan's Travels are about nothing less than the sad impossibility that good intentions can solve such societal ills as homelessness and poverty.

But it's not this pessimism per se that makes Sullivan's Travels the most impressive of Sturges's works, nor is it the movie's audaciously self-reflexive story of a popular director (Joel McCrea) grappling with his desire to make art films. Rather, it's how the film seems to argue persuasively for frivolous comedy over socially conscious drama while subtly undercutting that claim. The unwashed masses need pure entertainment rather than provocation, the filmmaking character reasons, burying his head in the sand--while Sturges, at least until the industry tired of his great ambition, proved that it was possible to deliver both.


Oak Street Cinema's Preston Sturges retrospective starts Friday and continues through February 2; (612) 331-3134.

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