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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 239

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This is the grave of Preston Sturges.

Arguably the greatest comedic director since Chaplin, Sturges was born in 1898 in Chicago. His mom was an artist-type and pretty eccentric. She left her husband when Sturges was a baby and went to Paris to start an singing career. That didn’t really go anywhere. She returned to the U.S. and continued a bohemian life while somehow marrying a wealthy stockbroker who hated everything about her life. But he adopted Preston and gave him his name. But she seemed to have a lot of autonomy in all this, shuttling back and forth to France, where young Preston would become fluent in French. He also traveled around some with his mom’s friend Isidora Duncan and her dance company. So a life in the arts was seemingly inevitable for the young man. Took him awhile though. He started working in stocks for his father, then joined the military in World War I. He went to officer training school and by the time he finished, the war was over. Then he worked for his mother’s 4th husband managing a department store for 8 years.

Finally, in 1928, Sturges got a part in a play on Broadway and wrote a play of his own, The Guinea Pig. That debuted in Massachusetts but was really good and popular and moved to Broadway, where it was a hit. Then he wrote another play, Strictly Dishonorable, another Broadway hit. Although his next plays didn’t do too much, he attracted Hollywood interest and started writing scripts. He wrote the screenplay for The Power and the Glory, with Clark Gable. I haven’t seen this film, but evidently it was an inspiration for Citizen Kane due to its flashbacks and then flashforwards, a new way of storytelling for the films. Sturges had enough pull to demand a remarkable contract clause–no producer or director could change a word of his writing. He was making a lot of money but wasn’t real happy about how directors handled his dialogue. I haven’t seen many of the early films he wrote but 1937’s Easy Living, directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a total masterpiece of the Great Depression and a near perfect movie. One of Sturges’ great skills was, despite having grown up fairly wealthy, to be able to write amazing comedies about the economic horrors going around the nation. That would be a hallmark of his early films.

He finally broke into directing his own work with The Great McGinty in 1940. I haven’t seen that, but Christmas in July ,from the same year, is another masterwork of comedy in the Depression. And then there’s the legendary, wonderful Sullivan’s Travels from 1941, the story of a rich director who has seen too much social realism and decides to make a movie about poverty, a subject about which he knows absolutely nothing. He decides to dress up as a hobo and hit the road, taking Veronica Lake with him, who is not credible as a boy, to say the least! Of course, Sully learns some hard lessons on the way and realizes the value of comedy to the working classes, who would rather not be preached to. Amazingly, he directed The Lady Eve, another great film, the same year. He continued writing and directing good to great films through the 1940s–The Palm Beach Story (not my favorite), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and culminating in 1948’s Unfaithfully Yours, the story of an idiotic and arrogant composer played by Rex Harrison who gets convinced his wife is cheating on him. He fantasizes about killing her through the film and then when he tries, he is an incompetent boob and the pratfalls result.

That was about it for Sturges. The 50s were not a good time for him. Even in the 40s, studios were trying to control and change his movies. He became friends with Howard Hughes, who agreed to bankroll his projects, but this was a predictable disaster. Only one got made, and that after Sturges was fired. His only true film in the 50s was The French, They Are a Funny Race, a poorly reviewed film from 1955 that I have not seen. In a sense, Sturges shared a common trade with Orson Welles–independence in an age of studio domination. The studios destroyed both of them. Most of his attempts to write or direct in the 50s were nixed by a Hollywood sick of fighting with him. Even when Katharine Hepburn tried to get a studio to film a project she wanted him to write for her, they refused.

Sturges died of a heart attack in 1959, at the age of 60. One wonders if he had survived another decade if the new independents might have picked him up, but then that’s a long time from his peak period and the films of the 1970s were a whole lot different than that of the 1940s. Still, what a genius. He wasn’t perfect–including engaging in the casual racism and blackface of the period, which was the peril of many a comedic actor/director, including Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but very much not Charlie Chaplin. Nonetheless, Sturges is one of my very favorite directors and writers of all time. Here’s a few clips:

Preston Sturges is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

If you would like this series to cover more of the great comedic directors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are both in the Los Angeles area, as one would expect. In fact, I need to travel to LA just so I can include more film entries in this series. Previous entries in this series are archived here.

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