The Great McGinty

In which Sturges explains the “reform party” racket.

The beauty of the construction has a grafter buck the party and instanter find himself a bartender in “a banana republic”, telling his story to a bank cashier turned embezzler who likewise is a suicide or nearly in the same locus.


Christmas in July

The biggest joke is that it inspired Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet or William Friedkin). The point is narrowed by Resnais in I Want to Go Home, Anthony’s The Rainmaker closely parallels the theme, which is the inner station of the artist irrespective of public acclaim (his counterpart is the contest juror who holds out against the bunk).

Something “about capitalism”, says Rosenbaum.

“It’s rather sweet, actually,” according to Pauline Kael.

“Directed to perfection,” said Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, snapping out of it.

“A happy, slightly noisy comedy” (Time).

“A mildly diverting programmer” (Variety).


The Lady Eve

The first part, in which a snake precipitates the departure from Eden of an unwilling beer baron (“the ale that won for Yale”), is quite famous in itself, the second, fulfilling a Biblical promise (“it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel”), perhaps less so. In each, Edith Head endows Stanwyck with the scales of a reptile, black with bare midriff or white openwork encrusted. She is a lie and the father of it is Coburn. The first thing Fonda knows about it is a bitten apple landing on his pith helmet.

Kubrick in Lolita makes use of some material from the first part, handily, adding the second gives you the anagram of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

The secret of Sturges might be described as a useful counterbalance of the directorial imperative and the demands of the script, placing the actors in a vital position just between to effortlessly inhabit the perfect compositions and, with hardly any further effort visible, accomplish the fertile inventions of the drama.


Sullivan’s Travels

Sturges’ analysis of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath starts with a naïve equivocation and slowly progresses into the grim and bitter reality as advertised, but there is something even beyond this, introduced by a Negro preacher somewhere near the prison farm. “The chains shall be struck from them, and the lame shall leap, and the blind shall see,” the dissolving power of laughter is thus explained, and still Bosley Crowther wasn’t satisfied.

Capra and Lubitsch are named in the studio offices. John Lloyd Sullivan is “a genius”.


The Palm Beach Story

Owing to proximity, it’s the ideal divorce spot for a Park Avenue wife whose ménage has hit the skids, otherwise Reno is the place and this would have been Arthur Miller’s The Misfits (dir. John Huston).

This is Sturges in response to Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, as he was in Sullivan’s Travels. The indignity of the situation is bailed out by largesse from The Wienie King, who likes a pretty girl, and then by the freeshooters of the Ale and Quail Club, who air out their private car until the railroad ditches it.

John D. Hackensacker III is the final recourse. Out of his millions come a wardrobe and an orchestral serenade. Marriage, though, is out of the question, the husband and wife are still a going concern, and besides, the lady simply wanted money for a prototype “airport in the sky”, her husband’s invention.

The direction is slightly sparser, in keeping with the theme. Evidence is nevertheless given of a Sturges specialty, the rhythmic “proscenium” shot that might be compared with Seurat’s La Parade. A certain affinity with Mr. & Mrs. Smith confirms Sturges as another great wit who jumps with Hitchcock, like Fritz Lang.


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Tennessee Williams did the main analysis in The Glass Menagerie (Matisse at the movies under the Occupation).

“NATURE ANSWERS TOTAL WAR” is the newspaper headline.

Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob similarly reflects The Great McGinty, and the big palooka in Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers comes from Hail the Conquering Hero, Sturges is a dazzling director.


Hail the Conquering Hero

Sturges puts paid to the Axis ethos, which is just so much small-town bushwa writ large, and when he’s done (as Crowther almost observed) not a place setting has been disturbed, he has the tablecloth in his hand.

Nothing succeeds like success, they say.


The Great Moment

The discovery of surgical anæsthesia is ascribed to W.T.G. Morton, a Boston dentist who trained at Harvard.

Dr. Crawford Long of Georgia has a monument in the State Capitol for his similar work at the same time, it is inscribed, “He Giveth His Beloved Sleep”.

For the man who is understood to have brought forth the blessing to all mankind, a monument even more beautiful from Sturges.

Fifty years after the events described (which include the first application of nitrous oxide to dentistry, by Horace Wells), G.B.S. ended his career as a drama critic with these words, “I now understand the British drama and the British actor,” as the result of anæsthesia.

“I was extinguished by the gas familiar to dentists’ patients, and subsequently kept in a state of annihilation with ether.

My character did not come back all at once. Its artistic and sentimental side came first: its morality, its positive elements, its common sense, its incorrigible Protestant respectability, did not return for a long time after.”

Hence, perhaps, the ambivalence of critics toward this film.


The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

The Freshman (dirs. Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor) gets a job in the bookkeeping department of E.J. Waggleberry’s advertising agency, Administrations come and go, he’s cashiered with a gold watch.

A new drink in his honor, The Diddlebock, sends him to the races.

He’s broke in the end, with a hackney cab and a three-ring circus. The cats need feeding, he devises a plan.

A more than brilliant, sustained inspiration. Sturges saves his best joke for the finish, on top of everything else.


Unfaithfully Yours

There’s nothing to it but the evocation of an orchestral concert, and as that is an experience that can be had, it affords you an opportunity to see Sturges’ art in action, as it were. Beyond the Sturges jokes and the slapstick material (presumably supervised by Edgar Kennedy in some respect) and the sterling authenticity of the concert experience, even beyond the display of themes and constructions that Sturges allows you to see, is the sense of all this simultaneously as the film happens, which is like reading a score being played. But the score is the film...

Conductors like Toscanini and Boulez make a point of playing what is written, so that there is only the composer, and they’re called great.

How difficult that is, and how rare, is represented in this unsurpassable comedy that fell on deaf ears.

So you can see the especial problem addressed by Sturges as a writer and producer and director, who has to see the thing put forward to the public for their estimation, just as it is.

Semiramide, Tannhäuser, Francesca da Rimini.


The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend

Sturges at the same old well, giving drink to strangers, this time with a Western musical starring Betty Grable as a dead shot from infancy out where Omaha is back East, you get buggies from there.

It begins and ends with her unmanageable jealousy over a rat named Blackie (Cesar Romero), there’s a kind of interlude in Snake City where she tames two hooligans who are thought to be dead as a result and all hell breaks loose for a while.

The critics all fell in and drowned, missing it. “The fine hand of Preston Sturges,” this is Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, “seems to have slipped.” Variety says it’s “basically a rather silly western farce.” Pauline Kael in The New Yorker recalls “the film was such a disaster that 20th Century-Fox canceled his contract and he was finished in Hollywood,” approvingly. Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks it’s “painfully unfunny” (Chicago Reader). “Unworthy of its creator,” who wrote and directed and produced it, says Halliwell’s Film Guide.

Geoff Andrew in Time Out Film Guide miraculously perceives it in very nearly its true light.


The Diary of Major Thompson

Unseen by nearly everybody, “savagely cut from 105 minutes to 74” (Derek Conrad, Films and Filming), recalling Beckett’s “extreme aversion to removing one-third of my work proceeding from my extreme inability to understand how this can be done and leave a remainder.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), “funny, albeit in an uncharacteristically quiet way—thoughtful and courtly rather than raucous and lunatic, as Sturges's best pictures were. Viewers hoping for the old Sturges had their expectations dashed, and that apparently prevented them from seeing more fragile and less obvious traits.