Saturday, May 15, 2021

The comedies of Preston Sturges, part 3: Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero

A continuation of The comedies of Preston Sturges part 1 and part 2.

The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story took place among the East Coast upper set; in Sullivan's Travels, we're told that film director John L. Sullivan earns $4000 a week. For his final two Paramount films, Preston Sturges focussed instead on the middle-class denizens of small towns. Both movies feature unlikely star Eddie Bracken, who, with his diminutive stature, wide-set eyes, small chin and substantial schnozz, was the perfect embodiment of Sturges' Everyman hero.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (filmed October - December 1942; released January 1944)

Constable Knockenlocker (William Demarest), Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) and Trudy (Betty Hutton) the morning after the dance in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Image source: Happyotter

Sturges' films often dealt with subjects not usually treated in a comedic way: political corruption (The Great McGinty), the randomness of life chances (Christmas in July), summary justice and the brutality of the prison system (Sullivan's Travels), divorce (The Palm Beach Story). During the World War II years Hollywood churned out morale-boosting movies about resolute G.I.s fighting Hitler and Tojo and, on the home front, noble wives making sacrifices. In The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Sturges instead wrung comedy out of sexually predatory soldiers and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Trudy Knockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is the belle of the Midwestern town of Morgan's Creek. She has long been hopelessly loved by nebbish Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken). But Trudy has eyes only for men in uniform, and Norval has been deemed medically unfit for military service thanks to his high blood pressure: whenever he gets excited he sees spots and starts to stammer uncontrollably.

As the film opens soldiers on leave are roaming through the town looking for girls to invite to the send-off dance that night. Norval asks Trudy to go to the movies with him, but she wants to go to the party to "kiss the boys goodbye." However, she's reckoned without her widower father (William Demarest), the town constable, whose emotional fuse seems to be permanently set at a slow burn. He bars her from going despite support for Trudy from her younger sister Emmy (Diana Lynn):

KNOCKENLOCKER: . . .What is this military "kiss the boys goodbye" business and where is it to be transacted?
TRUDY: Oh just like they always do. . .in the church basement and then at the country club and then kinda. . .like that.
TRUDY: That's all, goodnight, Papa.
KNOCKENLOCKER: Just a moment, what happens after the country club?
TRUDY: They bring you home.
KNOCKENLOCKER: Yeh. . .by way of Cincinnati. . .with a side trip through Detroit. I was a soldier too, you know. . .in the last war.
TRUDY: But Papa. . .I've already promised, and I'm already dressed up. . .
KNOCKENLOCKER: Yeh. . .well. . .you can get undressed. . .
TRUDY: But Papa. . .
EMMY: People aren't as evil-minded as they were when you were a soldier, Papa. . .I think you have a mind like a swamp. [1]

Knockenlocker's imagination, it turns out, is not lurid enough.

Trudy calls up Norval and accepts the movie date. Norval can't believe his luck, and he shouldn't. On the way to the theater Trudy explains the plan: he'll go to the movies; she'll borrow his car and go to the dance. Against his better judgment (and after Trudy bursts into tears), Norval gives in and goes to the triple feature by himself. Trudy tells him that she'll be back when the movies are over, about 1 am.

But it's not until 8 o'clock the next morning that Trudy screeches up to the theater in Norval's car; both the car and Trudy herself look more than a little worse for the wear. The dancing had moved from the church basement to the country club (where a drunk member orders "champagne for everybody!") and then to a roadhouse. While dancing at the roadhouse Trudy is lifted high in the air and her head is banged against a low-hanging mirror ball; everything after that is a blur.

Norval desperately tries to think of a story to tell Mr. Knockenlocker. Flat tire? Falling asleep in the movie? Accident on the road? Knockenlocker's heard them all before, though, and when Norval brings Trudy home as their neighbors are heading to church on Sunday morning she and Emmy have to restrain their father from taking a swing at Norval, who barely manages to escape.

Upstairs in their room Emmy points out that Trudy is wearing a ring (which looks suspiciously like a curtain ring) on the third finger of her left hand. The still-woozy Trudy tries to remember the events of the evening, and a detail flashes into her mind: someone said "Let's all get married," and then. . .but she can't remember his name. Maybe it had a 'Z' in it. . .like Ratzkiwatski? But then she recalls that someone advised not giving their right names. So Trudy not only has no idea of her husband's real name, she has no idea what name she gave either, or where the marriage may have taken place. She has no marriage certificate or any evidence supporting her story, apart from the curtain ring.

There is one more piece of evidence, it turns out: Trudy is pregnant. The only solution is for her to get married right away, and the startlingly unsentimental Emmy and her hard-nosed father have both picked out the perfect patsy: Norval. (As Emmy says, "He took you out, didn't he? He brought you home, didn't he? At eight o'clock in the morning, didn't he? He fits like the skin on a wienie." [2]) Once again Norval can't believe his luck: the girl he's loved forever wants to marry him. But Trudy can't go through with it, and confesses everything. While Norval still wants to marry her despite her pregnancy, there's an insurmountable problem:  she's already married, and if she marries again without getting a divorce, she's committing bigamy. But she can't get divorced without proof that she's married, which she'll never be able to produce.

Norval has a brainstorm: what if Trudy marries Private Ratzkiwatski again? She wouldn't be committing bigamy, because she's already married to him. Then she'd have a valid marriage certificate, which would enable her to get a divorce. After Trudy's divorce is finalized she and Norval can get married, and avert the looming scandal. It's a brilliant plan, requiring only that Norval carry off an impersonation of the nonexistent Ratzkiwatski. A little discretion, self-confidence, and coolness under pressure is all that's required. Unfortunately Norval possesses none of those things. Only a miracle (and cameo appearances by two characters from an earlier Sturges film) can head off catastrophe. . .

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek takes American pieties about the honor of soldiers and the sanctity of motherhood and utterly subverts them. It even courts blasphemy: the "virgin" birth takes place at Christmastime. The true miracle of the film is that it got past the Hays/Breen censorship office largely intact (Sturges did have to remove some footage and shoot some additional scenes). Although we never see either Trudy or the soldiers drinking alcohol, that Trudy got drunk and had sex with one (or perhaps more) of the departing soldiers is strongly implied.

Despite the movie's comic tone the set was not a particularly happy one. Sturges was becoming more volatile as his marriage disintegrated and as tensions heightened with the censorship office and studio executives. Despite wartime restrictions Sturges regularly ran over schedule and over budget; for one scene in Miracle he did 50 takes. When Paramount production chief Buddy DeSylva learned about this he shot off an angry memo to Sturges:

I think it is absolutely disgraceful. . .No other director on the lot needs fifty takes to get a scene. Either you do not properly explain to the actors what they are called on to do, or you engage inadequate actors, or perhaps the actors get so upset after take #15 or #20 that they are no longer capable of giving you what you desire. [3]

Norval Jones may have been smitten with Trudy Knockenlocker, but Eddie Bracken did not enjoy working with Betty Hutton. He'd appeared in several earlier films with her, and was concerned about being upstaged. Sturges promised that she wouldn't be given a song, but of course, Betty wanted one. Sturges' solution probably pleased no one:

In the end the premiere of Miracle was delayed from the spring until the following winter. The studio that had released three of Sturges' movies between August 1940 and February 1941 was now willing to go a more than a year (December 1942 to January 1944) between Sturges films. It was a sign that relations between Sturges and the studio executives were badly frayed. In the end The Miracle of Morgan's Creek wasn't released until after Sturges had completed filming his next movie, Hail the Conquering Hero, and a full a month after his contract with Paramount had expired without renewal in December 1943. But remarkably, Miracle was the biggest hit of the year and the most profitable film of Sturges' Paramount career. [4]

Hail the Conquering Hero (filmed July - September 1943; released August 1944)

The Reception Committee Chairman (Franklin Pangborn), Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), and Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarest) in Hail the Conquering Hero. Image source: Film Forum

The success of Miracle gave Sturges leverage when the studio took his next film, Hail the Conquering Hero, out of his hands after mixed audience responses during December previews. DeSylva ordered the movie to be extensively re-edited, but a February 1944 preview of this studio version was even worse. Sturges made DeSylva an offer he couldn't refuse: he would come back to the studio for rewrites, retakes, and re-cutting, without pay. He changed the ending, reshot scenes over four days in early April, restored many of the studio's cuts and made some new ones of his own. Ironically, the studio interference may have given Sturges an opportunity to improve the movie.

Out of the fog, a group of six marines on leave enter a nightclub. They've just lost all their money in a crap game, and are in a dire situation:

PFC BILL SWENSON (Stephen Gregory): No dough.
PFC JUKE GILLETTE (Len Hendry): Nothin' to do.
SERGEANT HEFFELFINGER (William Demarest): And five days to do it in. [5]

In the bar, though, as they order one beer with their last 15 cents and prepare to share it, a full tray of sandwiches and beer for all of them miraculously materializes. When the marines go in search of their benefactor they find Woodrow LaFayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) sitting at the end of the bar. The son of a marine who died in World War I, joining up has been his dearest wish all his life. And when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he did—but after a month he received a medical discharge for chronic hayfever. He tells the marines that he lied to his mother and told her that he'd been posted overseas, but ever since his discharge he's been working in a shipyard.

One of the marines, the orphan Bugsy (Freddie Steele), has an especially soft spot for mothers. From the bar's pay phone he calls Woodrow's mom (Georgia Caine) in the small California town of Oakridge, and puts Woodrow on the line. Woodrow tries to maintain the fiction that he's in the marines, but Bugsy tells his mother that he's been wounded and honorably discharged, and Heffelfinger adds that he'll be coming home the next day on the train.

The marines dress Woodrow in uniform and, to his horror, give him a medal. The plan is to slip into town unnoticed and have Woodrow quietly reunite with his mother. Only, the return of a war hero is just about the biggest thing ever to happen in Oakridge. When the train pulls into the station he's greeted by a mob of well-wishers, banners, all four of the town's brass bands (who start playing simultaneously), and Mayor Noble, who is campaigning for re-election and wants to associate himself with the unsuspecting Woodrow.

Once the intensity of the town's interest in Woodrow becomes apparent to the marines, they go all in. At every opportunity they embellish Woodrow's fictional exploits, until it seems that he's single-handedly massacred whole Imperial Japanese Army divisions and ensured victory at Guadalcanal. Woodrow is sinking ever deeper into a trap from which he sees no way to escape. When there is a knock at the door and the sheriff and judge enter he's sure the jig is up. But they don't want to arrest him for impersonation and falsehood—they want to draft him as the Progressive candidate in the mayoral election. When they shove him in front of the crowd, he tries to tell them the truth, but everything he says only increases their acclaim:

WOODROW: Ladies and Gentlemen. . .You're making a big mistake. [Wild cheer]. . .I REALLY DON'T DESERVE IT! [Laughter and hoorays]. . .The medals you saw on me you could practically say were PINNED ON BY MISTAKE! [Crowd roars] [6]

Further complicating Woodrow's life is that after his discharge he had written his sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) that he'd fallen in love with someone else, so that she wouldn't wait for him. She didn't: she's engaged to Forrest, Mayor Noble's rich, tall, handsome son. But now that Woodrow has returned a hero, she's having second thoughts. Woodrow, of course, has never stopped loving her. But now he's facing shame and disgrace, and is glad that she'll be spared. Only, does she want to be. . .?

Libby was one of the first big roles for Ella Raines, a young actress with striking looks who went on to star in Phantom Lady (1943), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1946), and Impact (1949), among other films. In the initial takes of her scenes she was stiff and unsure (her performance quickly improved). After four days Henry Ginsberg, Paramount's "Hatchet Man," not only insisted that she be fired, but without telling Sturges had already hired her replacement. Sturges burst into Ginsberg's office in a fury. When he left, two things had been decided: Ella Raines would remain in the cast of Hail the Conquering Hero, and despite being offered a raise, Sturges would not renew his Paramount contract when it expired six months later. Sturges would later write, "The awful day about Ella Raines will be with me always." [7]

Raines was clearly the occasion, not the cause, of Sturges' break with Paramount. He was tired of the officious oversight and interference of studio executives and their reluctance to release his films. He wanted to form his own independent production company where he would have greater control.

Hail the Conquering Hero includes many of Sturges' familiar situations, characters and actors. There's the ever-exasperated William Demarest, the ever-flustered Franklin Pangborn, and the ever-opportunistic Raymond Walburn. But most especially there is the figure of the naïve and acted-upon central character Woodrow Truesmith, who, like Dan McGinty, Jimmy MacDonald, Charles Pike, John L. Sullivan, Tom Jeffers and Norval Jones, has his happiness thrust upon him by more knowing others. It is the summation and culmination of Sturges' achievement as a writer and director at Paramount, but also marks the abrupt end of his most creative and productive period.

Coda: Sturges after Paramount

Tony Windborn (Kurt Kreuger), Daphne de Carter (Linda Darnell), and Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) in Unfaithfully Yours. Image source: Family Friendly Movies [8]

After leaving Paramount, Sturges did eventually form a production company in partnership with Howard Hughes, but Hughes' money meant that Hughes, not Sturges, retained control. The one film Sturges completed for California Pictures, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), was given only a limited release, and after disagreements on their next project, Vendetta, Hughes closed the set and dissolved the partnership.

Sturges immediately signed a contract with 20th Century Fox that promised him $9000 a week. The first result was the formally inventive black comedy Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which starred Rex Harrison as conductor Sir Alfred de Carter and Linda Darnell as his much younger wife Daphne. The film's humor turns on the jealous Sir Alfred's murderous fantasies about his wife, which is perhaps one reason for its box office failure. Sturges was then assigned the uncongenial task of writing and directing a Technicolor vehicle for Betty Grable, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). Grable was Fox's biggest star, but the movie far exceeded its budget and was her first flop. Sturges' contract was not renewed.

He worked fitfully over the next several years writing scripts (none were produced) and pouring money into his failing restaurant The Players. In 1953 he sold The Players and his home, and left Hollywood for good.

Before his untimely death in 1959—he was only 60—Sturges would direct just one more film. Les carnets du Major Thompson (1955) was based on the book by Pierre Daninos that humorously detailed the cultural differences between the French and the English. Filmed in Paris with a multinational cast for Gaumont Studios, it was released in America as The French They Are A Funny Race. Critic Bosley Crowther, usually Sturges' champion, wrote in his New York Times review that it was "a generally listless little picture, without wit, electricity or even plot. . .The French they must be funnier than this." [9] Although the movie made back its modest production costs, it was a dispiriting finish to the filmmaking career of the man who, in the four years between 1940 and 1944, created seven great comedies.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Brian Henderson, editor, Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 609-610.
  2. Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, p. 637.
  3. Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1992, p. 303. 
  4. Brian Henderson, editor, Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1985, p. 685.
  5. Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, p. 712.
  6. Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, p. 773-774.
  7. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 297.
  8. A movie about suspicions of sexual infidelity and fantasies of homicidal revenge is family friendly? Just asking.
  9. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 428.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The comedies of Preston Sturges, part 2: Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story

This is a continuation of The comedies of Preston Sturges, part 1: The Great McGinty to The Lady Eve.

Sullivan's Travels (filmed May - July 1941, released January 1942)

Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and The Girl (Veronica Lake) on the road in Sullivan's Travels. Image source: Arrow Video Deck

According to Preston Sturges' biographer Diane Jacobs, the idea for Sullivan's Travels may have been based on an experience from his first years in Hollywood. Doing research for a film, screenwriter John Huston and director William Wyler spent time traveling as hobos and sleeping in L.A. flophouses, and Sturges had joined his friends for a night or two. In writing Sullivan's Travels (the first of his 1940s films not based on an older script) he may also have been taking stock of his recent success and trying to justify the frivolous activity of making comedies at a time of continued joblessness (the official U.S. unemployment rate in 1940 was 15%) and global war.

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is the director of hit musical comedies like So Long Sarong, Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939. (These titles, absurd as they are, all reference actual movies: So Long Sarong alludes to Road to Singapore (1940), the latest of Dorothy Lamour's "sarong" pictures; Hey, Hey is a dig at the "let's put on a show in the barn" scenes of Babes in Arms (1939); and Ants in Your Plants parodies the Broadway Melody series. Sturges knew the latter intimately: he'd written the screenplay for the unproduced Broadway Melody of 1939 and also contributed dialogue to Broadway Melody of 1940.) [1]

Sullivan decides that musicals are too trivial: his next project will be a gritty film about poverty and injustice called O Brother, Where Art Thou? But first he has to convince his producers Hadrian and LeBrand (Porter Hall and Robert Warwick).

SULLIVAN: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man.
LEBRAND: But with a little sex.
SULLIVAN: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity—a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
LEBRAND: But with a little sex.
SULLIVAN: With a little sex in it.
HADRIAN: How about a nice musical?
SULLIVAN: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this, with the world committing suicide? With corpses piling up in the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep!
HADRIAN: Maybe they'd like to forget that.

The producers are skeptical, and instead offer him Ants in Your Plants of 1941.

SULLIVAN: . . .But you don't realize conditions have changed. There isn't any work. There isn't any food. These are troublous times.
HADRIAN: What do you know about trouble?
SULLIVAN: What do I know about trouble?
HADRIAN: Yes, what do you know about trouble?. . .You want to make a picture about garbage cans—what do you know about garbage cans? When did you eat your last meal out of one?
SULLIVAN: What's that got to do with it?. . .Don't you think I've—
HADRIAN: You have not.
SULLIVAN: . . .I suppose you're trying to tell me I don't know what trouble is.
LEBRAND: In a nice way, Sully.
SULLIVAN: You're absolutely right. I haven't any idea what it is.
HADRIAN: People always like what they don't know anything about.
SULLIVAN: I had a lot of nerve wanting to make a picture about human suffering. . .But I'll tell you what I'm gonna do first. I'm going down to Wardrobe to get some old clothes, some old shoes, and I'm gonna start out with ten cents in my pocket. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm not coming back till I know what trouble is. [2]

He will get more trouble than he bargained for. But first he needs to get out of town, which proves surprisingly hard to do. First he has to shake the huge mobile trailer carrying a support and publicity crew that his producers send to follow him around. Then he has to dodge a lonely widow who has designs on this handsome vagrant. And finally he meets The Girl (Veronica Lake in her first starring role), an aspiring actress giving up on her dreams and leaving Hollywood for good. At first she insists on buying him breakfast, and then (when he reveals his true identity, and his plan) on accompanying him on his journey. The two hop freight trains, stand in line at soup kitchens, sleep in barns huddled together against the cold, and fall in love.

After a while Sullivan is ready to return to Hollywood, settle down with The Girl and make his movie. But then an act of violence separates him from his old life and identity. Now he experiences brutality and suffering first-hand, but also the unexpected kindness and generosity of strangers, and the redemptive power of laughter.

Both McCrea and Lake do some of their best work in this film. Diane Jacobs interviewed McCrea, and learned that before filming began Sturges told McCrea that he'd written the part of Sullivan just for him. McCrea's response: "What do you mean? They don't write scripts for me. They write them for Gary Cooper, and if they can't get him, they take me." [3]

But Sturges was apparently sincere, and the two got along well; McCrea would go on to star in two more of Sturges' movies. Sturges also had Veronica Lake in mind early on. At the time she was a virtual unknown; he'd spotted her in the rushes of a Mitchell Leisen-directed film called I Wanted Wings, which hadn't even been released when Sullivan's Travels began filming. But Sturges wanted an actress who would be convincing as someone who'd failed to make it, and casting an already-famous actress in the part would have undermined the necessary suspension of disbelief. [4]

Sullivan's Travels is not a perfect movie. Early in the film there is a chase scene in which Sullivan hitches a ride on a go-cart driven by a 12-year-old in an attempt to escape his minders in the trailer. First, a white motorcycle cop gets his face splashed with dark mud; a minute later, when the trailer attempts to pursue Sullivan down dirt roads and across fields, the black cook (Charles R. Moore) is painfully jounced around and winds up first suspended by his neck from a hole in the roof, and then with his face planted in the pancake batter. Eighty years on, the jokes ring hollow: if images of a black man dangling by his neck, a white man in blackface, or a black man in whiteface were ever funny to white or black audiences, they aren't any longer. And Sullivan's final speech comes uncomfortably close to the Hollywood complacency and self-congratulation that the rest of the film satirizes. But Sullivan's Travels is full of Sturges' trademark snappy dialogue and has many memorable scenes, both comic and otherwise.

And it has been an inspiration to many later filmmakers, not least to the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. In 2000 they wrote and directed an homage to Sullivan's Travels entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? Like Sullivan's Travels, it's got brutality, suffering, chain gangs, and also snappy dialogue, chase scenes and slapstick—and a little sex.

The Palm Beach Story (filmed November 1941 - January 1942, released December 1942)

Tom (Joel McCrea), Maude (Mary Astor), Gerry (Claudette Colbert), and J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) in The Palm Beach Story. Image source: Pinterest

During the filming of The Palm Beach Story Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered World War II. But no hint of the unfolding global catastrophe appears in Sturges' movie, which feels like a throwback to the café comedies of the early sound era. It even features Rudy Vallee, Jazz Age radio heartthrob, and its lead actresses (Claudette Colbert and Mary Astor) had both starred in silent films.

Perhaps as an homage, The Palm Beach Story (originally titled Is Marriage Necessary?) opens with a sequence without dialogue. A woman, dressed only in a slip and bound and gagged, struggles to escape from a locked closet. Another woman who looks just like the first pulls on a wedding dress and veil and runs off to a church, where moments later her equally agitated groom dashes up. As they stand breathless before the altar a title card appears onscreen: "And They Lived Happily Ever After. . .Or Did They?" [5]

Cut to five years later. Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are living in a vast Park Avenue apartment. But their apparent success is all for show: Tom's been unable to interest any investors in his latest scheme, an airfield made of steel mesh suspended over the center of the city. (It's a terrible idea; a plane crash would shower flaming debris onto the buildings and streets below.) They're months behind on the rent, and the landlord has begun showing their place to prospective tenants.

The first of whom is the millionaire Wienie King (Robert Dudley), inventor of the Texas Wienie. When he learns about Gerry's distress, he peels a few bills off of his enormous bankroll for the back rent, plus a new dress and hat. It's not what you think: the Wienie King is old enough to be Gerry's father and, despite that, isn't interested in dating her. As Gerry tells her highly suspicious husband, "You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything." [6]

The Wienie King just wants to help a pretty lady, and Gerry isn't too proud to take the money. She pays the rent, buys a new dress and hat, and, now penniless again, leaves Tom and heads to Palm Beach. Their love for one another is irrelevant, in Gerry's mind: Tom can find a new wife who can cook and deal with other domestic duties; she'll find a rich new husband who can give her the life of luxury she wants, and as a side benefit can fund Tom's schemes.

At the train station the ticketless Gerry is adopted by the "Ale & Quail Club," a group of shotgun-toting hunters going down to Florida to massacre some wildlife. Fleeing the over-boisterous A&Q Club Gerry winds up in a sleeper car, where, as she's climbing into an empty upper berth, she introduces herself to the passenger in the lower berth by inadvertently stepping on his face and breaking his pince-nez. That passenger is the multimillionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who is instantly enamoured. He invites Gerry to leave the train with him at Jacksonville and sail down to Palm Beach on his yacht. Ever the pragmatist, Gerry accepts.

But when they arrive in Palm Beach they are greeted not only by Hackensacker's much-married sister Maude (Mary Astor) but by Tom, who has gotten the money to fly down from the soft-hearted Wienie King. Quick-thinking Gerry passes Tom off as her brother. Maude is immediately intrigued and sets her sights on Tom, despite the inconvenient presence of her current lover Toto (Sig Arno). But Gerry's continuing love for and attraction to her husband threatens to derail her carefully laid plans to promote his success by marrying someone else.

The character of Gerry was based in part on Sturges' own mother Mary, who always relied on the kindness of (rich, male) strangers as she accompanied her friend Isadora Duncan around Europe. Tom seems to be a version of Sturges, who was himself an inventor. And J.D. Hackensacker III is a more benign and likeable version of J.D. Rockefeller III, although he shares his penchant for parsimony in small things (like the economical sleeper berth and the ten-cent tip he gives the disappointed Pullman porter (Charles R. Moore)).

But The Palm Beach Story's humor is sometimes negated by racist and xenophobic stereotypes. Fred Toones plays a fearful bartender on the train who is compelled to toss objects in the air for the A&Q Club's live-ammunition target practice; somehow it's hard to find amusement at the sight of a black man cowering before a gang of white men with shotguns and hunting dogs. And Sig Arno's nonsense-language vaudeville routine relies on the idea that foreigners are inherently hilarious. Nitz, as Toto would say.

The Palm Beach Story was admired by other filmmakers, and in particular by Sturges' friend Billy Wilder. Almost 20 years later Wilder reworked some of its scenes in another brilliant comedy. Some Like It Hot also features an overnight train trip to Florida and the overcrowding of a Pullman berth: in The Palm Beach Story, the Ale & Quail Club's pack of hounds leap into Hackensacker's bed while pursuing Gerry, once again breaking his pince-nez; in Some Like It Hot, negligee-wearing singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and her entire pajama-clad all-girl jazz band climb in with a thrilled but alarmed "Daphne" (bass player Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who has joined the band dressed in drag). In Some Like It Hot there are also unexpected meetings with multi-millionaires: Sugar Kane is wooed by a bespectacled yachtsman who talks like Cary Grant and hints that he is the heir to the Shell Oil fortune (although he's really broke saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis), travelling with the band as "Josephine"), while "Daphne" is relentlessly pursued by the super-rich Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who won't take no for an answer.

Wilder made no secret of his admiration for The Palm Beach Story. But critics and audiences were cool to Sturges' film, perhaps because its focus on the idle rich seemed jarringly out of touch with the wartime mood. With the distance of time, and if you can make allowances for its objectionable scenes, The Palm Beach Story's dialogue and the performances of Colbert, McCrea, Vallee and Astor are very enjoyable: I would put it in third place among Sturges' movies, after The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. But its relative lack of success, coupled with studio belt-tightening and the change of national mood due to the war, meant that Sturges would have to think on a smaller scale for his next two films.

Next time: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero

Last time: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and The Lady Eve

  1. Sturges was a boxing fan, and John L. Sullivan was a famous 19th-century heavyweight champion.
  2. Quotes from the film transcribed from the 2001 Criterion Collection DVD. And yes, I hear (and subtitles confirm) Ants in Your Plants, not Ants in Your Pants. Sturges may have been making a concession to the Hays/Breen Office.
  3. Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1992, p. 254.
  4. Speaking of suspension of disbelief: when Lake reported for costume fittings before the start of filming it turned out that she was nearly six months' pregnant. Sturges was furious at her concealment of her pregnancy during casting. But costume designer Edith Head hid her condition beneath trenchcoats, empire-waisted bathrobes and baggy hobo suits, and Sturges hired actress and former Rose Parade Queen Cheryl Walker as a body double for the physically rigorous scenes of freight-hopping and pool-dunking. Although I've watched Sullivan's Travels at least half a dozen times, I had never suspected Lake's pregnancy before reading Jacobs' biography. Lake gave birth to a daughter, Elaine, on 21 August 1941, just six weeks after shooting wrapped on Sullivan's Travels.
  5. This sequence is never fully explained. At the end of the film—spoiler alert!—we learn that both the bride and groom have identical twins, who, five years later, are still single. One story that suggests itself is that Tom Jeffers has unknowingly married the wrong twin; but then, why was he running up to the church as if he'd also left his brother bound and gagged? And if both twins are "wrong" and have just usurped their siblings' marriage ceremony, why doesn't the original couple just go ahead and get married once they escape from their closets? No explanation seems fully satisfactory; as Tom says, "That's another plot entirely."
  6. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 271.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The comedies of Preston Sturges, part 1: The Great McGinty to The Lady Eve

Preston Sturges in the early 1940s. Image source: Lady Eve's Reel Life

Over a period of four years between 1940 and 1944, seven comedy films written and directed by Preston Sturges were released by Paramount Studios. More remarkably, the first three of them—The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, and The Lady Eve—were released over just 6 months between August 1940 and February 1941. And even more remarkably, there's not a dud among the seven films, and some are among the best comedies ever produced by Hollywood.

This production schedule speaks to how smoothly functioning the Hollywood machine was at the height of the studio era, and also to Sturges' immense talent and drive. (At the same time that he was writing and directing these movies he was opening and running a now-legendary restaurant, The Players, where he could be found holding court almost every night.)

Sturges was in his mid-30s when he came to Hollywood in 1932 after writing a hit Broadway show, Strictly Dishonorable, which was turned into a successful (but now badly dated) movie. He went on to write several other scripts, including The Power and the Glory (1933), with Spencer Tracy, one of the models for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; Easy Living (1937), a delightful screwball comedy with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold; and Remember the Night (1940), featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a wrenching Christmas noir four years before their memorable pairing in Double Indemnity. By the late 1930s he was one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood, earning $2750 per week, about a hundred times the average wage in the U.S. at the time. [1]

But writing wasn't enough. Sturges also wanted to direct his own scripts, and when his Paramount contract expired in September 1939 he gave the studio an ultimatum. Paramount grudgingly agreed to let him direct one film if he would sell the script to the studio for $1 (later upped to $10) and accept a $400,000 shooting budget. For comparison's sake, the shooting budget for the average MGM film in 1939-40 was nearly twice that amount, and for an A-list film with major stars could be three to five times that amount. [2] 

The script Sturges chose was one he had written in 1933 with Spencer Tracy in mind for the lead. By 1939 Sturges and Tracy were working for different studios, and Sturges couldn't have afforded him anyway. So he went with a cast of unknowns and character actors, and in the process established a troupe he would draw on for all his later Paramount films.

The Great McGinty (filmed December 1939 - January 1940; released August 1940)

The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) and McGinty (Brian Donlevy) in The Great McGinty. Image source: DVD Talk

Originally entitled The Vagrant, the screenplay tells the story of a down-on-his-luck bruiser (Brian Donlevy) who impresses the boss of his city's political machine by voting for the machine's mayoral candidate 37 times (at $2 per vote). The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) hires the vagrant to be his muscle, and eventually to be his front as the "reform candidate" for mayor:

MCGINTY: What do you got to do with the reform party?
BOSS: I am the reform party. What do you think?
MCGINTY: Since when?
BOSS: Since always. In this town, I'm all parties. You think I'm going to starve every time they change administrations? [3]

André Bazin called Sturges the "anti-Capra." [4] This is unfair to Capra, who in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and State of the Union (1948) also portrayed American politics and society as seamy and money-dominated. The difference between Sturges and Capra, though, is that in Sturges' films the decent individual does not always triumph over the corrupt system.

McGinty is ultimately elected governor of the state, but he makes the fatal error of trying to please his wife Catherine (Muriel Angelus) and actually institute reforms.

CATHERINE: I just mean that to have all the power and the opportunities you have to do things for people, and never to do anything except to shake them down a little, seems like a waste of something, doesn't balance. You understand?
MCGINTY: What are you trying to do, reform me?
CATHERINE: Oh, I was just being dull. I guess I went to one lunch too many this week. I heard so much about the sweat shops and child labor and fire traps the poor people live in. I. . .
MCGINTY: I couldn't do anything about those things if I wanted to, honey. . .They're the people who put me in. [5]

This is an astonishing stance for a post-Pre-Code Hollywood movie to take, but it resonated with audiences. That, and the sheer exuberance of the filmmaking: the rapid-fire dialogue, the fluid, continuous shots, and the scene where, on his first day as governor, McGinty strides into his office only to find the Boss sitting in his chair. As Diane Jacobs writes, "McGinty is about the American Dream constantly rebuked by American reality." [6]

McGinty was a commercial success and a critics' favorite. Sturges won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, beating out Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison (Foreign Correspondent), Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Ben Hecht (Angels Over Broadway), and John Huston (Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet). It also won him the opportunity to write and direct more films. Sturges had long been planning for this chance, and had another script all ready to go.

Christmas in July (filmed June - July 1940; released November 1940)

Betty (Ellen Drew) and Jimmy (Dick Powell) in Christmas in July. Image source: Lake Front Row

Sturges based the script on his unproduced play from 1931, A Cup of Coffee. It takes place in the offices of "Maxford House Coffee" and its smaller rival Baxter's Blend. (Sturges' then-wife Eleanor Hutton was the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, co-founder of General Foods, which owned Maxwell House.)

Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), a lowly clerk at Baxter's, has entered the $25,000 Maxford House slogan contest. His entry: "If you can't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee, it's the bunk." (Not quite "Good to the last drop.") To the blank stares of everyone who hears his slogan Jimmy responds, "Get it?" No, they don't. [7]

He wants to win the contest so that he can care for his mother (Georgia Caine) and marry his loyal fiancée Betty (Ellen Drew). When Betty tells him that two can live as cheaply as one, he responds, "Who wants to live cheaply?. . .Everything that means happiness costs money." [8]

But the night of the big radio announcement of the winning slogan the prize jury is still deadlocked; one juror (William Demarest) is holding out. With the contest still undecided the next day, three of Jimmy's co-workers decide to play a cruel prank: they send him a fake telegram congratulating him for winning the prize. Jimmy is overjoyed, and the repercussions are immediate: Mr. Baxter (Ernest Truex), afraid of losing this slogan-writing genius to his rival, offers Jimmy a raise and his own office. Jimmy takes the rest of the day off and, with Betty, goes on a shopping spree at Schindel's department store, buying an engagement ring for her and presents for his entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Jimmy's co-workers confess to Baxter that the telegram was their doing, and soon Baxter and Schindel are racing to take everything back. Just when it seems Jimmy's fortunes can't sink any lower—he's been humiliated in front of his co-workers, friends, family and fiancée—the news comes that the prize jury has finally reached a decision. . .

Christmas in July portrays success and wealth in America as a matter of chance, rather than the deserved reward of virtue and hard work. A black cat appears in several scenes, and at one point Betty asks Baxter's janitor Sam (Fred Toones), "Is it good luck or bad when a black cat crosses your path?" He replies, "That all depends on what happens afterwards." Betty is right to be thinking about luck as the most likely way for the couple's fate to be transformed: in Sturges' films, those who do their jobs loyally and without complaint find themselves still in those jobs as the decades pass. [9]

Despite that message, or perhaps because of it, Christmas in July was another box-office success. The studio began to relax its tight grip on Sturges' budgets. For his next film, he'd have a longer shooting schedule (39 days—it actually took 41—versus 27 for Christmas) and be able to hire some marquee names.

The Lady Eve (filmed October - December 1940; released February 1941)

Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) tempts Charles (Henry Fonda) in The Lady Eve. Image source: Hollywood Soapbox

Basing his script on the story "Two Bad Hats" by Monckton Hoffe, Sturges transformed the characters, settings and situations to produce the quintessential Sturges comedy.

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the "Pike's Pale Ale" fortune, is returning to New York from a snake-hunting expedition to the Amazon. On board the same ocean liner are Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and "Colonel" Harry (Charles Coburn), a father-daughter team of card sharps planning to fleece him and the other rich passengers along the way. Charles, who has been in paradise and is bringing home a snake, is about to fall. Both metaphorically and literally: Jean trips him to provide an excuse to introduce herself, the first of many pratfalls Charles will take throughout the film.

Charles has been away from female company for a year, and a mere whiff of Jean's perfume is enough to make him dizzy. But, to her own surprise and her father's disgust, Jean finds herself genuinely falling in love with this naive, awkward, but tall, rich and handsome mark she calls "Hopsie."

JEAN: I'm going to be. . .exactly the way he thinks I am. The way he'd like me to be. . .You'll go straight too?
COL. HARRY: Straight to where?. . .The trouble with people who reform is they want to rain on everybody else's parade. [10]

That night the lovers, caught up in the romance of the warm breeze and moonlight on deck, confess their love to one another. But Charles' valet Muggsy (William Demarest) is suspicious, and learns that the purser has photographs of known professional card players, including Jean and the Colonel. Muggsy shows the photos to Charles, who is crushed by this unwelcome knowledge. The next morning Charles reveals what he knows to Jean. She tries to explain: "I was going to tell you when we got to New York. . .and, well, maybe I wanted you to love me a little more too." He doesn't believe her, though, and pretends that he knew all along: he was playing her for the sucker. [11]

Jean, a woman scorned, now decides to get her revenge. After they reach New York she has one of the Colonel's friends introduce her to the Pikes' Connecticut social set as his British niece, Lady Eve. Her accent doesn't fool Muggsy. "It's the same dame," he tells Charles, to no avail. On the rebound and thrown together with a woman who looks exactly like Jean (and even wears the same heady perfume), Charles is soon proposing marriage.

CHARLES: You see, Eve, you're so beautiful. You're so fine. You're so. . .I don't deserve you.
EVE: Oh, but you do, Charles. If anybody ever deserved me, you do. . .so richly.

And then her trap is sprung. As they are settling into the sleeper compartment on the train taking them on their honeymoon, Eve laughs and tells Charles that she's reminded of "that other time." When Charles presses her for details—what "other time"?—she confesses: that other night she spent on a train. When she eloped. At 16. With Angus, her family's stable boy:

EVE: It was nothing, darling. We ran away, but they caught us and brought us back. And that's all there was to it. That's all there was to it, except they discharged him.
CHARLES: Good. When they brought you back, it was before nightfall, I trust.
EVE: Oh, no.
CHARLES: You were out all night?
EVE: My dear, it took them weeks to find us.

Charles is crestfallen and jealous, but after a time and with great effort manages to summon his magnanimity.

EVE: Yes, darling?
CHARLES: If there's one thing that distinguishes a man from a beast, it's the ability to understand, and understanding, forgive. Surely the qualities of mercy, understanding and sweet forgiveness—
EVE: Sweet what?
CHARLES: Sweet forgiveness!
EVE: Oh.
CHARLES: I won't conceal from you that I wish this hadn't happened. But it has, and so it has. . .The name of Angus will never cross my lips again, and I hope that you will do likewise. Now let us smile and be as we were.
EVE: I knew you'd be that way. . .I knew you'd be both husband and father to me. I knew I could trust and confide in you. I suppose that's why I fell in love with you.
CHARLES: Thank you.
EVE: I wonder if now would be the time to tell you about Herman. . .

Followed by Vernon, Hubert, Herbert, John. . .Hours later a stunned and reeling Charles stumbles off the train in the middle of nowhere.

Jean has had her revenge, but begins to wonder if she's taken things a little too far. On the ship she'd told him, "you don't know very much about girls, Hopsie. The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad. . .not nearly as bad." When she learns that Charles is heading back to South America on another snake expedition, the stage is set for one of the cleverest, funniest closing scenes in all American movie comedy. One of the films' final lines is "I don't want to know"—as Charles finally shows that he has chosen wisdom over knowledge. [12]

The Lady Eve is the best of Sturges' movies, which is saying a great deal. Both audiences and critics responded enthusiastically, but, oddly, at the 14th Academy Awards in 1942 Sturges was not nominated for best screenplay. It must be said that the competition that year was pretty stiff: other nominated screenplays included those for The Little Foxes and The Maltese Falcon. Ironically, the one nomination The Lady Eve received was for Best Original Story—Monckton Hoffe's "Two Bad Hats," of which only the conceit of a woman pretending to be lookalikes with different personalities remains in the final film. (It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on the play Heaven Can Wait.)

After the success of his first three films, Sturges could seemingly do no wrong. As Jacobs writes, "If Preston's life were a Sturges comedy, here is where the story would end." [13] But much was about to change: a global war was looming, Sturges would increasingly come into conflict with the studio, and his private life was becoming ever more chaotic.

Next time: Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story

  1. Details about Sturges' life and work are taken from Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1992, p. 186. Wage information from Alice Olenin and Thomas F. Corcoran, Hours and Earnings in the United States, 1932-1940, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1942, p. 32.
  2. To be precise, the average MGM shooting budget was $777,000. H. Mark Glancy, "MGM film grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 12 No. 2, 1992, pp. 127-144. DOI: 10.1080/01439689200260081
  3. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 203. 
  4. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 184.
  5. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 203. 
  6. Jacobs, p. 212.
  7. If you're having trouble getting it, "bunk" can mean either "bed" or "false information."
  8. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 221. 
  9. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 222.
  10. All inset quotes from The Lady Eve screenplay are taken from "The Lady Eve Script - Dialogue Transcript," Drew's Script-O-Rama.
  11. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 232.
  12. Quoted in Jacobs, p. 239.
  13. Jacobs, p. 240.