Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Screwball Life of Preston Sturges—Part II




Note: We take up the story after the success of The Lady Eve in 1940.
Sturges was now in the middle of the most astounding roll any film maker has ever been on.  Even great directors have a few, a dozen if they are spectacular, gems over decades of work in a long career interspersed with pedestrian projects and out right failures.  In the course of about four years at Paramount Sturges had a string of 7 classic films, four of them certifiable masterpieces.  His next, Sullivan’s Travels was one of them.
The casual viewer seeing that film for the first time invariably thinks it was made during the Depression.  It was not.  It was made in 1941 on the cusp of America’s entry into World War II and well into a superheated war production boom that had ended hard times for most.   It was released in the first months of the war with no added on nod to the world catastrophe.  But it was set in depths of Depression desperation—a Grapes of Wrath country in which the supposed nobility of poverty was savagely exposed as a myth, and any sunny Capra style moralizing was a sham.  It was an America that Americans already wanted to forget.  Sturges took them there anyway—in a comedy.
Sturges wrote his screenplay with Joel McCrae in mind—a quintessentially American actor with a bland presentation that was the perfect blank slate for what he had in mind.  McCrae plays John L. Sullivan, a sly wink at a famous American champion, who is a pampered and spoiled film directory of highly successful popcorn fodder that the public loves and makes the studio bosses rich.  But Sullivan is both restless and ambitious.  He wants to make an important film that will elevate him to the status of a great artist.  Poverty, about which he knows absolutely nothing, is his chosen theme.  The studio bosses are aghast and absolutely opposed to such nonsense.  Defiantly, Sullivan sets out to discover America and the noble poor disguised as the hobo with just a dime in his pocket—and the covert assistance of his loyal butler played by stock company favorite Eric Blore.
At first things seem to be working out the way he had planned.  Stumbling into a WPA like city public works project, he joins a labor gang digging a sewer ditch by hand.  He goes cheerfully to work singing as he slings his shovel, to the amazement of the exhausted laborers.  At the end of the day he convinces them to fill in the ditch they had just dug not so they could earn an extra days pay for digging it out again—an understandable working class motive—but for the sheer joy of hard physical work.  It was a Capraesque moment if there ever was one.  And it was about the last.  Things would soon start going disastrously south for Sullivan and his quest.
Along the way Sullivan picks up a traveling companion—a beautiful young woman known only as The Girl.  Sturges wanted Paramount’s hot, diminutive sex pot Veronica Lake to play the part.  He was more than a bit smitten with the actress in ways that he had not been attracted to other screen goddesses he had worked with like Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck.  Although he described her as a “mousey little thing” off the set, on screen she positively glowed.  Producer Buddy DeSilva was adamantly opposed to Lake not only did he think she was “wrong for the part” but he was loath to have his glamour girl spend much of a picture in dungarees and flannel with dirt on her face.  He suggested a litany of alternatives including Lucile Ball, Ida, Lupino, Frances Farmer, and even Ruby Keeler, of all people who was an eclipsed star and way too old for the part.  Sturges won the battle, but continued and escalating battle over casting on each of his next films for Paramount until mutual bitterness between him and DaSilva caused him to leave Paramount despite his historic run of success.
What DeSilva didn’t know was that when shooting began Lake was six months pregnant with her first child.  Sturges and costume designer Edith Head conspired in secret to devise ways to disguise and mask her ever growing baby bump. Lake was also a difficult person on the set and Joel McCrae, like many future co-stars, took a dislike to her.  It was only near the end of shooting that the normally easy-going actor admitted to a grudging respect for what she brought to the picture.  On screen she was so charismatic that the Paramount publicity department built their entire campaign for the movie around her with the slogan Veronica Lake’s on the take!” and featuring her solo image on most lobby posters.

The studio featured Veronica Lake in all of their publicity.
Lake played a failed and sexploited actress who Sullivan encounters after his first foray into poverty failed.  After some farcical identity gags, the pair ends up at his lavish mansion with loyal staff and two swimming pools.  After she learns his real identity The Girl essentially blackmails him into taking her with him when he resumes the quest. After a comic adventure or two, things get serious in an extended photo montage of the pair descending deeper and deeper into poverty hellsoup kitchens, slammed doors, dismal shelters.  In one of the latter Sullivan even has the shoes stolen off his feet as he sleeps.  Shortly after he is hit over the head, robbed, and dumped on a box car. 
Separated from The Girl and the loyal servants who try and protect him, Sullivan wakes up with amnesia.  When he is rousted by a railroad bull he picks up a rock and knocks out his tormentor.  Arrested for the assault he is convicted in the blink of an eye and sentenced to 7years hard labor. Suddenly what was a light hearted comedy romp become a grim social realism drama right out of I Was a Prisoner on a Chain Gang.  The brutal conditions he endures are only relieved once when the chained convicts are allowed to watch an old movie.  In the darkened room Sullivan sits among those who moments earlier were miserable and hopeless and watches them erupt in uncontrollable laughter at an old Disney Pluto cartoon. Pretty soon he, too, is laughing at the low-brow fare.
Meanwhile his memory slowly starts to return and then he finds an old newspaper story about the famous director John L. Sullivan unsolved murder.  It turns out the their who rob bed him was the same one who stole his shoes and was wearing them when he was hit and killed  by a train—shoes that in which his butler had hidden an ID.    Sullivan concocts a scheme to confess to his own murder so he can get his face in the newspapers.  It works and soon The Girl, now a star, the retainers, and studio honchos fly to retrieve their golden boy.
After tying up some loose plot ends, like a conniving wife of convenience, the film ends on the plane back to Hollywood.  The studio is now eager to make Sullivan’s project, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, figuring to cash in on all of the publicity surrounding his adventures.  But Sullivan want to go back to making the light hearted comedies that were his old bread and butter.  “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he lectures his bosses, “Did you know that’s all some people have?” as The Girl settles into his lap.  But it is unclear if this is a fairy tale moral or if Sullivan has found a way of deluding himself and slipping back into a comfortable, but empty existence.    And that’s a whole lot for a screwball comedy.
The film was only a modest success upon release.  Critics and audiences were both confused by the jumble of comedy and heavy drama.  In retrospect it became the most highly regarded of Sturges’s career and logs a secure place on lists of the best films of all time.

Sturges, center, and the cast of Palm Beach Story, Joel McCrae, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, and Rudy Vallee.
But clearly it was time for a more lighthearted film.  The result was The Palm Beach Story which reunited Sturges with early leading lady Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrae with whom he had worked so smoothly in Sullivan’s Travels.  The two play a devoted but impoverished New York couple.  The husband is a brilliant inventor who just needs a few thousand dollars to develop his latest creation.  After a standard farce misunderstanding Colbert leaves her husband with plans to head for Palm Beach—familiar territory for Sturges—and snag a new millionaire husband so that she can raise the money for her ex’s invention.  The befuddled McCrae takes off after her, borrowing money from a benefactor to fly to Florida and retrieve her.
Colbert and friend are traveling down the coast by train on which she has many wacky adventures involving sleeping car berths, staterooms, drunken conventioneers, and competitive skeet shooter who blast their way through the train.  When she gets to Palm Beach, Colbert quickly finds her mark, yachtsman J.D. Hackensacker III   one of the richest men in the world played with panache by radio crooner Rudy Vallee—another casting choice bitterly fought by DeSilva.  When McCrae arrives Hackensacker’s eccentric sister, Princess Centimillia played by veteran Mary Aster set her sights on him for her husband number 6.  Much confusion and hilarity ensue before true love triumphs at the last minute uniting Colbert and McCrae and providing him all the money he needs for his invention.  The romantic stars were fine, but the picture really belonged to old timers Vallee and Aster and to the Sturges ensemble at their very best.  The film was a huge hit during a grim war time year.
1944 proved to be Sturges’s peak year at Paramount and also the beginning of the end for him.  He made two films starring nebbish comedian Eddie Bracken who had never before been more than a best pal in a B movie.  Both parts were envisioned for one of the studio’s biggest stars—Bob Hope who was something of a master at playing a bumbling coward, but Hope was consumed with his radio work and famous USO tours.  Both films would be huge hits and each earned Sturges an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay.
In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek Sturges finally admits there’s a war on and then doesn’t do much with it except as the set up for the screwiest premise in the history of screwball comedy.  In one of hyperkinetic Betty Hutton’s finest roles—to tell the truth watching her antics usually gives me the heebie-jeebies—she plays a local party girl with a big soft spot for GIs.  It’s her patriotic duty.  One wild night she parties with a whole company and wakes up the next morning with them shipped out and a ring on her fingerwink, wink.   She is apparently married but has no idea to whom.   After a few weeks she discovers she has been blessed with child.  Under the circumstances she can’t come home in disgrace and face her protective, shotgun toting father, a local constable played by Sturges favorite William Demarest. 
The censors were aquiver with outrage from the moment they got wind of the premise.  Under the extra vigilant eye of Producer DeSilva, who also tried to meddle in casting again, Sturges had to walk a tightrope and he swayed far into forbidden territory by deft use of sly innuendo, double entendre, and snappy dialogue that sailed right over the blue noses’s heads.   Oh, and in the end he never showed the Hayes office the script for the ending until after the film was released in New York to glowing, if dumbfounded, reviews.

The climatic scene of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek exudes zaniness and feature the ensemble cast including Diana Lynn, Betty Hutton, William Demarest and the clearly overwhelmed Eddy Bracken.
Bracken plays the timid and befuddled 4F back home who has pined silently for Hutton for years.  When she turns up a damsel in distress he loyally steps up to protect her and her reputation.  But the harder he tries, the deeper he gets in trouble with the suspicious old man.  Convinced that Bracken has ruined his daughter, Dad charges Bracken with 14 felonies causing him to go on the lam as a fugitive.  In the midst of all of the hubbub and confusion Hutton discovers she really loves the home town boy after all.  It turns out that the hard partier is just a sweet small town girl after all. 
But how to get out of the mess, a Gordian Knot of insoluble dilemmas—can Bracken escape the hoosegow?  If he does, how can they be together—will the mystery husband show up or will there be a convenient telegram from the War Department? And what about the bundle of joy?  Sturges solves things with a surprised deus ex machina  in the form of a surprise phone call from Governor McGinty—yes that McGinty in the form of Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff’s political boss.  Never mind that four years earlier a disgraced McGinty was telling his tale across a South American bar.  Such details are mere trifles…
And the baby?  Make that septuplets.  The movie ends with a stunned Bracken and a title card that reads,
But Norval recovered and
became increasingly happy
for, as Shakespeare said:
“Some are born great, some
achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon
them.”
Talk about your screwball comedies….
The film went on to be Paramount’s top grossing film of the year and a comedy classic despite its delicate subject—or because of it.   In 1958 Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Maxwell, and Connie Stevens did an inferior adaptation called Rock-a-Bye Baby for which Sturges got screen credit for the story even though he did not participate in the film.    
Immediately after the shooting on Miracle in 1942, Da Silva handed Sturges an odd project—a science bio flick based on the discovery and introduction of anesthetics by a dentist.  The Great Moment was supposed to be the kind of prestige picture that Warner Bros.  turned out as Oscar bait in its rivalry with MGM because its signature gangster picture and Bette Davis women’s movies were generally shunned by the Academy.  Sturges was intrigued by the challenge—he was an inventor himself had had an interest in innovation—even though he suspected that DeSilva was setting him up for failure.  
Sturges turned to his now favorite leading man Joel McCrae as the Boston dentist who discovered Ether and paired him with rising starlet Betty Field.  Well aware of the irony of having a dentist as his hero, Sturges included moments of gentle humor—hardly screwball stuff—which set the film apart from super self-serious pictures like The Story of Louis Pasture or Madame Curie which was in development at MGM and already heavily hyped.  Sturges returned to the flashback/flash-forward technique he had pioneered in The Power and the Glory years before. 
The studio—DeSilva—hated the end result and the project was taken out of Sturges’s hands for the first time and heavily re-cut making the story even more confusing.  They put it on the shelf along with Miracle at Morgan’s Creek for two years due to a glut of Paramount product and DeSilva’s animus.  But when Miracle became a hit, the company rushed the picture into release with a publicity campaign that led the public to believe that it was another screwball comedy.  The prominent co-star billing of Sturges ensemble members William Demarest, Franklyn Pangborn, and Porter Hall did nothing to change that misconception.  The film bewildered the public and critics and was Sturges’s first flop in years.
The film is rarely seen now, even on classic movie platforms and is generally rejected as a part of the Sturges canon.  Some of those who have seen it—I have not—report that even in its butchered form the film seems surprisingly modern in tone and technique and suggest that if it could be restored close the shooting script, it might even do much better.  
Clearly it was time to return to more familiar territory and to more directly address the War.  In Hail the Conquering Hero Sturges elected to take on the subject from a sideways angle—an eager would-be patriot again played by Eddie Bracken is washed out of the Marine Corps for his severe hay fever. From this odd platform Sturges launched into a rollicking examination of patriotism, heroism, cowardice, public gullibility, opportunism, and morality. 

Hail the Conquering Hero with Bracken, Demarest, and Ella Raines, the object of much studio drama.
From the beginning there was conflict with DeSilva.  Sturges wanted to cast starlet Ella Raines as Bracken’s loyal—mostly—hometown girl friend.  DeSilva adamantly against it both because he had low regard for her as actress, but most importantly didn’t think she was pretty enough for a leading lady even for a comic like Bracken.   Clearly she was no dog but with her heavy eyebrows and often serious expression, she was something of a plain Jane—exactly why Sturges wanted to cast her.  He wanted a girl that would remind GIs of their real sweethearts and wives back home, not a Betty Grable style pin-up.   
Sturges won the initial round, but after just four days of shooting Raines looked stiff and lackluster in the daily rushes. Even she would later recall that nerves got the better of her in the early going.  DeSilva stormed onto the set and demanded Raines be replace.  Sturges flatly refused out of loyalty, a concern that replacing her after shooting started would ruin her career, and because he was convinced he could coax a better performance from her.   A terrible shouting match ensued and in the end Raines stayed in the film. But whatever shred of a relationship between producer and director was destroyed.  Both men now so detested each other that Sturges’s time at Paramount was bound to run out.
In the end, Raines turned in a nice, wide-eyed performance and showed some of the more serious acting chops she would display in her relatively brief career. 
In the film Bracken plays the son of a World War I hero who was killed in action and a doting, protective mother.  Early in the war he joins the Marines and is sent off like a hero.  But at boot camp his hay fever erupts so seriously that it comically disrupts training for his whole company.  He is given a medical discharge but is too ashamed to go home. Instead he heads to San Diego to take a shipyard job but writes home that he has been shipped overseas for combat.   After a few months he encounters a gang of Marines home from fighting on Iwo Jima led by a gruff but kindly Master Sergeant—William Demarest again—who it turns out was a buddy of his father in the First War.  Over several drinks the Marines concoct a scheme to send him home a hero, but one secretly calls his mom about the medical discharge so she won’t worry. They provide him a uniform, complete with a chest full of ribbons.
 When he get off the train in his home town he is greeted by the high school band, the pompous Mayor and dignitaries, the Veterans’ Post, and pretty much the whole damn town.  Overwhelmed, Bracken doesn’t know how to admit the troop.  At home his mother pretends to believe the story.  Over the next week every well-meaning attempt to fess up is swamped by ever escalating adoration, Ella, the old sweetheart who he wrote to tell her not to wait for him, pays attention to him and then falls for him despite an engagement to the Mayor’s handsome son..  The town wants to erect a statue to him.  Then he is nominated for mayor against his girl friend’s future father-in-law. 
Finally at a campaign rally Bracken can stand the deceit no more and McGinty like blurts out a confession to the stunned and then irate towns folk.  Dejected, he goes home to pack and leave his hometown forever.  But Raines follows him, proclaims her love, tells him she has broken her engagement and will go with him anywhere.  Meanwhile Demarest mounts the platform and talks about bravery both in battle and the kind of courage it took to make the confession.  He extols Brackens essential goodness and convinces the town folk that he is just the change they need over the officious incumbent.  All’s well that ends well….
But it didn’t end well for Sturges.  Before he could finish editing the film DeSilva once again seized control and had it re-cut by others.  It was the final straw.  With his contract nearly up anyway he abruptly left the studio and DeSilva did nothing to keep the door from hitting him in the ass.  The studio lost its most reliable money maker and Sturges lost a home that no matter how dysfunctional had  fostered his best work and which still had many of  the members of his stock company under exclusive contract.
The DeSilva cut previewed disastrously just after the enormously successful delayed release of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.  Despite having severed relations, Sturges volunteered to temporarily return to the studio at no pay and in less than month re-shot some scenes and re-edited the film to his original conception.  It was released on August 9, 1944 to rave reviews and packed houses.  Sturges got a second Oscar nomination in the same year for the script—and won the statuette. Surely sweet revenge for him and bitter humiliation for his nemesis DeSilva.
But Sturges’s rhythm was broken and perhaps his usual supreme self-confidence shaken.  His attempts to re-establish himself floundered.
He struck up a partnership with eccentric millionaire and sometime filmmaker Howard Hughes.  California Pictures was formed especially to produce Sturges films, making him the first writer/director since Charlie Chaplin to become an independent film maker.  Despite the prestige, he took a major pay cut. At the same time his engineering company and the Players Club were both losing money.  Sturges tried to continue to live lavishly, but his horses never paid off at Santa Anita, either.  By 1947 he was broke and drinking heavily.  He had to borrow money from his adopted father and from California Pictures accounts.  The same year his wife left him and filed for divorce.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock with Harold Lloyd was re-cut by Howard Hughes and re issued as Mad Wednesday three years after its immediate release.
That year the first project of the new partnership, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, finally began filming.  Sturges had coaxed silent film comedy legend Harold Lloyd out of retirement to play the character from his famous film The Freshman twenty years later. Lloyd played the former Freshman as a lowly and put-upon middle age bank clerk with a remarkably still boyish appearance.  His dreams of finally asking his long time unrequited love to marry him are dashed when he is unfairly fired.  Dejected, he goes on an epic toot.  There were lots of funny scenes in the film but neither Sturges nor Lloyd we at their best. When the picture faltered on first release—a generation of film goers had no idea who Lloyd was—Hughes unilaterally pulled the movie from distribution and spent three years re-editing it himself.  Re-released in 1950 as Mad Wednesday it was no better received.


The next Hughes/Sturges collaboration was even more disastrous.   At Hughes’s request Sturges penned a script for a historical thriller set in 19th Century Corsica as a star vehicle for the tycoon’s former mistress, a raven haired exotic named Faith Domergue.  It was a project well out of Sturges’s wheel house.  When Hughes fired the first director he asked Sturges to take over.  After a few days of shooting he was fired as well leading to the effective break-up of the partnership.  Three directors later with Mel Ferrer getting final credit, Hughes released Vendetta in 1950 and it sank like a stone.

An elegant change of pace--Unfaithfully Yours with Kurt Keuger, Linda Darnell, and Rex Harrison.

Despite these setbacks, Sturges landed on his feet with a contract with Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox to produce, write, and direct his own projects.  His first effort is now widely viewed as a masterpiece and an extension of his Paramount golden years despite a luke warm reception when it came out.  Yet it was also a departure.  For one thing he had lost his familiar stock company.  For another the subject matter was somewhat highbrow for a famed satirist of middle and working class America.  Elegant Rex Harrison plays a world famous conductor in Unfaithfully Yours who is consumed by the suspicion that his beautiful wife, Linda Darnell, is cheating on him.  As the maestro conducts a concert he fantasizes different revenge scenarios which each new piece the orchestra plays.  After the concert ends, he tries to act on each fantasy in turn with disastrous results.  Harrison’s performance is now regarded as one of the highlights of his career.  Sturges’s one past associate, Rudy Vallee, also turned in a great supporting performance as Darnell’s stuffy brother.

Sturges’s next project at Fox should have been a sure fire hit.  It had all of the elements—a Technicolor musical extravaganza with the studio’s biggest star—Betty Grable who had never had a flop.  Vallee was on board again and Sturges was even able to re-assemble some of his stock company—Porter Hall, Al Bridge, and Sterling Holloway along with another great comic character actor Hugh Herbert.  

The failure of this big budget musical cost Sturges his 20th Century Fox contract.

But for the first time in years he was not working from his own original story and script.  Both were written by Earl Felton although Sturges got screen credit for contributing dialogue.  Or perhaps Sturges was not used to breaking his narrative for elaborate production numbers.  Whatever the problem, the public rejected The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend when it was released in 1949.  The failure precipitated Sturges’s departure from the studio and marked the beginning of the decline of Grable who would literally be eclipsed in a few years by Fox’s next blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe.

In 1951 Sturges married Lawyer and former actress Anne Margaret “Sandy” Nagel.  This time the nuptials took.  Together they had two children, Preston Sturges, Jr. in 1953 and Thomas Preston Sturges in 1956.

With no prospects in Hollywood, Sturges returned to where he had started out—Broadway—more than 20 years before.  Make a Wish was based on the pre-war Central European fantasy The Good Fairy by Frerec Moln├ír which Sturgis had adapted for a film of that name in 1935 staring Margaret Sullavan.  Abe Burroughs directed and did extensive script doctoring, to Sturges’s dismay.  Despite a vivacious star, Nannette Fabrey, and choreography by Gower Champion the 1951 production closed after 101 performances…not quite a flop, but no roaring success either.

1953’s A Carnival in Flanders fared even worse.  Sturges was called in to completely re-write the script after the show stumbled in out of town tryouts in California and took over directorial duties as well   The lavish production was bankrolled by Bing Crosby out of loyalty to songwriters Jimmy Van Huesen and Johnny Burke and the show had megawatt Broadway royalty for starsDelores Gray and John Rait. Yet it closed to scathing reviews after 8 performances.

Except for the birth of his son, 1953 turned out to be a terrible year.  The IRS put a tax lien on his property assets forcing him to sell the Players Club and other assets.  A planned collaboration with Katherine Hepburn on a film version of the George Bernard Shaw play The Millionairess which she had done on Broadway the year before fell through when no studio would bank on either of them. 

He tried to pedal other work with little success.  In 1954 and ’55 he made a few dollars adapting three of his big screen success—Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, and Christmas in July for the Lux Video Theater TV anthology series. 

Nostalgically spending time in the Paris of his youth, Sturges made one last feature film—Les carnes du Major Thompson in 1955.  It starred Jack Buchanan as a retired British Army officer living in Paris with his younger French wife and musing on the peculiParities of his adopted home.  Moderately successful in Europe and in Britain where Buchanan was a popular star, it flopped in the U.S. three years later when it was released in an English version called The French are a Funny Race.

Preston Sturges and wife Sandy in his later years.                    

Sturges took his misfortunes philosophically, even if he often drowned his sorrows in a bottle:

Between flops, it is true, I have come up with an occasional hit, but compared to a good boxer's record, for instance, my percentage has been lamentable. I fought a draw in my first fight, stupified everyone by winning the championship in my second, got a couple of wins with picture rights, then was knocked out three times in a row. Dragging my weary carcass to Hollywood, I was immediately knocked out again, won a big fight some six months later, then marked time for six years as an ordinary ham-and-beaner, picking up what I could. Suddenly I saw a chance and offered to fight for the world championship for a dollar. To everyone’s astonishment, I won that championship and defended it successfully for a number of years, winning nine times by knockout, fighting three draws, losing twice and getting one no-decision in Europe. I have just come over to America for a fight, but it was called off at the last moment, one of the promoters having gone nuts and having to have been locked up. Why I’m not walking on my heels after all this, I don't know. Maybe I am walking on my heels. It would be surprising if I weren’t.

Sturges was holed up in New York’s famed Algonquin Hotel working on memoirs that he planned to call Events Leading Up to My Death when he died of a heart attack on August 6, 1959.  He was only 60 years old.  Editors assembled the uncompleted manuscript and notes and Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words was finally published in 1990 by Simon and Schuster.