Preston Sturges

The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.

Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.

Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.

One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.

There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.

The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.

The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).



Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

Preston Sturges has a great structure to The Lady Eve. The first part of the film–the majority of the runtime–has wealthy oddball Henry Fonda returning home on a ship and falling in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Makes sense, as she’s wonderful, only she (and her father, Charles Coburn) are card sharps out to fleece rich passengers. This part of Eve is the most luxurious in terms of the storytelling–Fonda and Stanwyck have great chemistry and, in addition to Coburn providing support, there’s also William Demarest as Fonda’s comically rough valet.

With a subplot or two and a happy ending, Sturges could’ve just told the entire story on the ship. Instead, he jumps ahead. It’s kind of hard to talk about Lady Eve without including a spoiler or two; I’ll tread carefully.

The jump ahead changes up the dynamics of the relationship between Stanwyck and Fonda, with Fonda assuming the rube role he never took in the first part of the picture. And Sturges, while giving Stanwyck excellent material and the most screen time, also changes the tone of the film. There’s slapstick; the previously established characters, contained in that first section, are looser. Sturges doesn’t play the comedy for the viewer (except some of Demarest and Eugene Pallette–wonderful as Fonda’s father). It’s for the characters. So Lady Eve can be loud and lovely.

Fantastic performances and character moments throughout. Eric Blore and Melville Cooper have nice smaller parts.

Sturges, Fonda, and Stanwyck–especially Stanwyck–make magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on a story by Moncton Hoffe; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Jean), Henry Fonda (Charles), Charles Coburn (Colonel Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Martha O’Driscoll (Martha), Robert Greig (Burrows) and Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike).


The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.

The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.

One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.

Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.

Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager) and Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King).


I Married a Witch (1942, René Clair)

I Married a Witch often seems too short. Director Clair rightly focuses the picture around leading lady Veronica Lake, with Frederic March getting a fair amount of attention too, but the narrative outside them blurs. And it shouldn’t blur, given the high stakes election backdrop.

Clair’s focus also extends to troublesome plot points. Witch goes back on plot decisions just because there’s a good scene if a decision here or there is forgotten. The picture feels willfully constructed (as opposed to sublimely). Of course, this artificiality doesn’t much matter; Clair makes a fine film of Witch.

Lake’s the film’s essential element. She’s appealing whether she’s a good witch or a bad witch, whether she’s physically present or voicing a wisp of smoke. Witch isn’t about March overcoming his family’s curse, it’s about seeing what Lake is going to do to him next. Around halfway, the narrative veers in a new direction, giving both actors much different things to do. They both excel. March might not have as much to do, but it’s impossible to imagine Witch without him.

The two stars get fine support from Robert Benchley (as March’s best friend) and Cecil Kellaway (Lake’s warlock father). Susan Hayward’s around a bit as March’s loathsome fiancée–his family’s been cursed to marry poorly. Hayward doesn’t make much impression beyond the loathsome though.

Ted Tetzlaff’s photography is wondrous, ably handling some of Clair’s more ambitious flourishes. The finale has some fine effects work.

Witch is delightful thanks to Lake and March.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly, based on a novel by Thorne Smith and Norman Matson; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Eda Warren; music by Roy Webb; produced by Preston Sturges and Clair; released by United Artists.

Starring Fredric March (Wallace Wooley), Veronica Lake (Jennifer), Robert Benchley (Dr. Dudley White), Susan Hayward (Estelle Masterson), Cecil Kellaway (Daniel), Elizabeth Patterson (Margaret) and Robert Warwick (J.B. Masterson).



This film is also discussed on BASP | I Married a Witch (1942) / Bewitched (2005).

The Great Moment (1944, Preston Sturges)

There are a handful of “Sturges moments” in The Great Moment. I suppose I’d define those moments as the ones where the predictable or familiar filmic device transcends artifice (even if it’s as artificial as the text a character is reading appearing on the screen for the viewer to read as well) and becomes… ideal. Sturges’s understanding of how to make a comedic scene work is amazing. His pacing is perfect, the editing, everything. But The Great Moment isn’t a comedy. It’s the rather depressing story of the discoverer of anesthesia, played by Joel McCrea.

Sturges is visibly passionate about the story (the film’s thesis being the discoverer got a raw deal), but he allows that passion to blind him from his strengths. So, even while there are those good Sturges moments and the film’s generally well-written, there’s a lot of problems. First, Sturges frames it as a flashback with, presumably, bookends. But he quickly discards the framing. Second, the end… once it becomes clear the story’s got a terribly depressing conclusion… Sturges has a serious problem (there’s no, for example, great moment in the film for McCrea–I kept waiting for it, no less). It reminds me a little of Mason & Dixon. Both Sturges and Pynchon are stuck with some sense of historical reality, but Sturges didn’t find… damn it… any great moment.

But the biggest problem is with McCrea and wife Betty Field. They barely have a relationship (though they do have mostly invisible, off-screen children) and it only gets worse near the end, when Field’s become a nouveau riche would-be society woman. The film’s focus is on McCrea’s discovery and both he and Sturges do a good job chronicling the various experiments and developments. But Sturges doesn’t have a story to do it in… he’s lionizing the man, certainly not examining him, but not even acknowledging his surroundings (which is why the film has a terrible ending–Sturges didn’t see outside his strict constraints).

The film’s got some masterfully done scenes, McCrea’s performance is solid as can be (though even he can’t pull off Sturges’s all too contrived ending), and the supporting cast is excellent. Harry Carey and William Demarest (who might look a little too much alike) are both quite good, as is Julius Tannen. But Field’s most present in those framing scenes, so there’s a major hole.

I’m not sure I’d say it was a good attempt, but it’s one with a lot of integrity… another reason Sturges couldn’t pull it off–he was way too invested in it. Biopics belong to the subject, regardless of liberties taken, never to the storyteller.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on the book by René Fülöp-Miller; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (William Thomas Green Morton), Betty Field (Elizabeth Morton), Harry Carey (Prof. Warren), William Demarest (Eben Frost), Louis Jean Heydt (Dr. Horace Wells), Julius Tannen (Dr. Charles Jackson), Edwin Maxwell (Vice-President of Medical Society), Porter Hall (President Franklin Pierce), Franklin Pangborn (Dr. Heywood), Grady Sutton (Homer Quimby), Donivee Lee (Betty Morton), Harry Hayden (Judge Shipman) and Torben Meyer (Dr. Dahlmeyer).


Hail the Conquering Hero (1944, Preston Sturges)

Well.

I’m trying to think about how to talk about Hail the Conquering Hero. It shouldn’t so difficult. The film is great, better than I remembered it, but it’s never easy to talk about great films. I mean, how many words can you pull out of your ass for something you love? You want to share things you love and defecate on the things that deserve it. Hail the Conquering Hero deserves reverence.

Still, there are a few specifics I can comment on. And not Sturges so much. Yes, he constructed an almost perfect film in 96 or so minutes. The structure of a film’s interesting and helps you talk about it if you have to think about how the film succeeds or fails. I’m not doing that here. Yes, there are the great moments of comedy, the wonderful small character relationships between supporting characters that’s seemingly a lost art, there’s lots of stuff….

But, I noticed two things in particular, watching Hail the Conquering Hero today. First, William Demarest is amazing in this film. I know the name and the face, but he’s never stuck out before. For the first hour or so of the film, you can just watch Demarest. Sturges also does a great job directing group scenes. Anyway, the other big particular is Ella Raines. She’s great in this film. I’m a fan of hers anyway, but I don’t remember any of her other performances being quite this good. Maybe they are, maybe I’m just forgetting… Eddie Bracken, as the lead, is good too, but he’s ideal for the role. He doesn’t do any work. There are some good supporting performances that I’m not going to look up on IMDb too. Raines just has a few really good scenes in this one and it pissed me off that I was so surprised.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Eddie Bracken (Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith), Ella Raines (Libby), Raymond Walburn (Mayor Everett D. Noble), William Demarest (Sgt. Heppelfinger), Franklin Pangborn (Committee Chairman), Elizabeth Patterson (Libby’s Aunt), Georgia Caine (Mrs. Truesmith), Al Bridge (Political Boss), Freddie Steele (Bugsy), Bill Edwards (Forrest Noble), Harry Hayden (Doc Bissell), Jimmy Conlin (Judge Dennis) and Jimmie Dundee (Cpl. Candida).


Scroll to Top