Among the filmmakers of early Hollywood, one in particular stands out: Preston Sturges, whose legacy comprises just 10 films he made between 1940 and 1948, had a career remarkable for its brilliance, brevity and peerless innovation. In his time, Sturges’s body of work was groundbreaking, and his films, which remain vibrant and fresh, should not be missed.
Sturges began his career as a Hollywood screenwriter in 1930, and for 10 years was one of the most successful writers in the industry. In a time when writers were largely marginalized and disrespected, Sturges became the first-ever Hollywood screenwriter to become a director, when he famously sold his script “The Great McGinty” (1940) for one dollar on the condition he be allowed to direct. And thus began an amazing run of brilliant films.
The best place to start with Sturges is “Sullivan’s Travels”(1941) and “The Lady Eve” (1941), two of his best films, and also his most accessible. “The Lady Eve” — about a rich but unsophisticated scientist (Henry Fonda, “12 Angry Men”) who falls in, then out, then back in love with a beautiful con artist (Barbara Stanwyck, “Double Indemnity”) — showcases everything that makes a Sturges film great: broad comedy, clever dialogue and elegant romance. “Sullivan’s Travels,” about a director of comedy films who tries to live as a hobo as research for a social commentary film about the downtrodden masses, is as delightful as “The Lady Eve,” but even more sophisticated — it contains some lyrical scenes of staggering beauty, and is one of Sturges’s most affecting films.
Equally great is “Palm Beach Story,” (1942) Sturges’s most romantic film. The film follows a young wife who leaves her husband for Palm Beach to try to marry a millionaire. It’s an intricately detailed film, one that reveals new pleasures on each viewing. “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944) is another Sturges gem, and often overlooked. After being discharged from the military before even seeing action, a young private meets a group of Marines that helps him return home under the guise of a war hero. “Conquering Hero” shows the director at the top of his game — it’s a hilarious, inventive, continually surprising film that’s also one of Sturges’s most touching.
Sturges wrote some of the funniest, cleverest scripts of the studio era, and his films abound with visual beauty. He operated inside the conventions of the screwball comedies of the time, but elevated them to new heights with unflagging wit and complex narratives. But what makes Sturges’s films even more impressive is he had complete artistic control over his films — he had sole writing and directing credit, which was unprecedented. And this was at a time when Hollywood was ruled by giant studios and their powerful producers. Sturges is one of the original American auteurs, and certainly the first one in the Hollywood studio system.
But Sturges’s defying of studio practices put him on thin ice and he often clashed with studio heads. In 1944 he made a film called “The Great Moment” about the dentist who pioneered the use of anesthesia, and his struggles in the medical community. The movie, a straight-ahead drama, is a real departure for Sturges and, though still a good film, flopped at the box office, causing a falling out with his studio. This led to Sturges forming a partnership with millionaire Howard Hughes, who helped Sturges form his own studio, California Pictures, where, as writer, director and producer, Sturges had even more creative control over his films.
However, this turned out to be the beginning of Sturges’s professional decline. He made just one film with Hughes, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” (1947). Though nominated for the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it was a flop. Hughes meddled with the film’s production, and the result is a film that, while very funny, doesn’t quite hold together like Sturges’s previous work. When the film failed, Hughes fired Sturges from the studio.
After this, Sturges moved to Fox Studios, where, though his reputation had been irrevocably sullied, he made his best film, “Unfaithfully Yours” (1948). The film is a pitch-black comedy about a conductor who suspects his wife of infidelity and, while conducting a symphony performance, imagines several revenge scenarios. Part psychological drama, part slapstick comedy and part romance, the film is an adroit satire, and Sturges’s most compelling and mature film. It flopped with both critics and audiences in its time, but is highly regarded among film scholars today.
Sturges made two more films after this, one in Hollywood and one in France, neither one successful. His improbable meteoric rise into film stardom was followed by an even quicker fall into obscurity. But Sturges’s effect on the modern movie industry cannot be overplayed. He broke away from the system at a time when the system was all there was, and paved the way for countless innovators in cinema. His career was an anomaly — he was an auteur before auteur theory, and managed to be one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood while breaking all of its rules — and his films still feel modern and fresh today.