When movie-centrics talk about 'Hollywood mavericks,â?� they always leave out Preston Sturges, who may be the most subversive one of all. Sturges used his great comedies to skewer sacred cows, and he did it within the studio system, right under the nose of the censorious Hays office, with its strict Production Code. How he managed that trick is baffling ' and always has been.
'It's hard to imagine how he ever got away with such a thing, how he ever persuaded the Hays boys that he wasn't trying to undermine all morals,â?� wrote Bosley Crowther of the New York Times in the 1940s. How indeed?
Although Sturges worked in Hollywood for more than two decades, his reputation rests on the handful of comedies he made from 1940 to 1944. If you want to try to figure out for yourself how he got away with so much, pick up the just-released Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, which features seven Sturges films including new-to-DVD titles such as The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, Hail the Conquering Hero and, the only nonjoker in the deck, The Great Moment, a stiff melodrama. The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story round out the collection.
This bare-bones set of just films and their trailers contains all the Sturges masterpieces except The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is available separately on DVD. Both The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels have been released by Criterion in extras-rich editions, but the cost of those two DVDs exceeds the price tag on this seven-DVD box.
Born Edmond P. Biden in Chicago in 1898, Sturges spent his early years in the lap of luxury. His wealthy parents provided education in France, Germany and Switzerland, as well as in private schools in this country.
Before he found the movies, Sturges was an inventor who, in the name of tidy romance, came up with kiss-proof lipstick. He turned to writing for the stage during a protracted hospital stay for an appendectomy. Strictly Dishonorable, his second play, was such a big hit on Broadway that it became a movie in 1931 and eventually led him into screenwriting.
At the time, it was unheard of for someone to write and direct a movie. To get a shot at directing, Sturges offered to sell Paramount Pictures his script for The Great McGinty for a dollar. The eventual figure was $10, because somebody thought it sounded more legal.
'There's only one job in pictures and that's making them,â?� Sturges is quoted as saying in his biography by James Curtis, Between Flops. 'And the director is the man who makes them.â?� The Great McGinty, which won him a screenwriting Oscar, was a huge commercial and critical success. Sturges was on his way.
Sturges probably wouldn't have had so much leeway if his movies weren't comedies, which censors have always taken less seriously than dramas. (Sturges' films typically are implanted with some superbly executed slapstick, just to be sure of that.) Still, this doesn't explain everything.
In Hail the Conquering Hero, for example, the filmmaker pokes fun at war heroes and those who idolize them. That he pulled this off in the midst of World War II is amazing. In The Lady Eve, probably Sturges' best film, Barbara Stanwyck plays a con artist who tries to swindle a rich young man, played by Henry Fonda. This time, the subject is virtue, specifically female virtue (yes, that kind), a favorite Sturges target.
'You don't know much about girls,â?� Stanwyck tells Fonda, with surprising candor. â?�The best ones aren't as good as you think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad ' not nearly as bad.â?�
In terms of subversion, the cream of the Sturges crop is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which centers on a party girl (Betty Hutton) who gets knocked up by an unknown soldier. Sturges undermines not just virtue and patriotism, family and marriage and motherhood, but even religion: The allusion is easy to miss, but the 'miracleâ?� of the title refers to the plot's satirical twist on the nativity story.
Another part of Sturges' secret may be that his films work on two levels. For the squares, he often provided a few words here and there to make everything seem harmless. Those in the know, meanwhile, knew enough to ignore those disclaimers.
Sturges chose his words, all his words, with extraordinary care. After all, he had to. Subversion comes much more easily these days ' maybe, sometimes, too easily.