Next up on our look at comedic and influential filmmakers is a man with a style of his own. Remembered for intelligent screwball comedies that managed to be both realistic and farcical, Preston Sturges (1898–1959) made #32 on 101 Funniest Screenplays for his film The Lady Eve. Some of his most successful comedies also received recognition, such as Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Throughout his career, Sturges was known for bringing sophistication and wit to the genre of comedy, establishing himself as one of the most valuable writer-directors in 1940s Hollywood. Today, more than fifty years after they were originally produced, his films have lost little of their edge and remain extremely popular.
Andrew Dickos’ Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies is an essential guide to the life and work of this luminary of the stage and screen, following Sturges from his unusual childhood, through his early success as a Broadway playwright, to his whirlwind career in Hollywood. In the excerpt below, readers can get a deeper understanding of a screenwriter and director whose sophisticated, cutting-edge comedies have surpassed his time.
‘The Great McGinty and Christmas in July created the confidence that provided Sturges with a latitude necessary to flower with his next project. The Lady Eve was the first big-budgeted film written and directed by him and cast with top stars, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. Released in February 1941 to critical acclaim, it quickly became a box office hit. The story of a female cardsharp contriving an elaborate scheme to season the gullible brewery heir she loves is one of the outstanding farces of the American screen. “It’s perfectly wonderful,” John Huston telegraphed Sturges, “and so are you.” Frank Lloyd Wright, fast becoming an ardent fan, began requesting private screenings of Sturges’ films at his Taliesin Institutes in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Spring Green, Wisconsin. The Lady Eve was named the best film of the year by the New York Times and catapulted Sturges to the top as the major writer-director talent in Hollywood.
The Lady Eve was also Sturges’ most complete synthesis of dialogue and camera up to then, and an interesting argument for the stylistic choices he made in the editing and camera work. Albert Deane, director of foreign advertising and publicity at Paramount, questioned the aesthetic satisfaction of Sturges’ editing technique in a letter to him. Sturges wrote an incisive reply:
When I got into the movies and began taking an interest in films I noticed that in some films I was conscious of the cutting and in some films I was not. And then I began to understand that there is a law of natural cutting and that this is what an audience in legitimate theatre does for itself. The more nearly the film cutter approaches this natural law of interest, the more invisible will be his cutting. If the camera moves from one person to another at the exact moment that you in the legitimate theatre would have turned your head you will not be conscious of a cut. If the camera misses by a quarter of a second, you will get a jolt. (One other requirement is necessary here: the two shots must be approximately of the same tone value. If you cut from white to black it is jarring.) To sum it up, the camera must point at the exact spot the audience wishes to look at any given moment. To find that spot is absurdly easy: you have only to remember where you were looking at the time the scene was made. My friend Mamoulian told me he could make the audience be interested in whatever he showed them, and I told him he was mistaken. It is true that he can bend my ear down and force me to look at a doorknob when my reflex wants to see the face of the gir1 saying goodbye, but it is also true that it stops my comprehension of the scene, destroys my interest and gives me a pain in the neck.’