Sunday, May 23, 2010

Preston Sturges, An Underrated Director

I’d first introduced myself to the work of Preston Sturges back in 1990, when I got my first video store job. Though to this day I have not seen all of his films, I have seen a good portion of them. Interestingly, the film that I love the most by him is barely touched upon in the article by James Harvey. Sturges’ 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels is for me, Sturges’ greatest realized work. With everything that Harvey writes about Sturges, it’s surprising to me that he fails to see comparisons between Sturges’ life and that of Sullivan’s Travels. The film begins with a film director who wants to make a gritty film about human suffering which the producers would like to talk him out of. Interestingly the film Sullivan wants to make is called “Brother O, Where Art Thou?” which the Coen Brothers slyly borrowed as the title for their 2000 release with George Clooney (was their film to be the realized work that Sullivan wanted to make?) Sullivan’s Travels was to be Sturges’ cult classic that which has been written about in the Cult Movies 2 book by Danny Perry, yet the film is merely mentioned by Harvey; as “a film about a filmmaker- was too unorthodox a picture to be really popular.”

Most people I’ve spoken with concerning Sturges’ work tend to site Lady Eve as their favorite, and I can see why. Lady Eve is a prime example of a screwball comedy, and both Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are in top form (Henry Fonda is especially effective with his pratfalls), yet I prefer Sullivan’s Travels’ chemistry with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Joel McCrea always seemed like a modern actor for the time and Veronica Lake has never looked so beautiful. Even when Veronica Lake is dressed like a male hobo, Joel McCrea responds, “you look about as much as a boy as Mae West.” The film is filled with many funny great lines, yet at the heart of the film is an extremely serious tone that probably confused audience expectations.

When reading James Harvey’s piece on Preston Stuges it’s amazing to me how personal Sullivan’s Travels seems. Like the director in the film, Sturges appears to have tried to tackle more serious topics in films, but only to fall back on comedies. And as John Sullivan (the director of the film) sets out on his journey of self-discovery, he finds that after living a hard life with people he intended to make his gritty film of human suffering for, he realizes that they would rather laugh at a comedy then be subjected to more misery. Never has a film taught me the importance and necessity of comedy as entertainment. I imagine that Sturges himself must have had some kind of similar revelation. The fact that the character John Sullivan is a divorcee also draws parallels between character and director, I’m sure Sturges had a few axes to grind after his divorces.

Preston Surges is really one of the very great directors of the 40s, and I highly recommend everyone to check out more of his work. Many that have discovered his work have become big fans and for good reason. Most of Sturges’ films are really funny but more than that they have something to say about our society (Sullivan’s Travels), politics (The Great McGinty), advertising (Christmas In July), wealth (The Palm Beach Story) and sexual one-night-stands (The Miracle of Morgan Creek). In my opinion Preston Sturges is an exciting discovery for anyone interested in screwball comedies or just good films.

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