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A note on Preston Sturges, part 1


Again, the wife has started her night shifts, Bean goes to bed early, so at the age of 30 on Saturday nights in a whirling metropolis I shut myself up in my apartment and satisfy a promise I made to Our Man In Hollywood, Jim Brown.  During my trip to his house for Thanksgiving Mr. Brown was slightly disappointed in my knowledge of classic American cinema and could care less about my knowledge of German Expressionism, Eisenstien, the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, etc. etc. etc. and I realized (again) that my education has in another way failed me.  There isn’t much emphasis on the classics in American cinema even though they directly inspired the filmmakers of other movements that are studied ad nausea. So, even though Brown told me to start with the musicals by Vincent Minelli and Busby Berkeley, I started with the celebrated comic writer/director Preston Sturges.  Starting where it only makes sense, at the beginning, I watched The Great McGinty – it was the first film directed by Sturges, from his original screenplay, and launched a relationship with Paramount that saw Sturges rise as one of the most prolific writer/directors of the 1940s.

The story is told almost entirely in flashback by Daniel McGinty (played by 40s noir star Brian Donlevy) as he lives in exile as a bar tender in a banana republic.  His story begins on the night of a mayoral election.  As a hungry vagrant looking for a quick buck, McGinty hustles from voting booth to voting booth earning him $2 for each vote he casts for the incumbent mayor.  It exposes quickly a layer of corruption that reaches from the mayor, through The Boss and into the police force and breadlines.  After casting 37 votes  around town he’s entitled to $74, which The Politician (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) cannot pay.  This gets McGinty into The Boss’ office and starts a profitable but contentious relationship that lasts through the duration of the film.  As a pugnacious opportunist McGinty rises in the ranks of corrupt politics, eventually marrying his secretary for pretense and appearing to be an upstanding mayor.  But as my favorite segment in Paris, Je T’aime says, “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love.”  His loyalty to his wife and kids forces this corrupt politician into an honest moment that cost him everything and he must flee the country, which was wonderfully ironic that in the end it wasn’t all of his illegal dealings that got him in trouble but his honesty.  It’s the story that could’ve happened if George W. and Karl Rove stopped with the governorship.

Sturges handles the relationship between McGinty and The Boss with a wonderful mix of verbal irony and comedic banter with a streak of slapstick. It’s a dynamic that works wonderfully in a political satire; the two power hungry morally bankrupt men that rely on each other to further their own careers.  The actors Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff played on each other so well that Sturges brings them back to reprise the roles years later (or so I read, I haven’t gotten that far in his film anthology yet).

Even more interesting is the way Sturges presents corruption reaching even to the innocent secretary.  Played aptly by Muriel Angelus, the secretary even justifies the corruption she’s a part of with a funny slant on the idea of ‘steal from the poor and give back to the poor, so where’s the stealing?’  She almost leaps at the chance to marry McGinty to satisfy political aspiration, but more so to save herself from being a single mother of two.  Selfishness and deceit abound! That is, until McGinty and Catherine decide they love each other want the marriage to be legit – then by embracing family values suddenly they take a moral turn.  A message almost worthy of a Capra film.

Preston Sturges had been writing for years, under contract with Universal and then on short term or per project contracts at all the major studios, and becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters in town. It took a while for Sturges to take a chance on him as a director though, it’s that old Catch-22 that still exists. They don’t want to hire you to direct a feature until you’ve directed a feature. While Sturges’ writing far outshines his direction in The Great McGinty, we get that first taste of a director who is on the rise, he just needs to find some ways to improve the visual storytelling.  The best attribute to his directing the camera is his judicious use of the closeup.  I think I mentioned before when lambasting Susane Bier, but when the closeup is overused it loses its power.  So when watching a Sturges film you can feel something happen to the characters when we cut into that closeup. He’s does create great little moments in the film, using small camera pans and tilts for reveals; I love the moment when we do a slow tilt down Catherine’s legs when McGinty  considers marrying her.  Her response, “Well what does that got to do with anything?”

Sturges’ follow up film, Christmas In July, is charming in its brevity – complete and effective at only 67 minutes.  The plot is established immediately with a few quick shots of people from all walks of life huddled around radios.  They’re all anticipating the announcement of the winner of the Maxford Coffee slogan contest with a top prize of $25,000.  Among the masses is Jimmy and Betty.  Jimmy has strong ambition but seems to lack the brains to get there.  With his slogan idea, however, he is just certain life get better.  You see, he’s come up with a slogan he is certain can’t lose; “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee… it’s the bunk.” The trouble is nobody else is very confident in that slogan, least of all Betty who insists that coffee does keep you up at night.

Jimmy’s co-workers decide to have a little fun with him, sending him a phony telegram announcing him the winner of the contest and asking him to report immediately to Maxford’s offices to receive his check.  This creates such a buzz that Jimmy’s boss even thinks his talents could be put to better use helping with their own ad campaigns.  Jimmy is quick to accept the promotion and heads straight down to claim his prize.  While the committee to select the winner is still deadlocked, the head of the coffee company, Dr. Maxford, assumes the telegram is legit and pays him out.  Jimmy embarks on a spending spree, amassing gifts for almost everyone he knows and ring for Betty.  By the time Dr. Maxford discovers the selection committee is still deadlocked Jimmy has created chaos on his street in celebration and spent the money all over town.

It’s a funny situation that is created by these office pranksters.  Watching executives and business owners try to take the gifts back was a great scene.  But like all films, Christmas In July requires a healthy suspension of disbelief (as in Sturges’ subsequent films).  We have to believe that Dr. Maxford wouldn’t check with the selection committee before shelling out $25,000.  We have to believe Jimmy would go on a lavish spending spree, spreading his wealth and fueling a hype around himself that engulfs his boss and everyone around him.  As soon as we buy into Sturges’ situations we can let go and enjoy them for what they are, and here it is an examination of the hysteria that can result from one small moment of recognition.  Jimmy had gone unappreciated his entire life.  As soon as Maxford Coffee says that he’s an ad genius, everyone believes it.  This becomes a satirical look at power of suggestion.  Nobody believed in the slogan before he won, but if someone loves it, we must all love it.  It’s how I view a lot of modern art.

Sturges didn’t make any great strides as a director going from McGinty to Christmas.  It appears to me he took a step back, honestly.  Where Christmas In July is a more of a situational comedy, McGinty was full of irony, pratfalls and colorful characters in the middle of a situation at is more painful as an accurate depiction of American politics than it is funny.  Dick Powell is great as Jimmy, so convinced that his slogan was a gem that he can’t believe this could be a hoax.  Without any solid counterpart, however, it only made me miss the chemistry between Tamiroff and Donlevy.  I would recommend McGinty over Chistmas but that hardly matters when looking at the career that was launched by having two big successes and an Oscar in one year as a writer/director.  Paramount had found their preeminent comedic director in a decade when audiences were begging for comedy.

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