Archive for March, 2011

A Note on Preston Sturges, pt. 2 (major spoilers as I discuss the lackluster endings)

March 28th, 2011 No comments

Between 1940 and 1942 Preston Sturges made three highly regarded comedies for Paramount: The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story.  All three were made in succession right at the zenith of Sturges’ career.  In fact the man never liked taking time off, and by the end of 1940 he had released both The Great McGinty and Christmas in July with The Lady Eve in the can.  He seemed to write and direct with the fervor of a coke-addict. Immediately after wrapping on Sullivan’s Travels he was fully immersed in the script for The Palm Beach Story. He did all this while continuing to write on scripts for colleagues at Paramount and helping to cultivate the careers of up-and-coming comic directors like the great Billy Wilder.  I suppose it was wise for him to attack so vigorously the hot iron because there was a shift in the management at Paramount and he was soon to depart.  But while he still had his bloated salary and contracted players he directed three comedies that some still rank among America’s best films. With the same fury and fervor at which he attacked the scripts my daughter, Boston, and I attacked the Sturges box-set, watching three films in a row.


The Lady Eve is a film that plays heavily on the “fall of man.”  From Genesis forward men have been suckered in by women, and Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the biggest sucker since Adam. On a cruise ship back to America after spending over a year in the Amazon studying snakes (again, a Genesis reference), Charles is the rich man for whom all the ladies are clamoring. The poor oaf never picks up on any of their advances, so the conniving Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) plans an elaborate con on the man in order to win his affection and hopefully his money.  Harrington trips Charles in the dining room, and because of his good nature, ends up apologizing to her. Before he knows what hit him he finds himself in her cabin.  The well-choreographed seduction, an example of Sturges’ ability for brilliant mise en scene, sets the tone for their entire relationship.

It was around this time Boston had to take a nap, 9-month olds apparently aren’t great with movie marathons. I tried to keep her up to see this comical card game where Jean and father (Charles Coburn) use their own card tricks to undermine each other while the oblivious Charles just plays along.  But she fell asleep just as we start to see true emotion starting to build between Jean and Charles and she missed the major plot points.  Charles’ loyal attendant Muggsy (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) grows increasingly suspicious of Jean and uncovers her dark past of hustling wealthy men.  This effectively ends their whirlwind romance and sets the stage for the second half of the film in which Jean plans to exact revenge.

Jean arrives months later at the Pike estate for a party under the alias Lady Eve Sidwich, but fails to disguise herself any more than speaking with a phony accent and putting her hair up.  Muggsy continues to insist “it’s the same dame,” but Charles thinks she would disguise herself more if she were trying to seduce him again. The only people that could be possibly fooled by this would be Charles and the people working with Clark Kent at the The Daily Planet. AH! It was about a thirty minute nap for Boston and she’s a awake around this point and completely lost.  What does she expect when sleeping through most of the second act?  I refuse to rewind it for her because parenting is all about teaching lessons: #1, don’t fall asleep during movies.

I saw on Boston’s face that she wasn’t buying this con of Jean’s, even with Charles’ firm belief that Eve just can’t be Jean.  We listen to Jean’s partner in crime, Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), lay a thick and wild history of coachmen and torrid affairs on Charles that would explain the coincidence in appearance.  This seems to satisfy Charles and us as the audience, so we let it slide because (lesson #2) it’s important to suspend our disbelief in a screwball comedy such as this, so one explanation should do. And then Sturges goes too far.  He wrote a quick speech for Jean, telling us that Charles couldn’t recognize her because on the boat they were in love and when you’re in love with a person you see them differently. I thought it a weak bit of writing actually, a sign of a writer not trusting that his audience is already along for the ride. Boston scoffed at the line and continued to eat her veggie poofs that taste like healthy Cheetos so I ate a few myself (lesson #3, guard your food).

This is one of my favorite roles for Henry Fonda, the other is a dark role as the villian in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Fonda plays Charles Pike with an endearing innocence and naiveté mixed with a clumsy charm that plays heavily into Sturges’ theme of the “fall of man.”  According to Sturges in his autobiography (oh yeah, I should mention that I’m reading his autobiography, it’s pictured on my nightstand to the right, the second book down.  The book above it is You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers which I highly recommend) people advised against using so many pratfalls in this film, but Sturges loves his pratfalls and they work  for him.  I’m not a huge fan of slapstick comedy, a guy just tripping over himself doesn’t really get a big laugh out of me, but with Fonda’s approach to Pike’s character it worked with a strong cumulative effect.  From the onset we get the sense he’s an uncoordinated naive man that is quick to fall in love and quick to fall over a couch.  And it becomes important that we understand Pike’s character in this way otherwise we’d never believe the ensuing con on the mainland. Stanwyck and Fonda are great as a screwball couple, Sturges should’ve continued to utilize Fonda in all of his films, but this was the only film that paired the two.  Sturges would move on to work with Joel McCrea.


Drama seemed to dominate the landscape in film school, and drama tends to win out when festivals and academies dole out awards.  I’m not sure if people simply feel there is more merit in a dramatic film, or if it’s a more difficult task or if they think somehow drama is able to more aptly portray the plight of man but they are all wrong.  A good comedy does more to express the human condition than any drama and it is far more difficult to create a successful comedy.  Now as Sturges explains it, during a time in the early forties when all of his friends were dedicating their pages to the dramatic he got caught up in a conversation about why he would continue to scribe and direct the comedic picture.  Instead of engaging in a heavy debate he decided to make a movie as his answer, and Sullivan’s Travels was the result.

Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ biggest “message” film, a commentary on the Hollywood landscape of the 1940’s (referencing his friends Capra and Lubitsch) and addressing the needs of the downtrodden man.  We open with a brilliantly funny scene with a big-shot movie director, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), insisting on directing “O Brother Where Art Thou,” a fictional dramatic novel. He wants to make a movie about the real working man, about the suffering of the everyday American, a movie with messages and political commentary and then I imagined a modern day film executive driving his Bentley while talking into his bluetooth about how he wants to make a drama about the suffering of the common man. The studio heads must have the same sort of imagine in their heads and they insist Sullivan doesn’t know the first thing about human suffering.  This strikes a cord in Sullivan, so he insists that he will set out on his own without any money or assistance to learn about the suffering of the common man.  The first message in the film comes from one of Sullivan’s servants who says, “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbidly rich would find the topic glamorous.”  Take note Academy members that vote for movies like Precious.

It was lunch time for Boston and I, but we didn’t want to miss anything from a movie that starts so strong, so we made the lunch in front of the TV, I with a sandwich and she with a bottle and some pears (I wish I loved anything as much as this kid loves pears). On Sullivan’s journey he encounters a struggling actress, played by the stunning Veronica Lake.  Lake is very soft-spoken with a dead-pan delivery of very witty dialogue.  Sturges has a way of writing strong female characters, although The Girl is a small step backward from Jean Harrington.  Now that there’s a girl in the picture, “because there’s always a girl in the picture,” Sullivan has a partner on his adventure.  They try to find hardship, but it proves difficult to get away from the Hollywood execs that are looking out for their director.

We finished our lunch just as The Girl and Sullivan were scrounging the streets for a meal and then run back to Hollywood. Sullivan’s lame attempt at getting in touch with the common man was supposed to end with his generous giving of a thousand dollars to those he feels helped him.  But this act of condescension backfires as a greedy street urchin attacks him for the money.  In the midst of it all he does find some kindness wherever he goes, from other homeless and from a magnanimous prison guard when Sullivan finds himself on a chain gang.  Now I fear spoiling some of the finer points of this smart comedic adventure into the troubles of the working class transient citizens of the world, so I want to skip to something Sturges wrote in his autobiography about this film.

“The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story…There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it.  It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.”

At the end of Sullivan’s Travels it wraps up with the message being stated plain and simply, we make comedies because sometimes laughter is all a person has. (lesson #4 for the day, never underestimate the value of laughter). It’s strange that he makes a point to comment on the ending of Sullivan’s Travels opposed to his other films.  Sullivan’s Travels may have been the only one that could get away with such a brief conclusion, whereas The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story suffer from the unsatisfying brevity of their final act.


But regardless of what feels to me a tacked on and unsatisfying end to The Palm Beach Story, it’s so far my favorite Sturges film.  The biggest draw to this screwball comedy is Claudette Colbert’s magnitude (magnetic attitude, thanks Community).  I would’ve absolutely loved to see Colbert in The Lady Eve, I enjoy her so much more than Stanwyck.  And on that note, as much as I like McCrea, Fonda would’ve been pure dynamite opposite Colbert in this film.  I digress! Why talk about what could’ve been when the movie is solid without any changes at all.  So let’s get into it!

Boston has this little chuckle that she does, it’s like a courteous laugh to a joke that wasn’t very funny but you don’t want to make the situation awkward by not laughing.  She chuckled like this through the beginning of The Palm Beach Story, but it’s because I think the whole situation was a bit over her head.  She doesn’t understand the wonderful timing and delivery of Claudette Colbert.  Colbert plays Gerry, a devoted wife that insists on divorcing her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) because of their financial and professional troubles. Earlier in the day “The Wienie King,” a delightful old man who is hard of hearing, gives Gerry enough money to run off to Palm Beach, FL where she hopes to meet a wealthy man she can marry in order to help her soon to be ex, Tom.  But Tom is not willing to give up the woman he loves so easily and tracks her down to Palm Beach, only to find that through a series of comedic events she has gained the favor of one of the richest men in the world, JD Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). He must now pretend to be Gerry’s brother as she tries to extort money out of her new suitor.

Again, Boston’s not buying into the plot much.  I remind her of lesson #2 from earlier in the day, suspend your disbelief in a screwball comedy (or any movie for that matter).  She seems to forgive any plot holes in this more than in The Lady Eve.  So we allow ourselves to get swept into the story, laughing at the rambunctious group of wealthy men that smuggle Gerry onto the train, then we got uncomfortable at the overt racism, but again laugh as the plot becomes complicated with Gerry and Tom both getting in over their heads with deceit.  Deceit is a very common theme with Sturges.  From The Great McGinty on he uses aliases and disguises to have characters deceive on and other.  Harrington becomes Eve, Sullivan becomes a vagrant, and here Tom becomes Gerry’s brother who is now being pursued relentlessly by Princess Centimilla (Mary Astor), who still being pursued by an old suitor, Toto.  Toto is the bumbling shadow to Centimillia, but the princess is determined to get Tom as her next husband.

It’s more than a love triangle the ensues, it’s more of a love square.  And Boston can’t keep her eyes open any more and I paused the movie to put her down for another nap.  But kudos to her for making it through all of Sullivan’s Travels.  When I unpause the movie Gerry enters Tom’s room with a zipper that she cannot unzip on her own.  This recalls an earlier incident where simply helping with a zipper turned into a passionate night of sex.  It was wonderfully planted and now paying off as their love for each other cannot be denied.  What was not planted was the idea of having twins.  *SPOILER* When Tom and Gerry tell Hackensacker and Centimillia they are clearly distraught but seem content in knowing that both Tom and Gerry have twins.  So we end quickly with a Hackensacker and Centimillia marrying the siblings of the people they want to marry.  They all live happily ever after, or do they? It was actually an odd, contrived and rushed ending.  It could be argued that the twins were set up in a sort of prologue in the film, but not well enough for the audience to earn this ending.  So, lesson #5 – earn your third act.

Aside from the apparent racism in all of his films (do all black people really talk like that?) the biggest, possibly the my only issue, with Sturges is he doesn’t earn the ending and likes to just burn through the third act.  Like I said earlier, I like the concluding moment in Sullivan’s Travels, but the final sequence of The Lady Eve brings us suddenly back on a cruise ship, Pike trips over Harrington and then they run off to his cabin confessing their love for each other.  It’s just too quick. Despite this flaw of his, Sturges still remains a master of comedic choreography, mise en scene and witty dialogue.  If he made no other films than these three he would still have been cemented as one of the greatest Hollywood directors of the 1940s.

All in all it’s not a bad way to spend a day.  Three good films, funny and optimistic, and some great parenting.  I taught her five very valuable lessons; and she probably took away even more gems that I just shelled out for free not even aware of it.

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