Preston Sturges (1898–1959) was in that fraternity of Hollywood scriptwriters (along with Billy wilder, John Huston, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Blake Edwards, and Elaine May, to name just a few) who ultimately weren’t content to let someone else direct their scripts. Sturges’s own transition took a long time; he wrote part or all of 17 films between 1930 and his directorial debut a decade later. Although he wrote for several prominent directors, it seems pretty clear in retrospect that Sturges himself was primarily responsible for the success of such films as The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935) and Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937). As with many writers, lending predominance to the visual over the aural did not come easily to Sturges, but he was blessed with superb instincts in choosing character actors who could finesse any tendency to be over-literary or too pretentious. For me, Eugene Pallette (Shanghai Express, The Ghost Goes West, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Pike in The Lady Eve) could never go wrong, and he was in great company in The Lady Eve with Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, and a pack of Sturges-selected screwballs. Andrew Sarris has compared the populating of Sturges films with the gifted congestion of works by Brueghel. So, although he lacked the visual flare of such masters as Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, or even his great hero, Ernst Lubitsch, Sturges secured a place for himself as one of the great comedic directors.Although Sturges skewered everyone, he seemed to take great satisfaction in going after the rich, a class with whom he had shared many experiences. That is one of the things that make The Lady Eve so appealing. Another is the film’s stars: although Henry Fonda was by this point an established star, but he had never done genuine comedy before; and I can’t conceive of anyone other than Barbara Stanwyck who could bring off the dual role Sturges wrote for her. (For some reason, I’ve always been resistant to Stanwyck. This will be remedied by Barbara Stanwyck and the Auteurs, a show I’m organizing for early next year, derived from a brilliant new book by Dan Callahan that will be published by that time.)
In a real sense, Sturges was ahead of his time and perhaps overly restrained by having to conform to the filmic form. He was akin to such contemporary commentators like the late George Carlin at his best, or Bill Maher—“comedians” freed by cable television to see and say things as they are. One thinks of Joel McCrea as movie director Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels, rebuffing studio-produced surveys of movie taste in Pittsburgh with, “If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.” In short, Preston Sturges was what we would now call “a free spirit.” There is some of this in middle-period Woody Allen or in Mel Brooks’s more over-the-top moments. Sex, as was true of Lubisch, is at the heart of Sturges’s art, as exemplified by The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. America during World War II was not quite ready for this, but Sturges managed to leave us with some scintillating films—and a never-to-be-gratified craving for more.