November 2, 2012

It’s been a dramatic week, particularly for those in the New York area, and I suspect you need no reminder why. It’s much too early, I think, for anyone to declare life in the city “back to normal,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a short vacation. Those who have power and Internet have found Netflix a powerful balm, and as far as soothing Netflixable material goes, there is nothing finer than the films of Preston Sturges—two of which, The Lady Eve and Hail the Conquering Hero are available to watch instantly.

From 1940 to 1944, Preston Sturges made eight films, and at least six were great. I didn’t love Christmas In July, and I haven’t seen The Great Moment, a peculiar-sounding dramedy about the invention of anesthesia. But The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story find a perfect balance between madcap and sentiment, and are among the finest comedies of all time. For what it’s worth, he also wrote and directed a propaganda short, the snappily titled “Safeguarding Military Information,” which you can watch for free online if you are deeply, deeply bored.

Born in Chicago, Sturges was raised on both sides of the Atlantic by a flighty society mother whose best friend was Isadora Duncan—the dancer fondly remembered for having her head pulled off by her own scarf. At sixteen, he began working in the arts, managing his stepfather’s theater into near-oblivion while the older man was busying himself with World War I. After a stint in the air force, Sturges bounced around Broadway, finally writing his first two plays in the late twenties. They flopped hard, but his third effort, the speakeasy comedy Strictly Dishonorable did not. He claimed to have written the play in six days—tying God’s record—and it ran for more than two years.

After three more flops—and my goodness, does this make me yearn for the days when a playwright could produce six plays in four years, nevermind whether or not they were hits—he did what failures did in the ’30s. He went to Hollywood.

There’s no point in giving a blow-by-blow of the rest of his career. More patient writers than me have done that elsewhere. But it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the speed at which this man worked. Whether or not he actually wrote Strictly Dishonorable in eight days is impossible to know. Nor do I know if it’s true that most of his dialogue was first-draft, or whether, to keep the pace of those frantic early years in Hollywood, he wrote at night what he was going to shoot the next day.

But if any of that is even close to true, the man was not just brilliant—he was a miracle, and deserves to be revisited during this week of stress, destruction and rain. Screenwriters can’t work that fast any more. Movies are bigger money than ever, which means mistakes are catastrophic, and every step in a production must be scrutinized. But in the ’40s, the studio system was a factor, and an artist willing to do what he was told could become prolific quickly.

By ’44, Sturges was fed up with corporate oversight, and left Paramount in search of a better deal. He never found it, becoming a casualty of the studio system, his career derailed, like Orson Welles’, due to a refusal to bow down. Unlike Welles, Sturges delivered on his talent—at least for a few years. Because he died not long after his star fell, Sturges’ career did not have Welles’ long, depressing third act.

Preston Sturges made eight films in four years. And, thank God, he never sold Paul Masson wine.

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