23 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 81 | April 23, 2010

O Preston, Where Art Thou?


Our theme this week

Films of Preston Sturges

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Great McGinty (1940)
Tuesday         —   The Lady Eve (1941)
Wednesday    —   Sullivan’s Travels (1942)
Thursday        —   The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

the miracle of morgan's creek

Preston Sturges earned two Oscar nominations for original screenplay in 1944.  The films were The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.  Both starred Eddie Bracken.  Both are very good.  One slot left, which to pick?  I could flip a coin, but I’ll go for the one with Betty Hutton.  How could I pass on Trudy Kockenlocker?

Hutton is Trudy, the small-town girl with a big-time problem.  She’s pregnant, doesn’t have a husband, and has a policeman for a father played by William Demarest.  You can imagine.  Trudy was in fact married, so she thinks, to a private named Ratzkywatzky, or something like that—it was one wild party.  It happened the night before the soldiers shipped out, but now he’s gone and she’s got her reputation and the constable to worry about.

Enter Norval Jones (Bracken), the local boy with a 4-F and a stammer and a crush on Trudy going back years.  Norval does whatever he can to help—he’ll even marry the girl, if she’ll have him—but trouble keeps getting in the way.  Before it’s all over, Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff appear, reprising their roles from The Great McGinty, to set things right.

So what is the miracle of Morgan’s Creek?  It may be that Sturges got this movie done in 1944, not a time of happy endings for girls who get knocked up by a stranger and barely remember his name.  As James Agee put it:  “…the wildly factitious story makes comic virtues of every censor-dodging necessity.  Thanks to these devices the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.”


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Preston Sturges, director


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
The Screen Door


Quote of Note
“The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman.  If it wasn’t for her, marriage would have disappeared long since.  No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to.  It’s up to the woman to knock him down, hogtie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner.  Anytime after that is too late.”
—Mr. Johnson (Alan Bridge), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

…58…59…60.

 22 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 80 | April 22, 2010

O Preston, Where Art Thou?


Our theme this week

Films of Preston Sturges

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Great McGinty (1940)
Tuesday         —   The Lady Eve (1941)
Wednesday    —   Sullivan’s Travels (1942)

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

the palm beach story

Preston Sturges knew a few things about marriage:  he had four wives.  Any movie of his had something to say about the institution but in The Palm Beach Story it gets the full treatment.  No surprise, holy matrimony is not so holy in Sturges’s screwball world.

The film opens on a wedding day, the bride and groom played by Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea.  The action starts during the credits and if you watch carefully, you’ll realize it doesn’t add up.  The final scene is another wedding, with a hint for viewers that (arguably) ties it all together.

Five years into the marriage, Gerry Jeffers decides that she needs a divorce.  It’s not that she doesn’t love her husband, Tom—she loves him quite all right—but she needs money and she’s determined to find a man who has some.  Given this is a Sturges film, it’s not as simple as that.  Her quest gets her on train trip to Palm Beach, during which she meets one of Sturges’s most exquisite creations, the Ale and Quail hunting club, a crazy collection of millionaires with a fondness for gunplay and booze.  She barely survives.  Gerry meets John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a mild-mannered but even richer eccentric, and the two of them share a memorable ride on his yacht.  The conversation inevitably gets around to the sexes and we get lines like this:  “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed”; and “That’s one of the tragedies of this life, that the men who are most in need of a beating-up are always enormous.”  Eventually, Tom arrives in town, and it all gets sorted out—that is, who gets the money and who gets married.

The Palm Beach Story is McCrea’s second of three movies with Sturges.  The director had a loyal company of stock players and crew who worked with him across many films.  They include Robert Greig, Frank Moran, Jimmy Conlin, and Franklin Pangborn.  No one was as familiar a face as Sturges regular William Demarest, with ten credits total (including all five films featured here this week).


The Palm Beach Story
Preston Sturges, director


The Palm Beach Story
The Ale and Quail Club

 


Quote of Note
“You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything.”
—Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert), The Palm Beach Story (1942)

…58…59…60.

 21 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 79 | April 21, 2010

O Preston, Where Art Thou?


Our theme this week
Films of Preston Sturges

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Great McGinty (1940)
Tuesday         —   The Lady Eve (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

sullivan's travels

Sullivan’s Travels is a movie about movies, sort of.  It’s about bigger things, in fact, but the Sullivan in the title is a Hollywood director and that gives director Preston Sturges a chance to get a few jabs in at his chosen profession.  With Sullivan his foil, Sturges takes aim at the kind of self-important, socio-politically correct dramas that pay faux homage to the poor.  Eventually Sullivan learns that the poor don’t want to see movies about the poor—they want to laugh.  Sturges gives as stirring and affirmative a defense of pure entertainment as you’ll find anywhere.

This is how it would look on an analogy test:  Gulliver’s Travels : Robinson Crusoe :: Sullivan’s Travels : _______.  The answer is The Grapes of Wrath.  If Swift is a rebuttal to Defoe, Sturges is a rebuttal to Steinbeck.  Sturges even gets the name in, backwards:  Sinclair Beckstein is the author of the book O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Sullivan wants to adapt it for the movies, and here’s his classic exchange with the studio boss, LeBrand, who takes the typical Hollywood slant:

Sullivan:  I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions.  Stark realism.  The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand:  But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan:  A little, but I don’t want to stress it.  I want this picture to be a document.  I want to hold a mirror up to life.  I want this to be a picture of dignity!  A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand:  But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan (giving in):  With a little sex in it.

Sullivan sets off on foot with a dime in his pocket to discover what it’s like for the common man.  His “travels” are pretty darn funny, by any standard, but it’s not all laughs.  He meets an out-of-work actress who’s ready to call it quits, and they’re road companions for a while.  Sullivan discovers soup kitchens, a variety of hobos, and life in a labor camp after he’s convicted for assaulting a railroad worker.  Even in lampooning political films, Sturges gets in the political angle anyway, and gets the job done more effectively than a well-meaning realistic drama.

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake give pitch-perfect performances as Sullivan and “The Girl.”  They have great rapport and are clearly meant for each other, which raises the question—since Sullivan is married, and unhappily—how can the two of them end up together?  Divorce and happy endings were taboo in those days, and Sturges engineered a very neat trick to get another one by the watchful eyes at the Hays Office.

I suppose it’s fitting to end at the beginning.  Sturges does the opposite, pulling a fast one on the audience.  The movie kicks off with an adrenalin rush, a fight scene atop a speeding train, which fades into filmdom’s famous last words:  The End.  Don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything.  Sturges is just getting started.


Sullivan’s Travels
Preston Sturges, director
Trailer

 


Sullivan’s Travels
Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake


Sullivan’s Travels
Commentary from Christopher Guest and Michael McKean

 


Quote of Note
Policeman
:  You John L. Sullivan?
Sullivan:  What about it?
Policeman:  What’s your occupation?
Sullivan:  Motion picture director.
Policeman:  That right?
Valet:  Yes, sir.
Policeman:  Let me see your driver’s license.
Sullivan:  I haven’t got it.  You bring it?
Valet:  No, sir.
Policeman:  Driving without a license, huh?
Sullivan:  Yes, isn’t that terrible?  I suppose that calls for a dollar fine and ten minutes in jail.
Policeman:  You sure this is Sullivan?
Butler:  Oh, quite, sir.
Policeman:  What are you doing in those clothes?
Sullivan (in a tattered suit):  I just paid my income tax.
Policeman:  All right.  But you don’t drive that car without a license.
Sullivan:  Okay.  Let the girl out too, will you?  She’s getting bored in there.
Policeman:  How does the girl fit in this picture?
Sullivan:  There’s always a girl in the picture.  Haven’t you ever been to the movies?
—Policeman (Edward Hearn), Sullivan (Joel McCrea), Valet (Eric Blore), Butler (Robert Greig), Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 19 Apr 2010 @ 11:28 PM

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 20 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 78 | April 20, 2010

O Preston, Where Art Thou?


Our theme this week

Films of Preston Sturges

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   The Great McGinty (1940)

The Lady Eve (1941)

the lady eve

Whenever Barbara Stanwyck has her eye on a guy, watch out.  You know she’s going to land him—really, what man could say no?—but the fun part is watching her set one trap after another as she homes in on her target.  It’s not love she has in mind.  Something more nefarious.  Then, inevitably, the plan goes astray.

In Double Indemnity (1944), her mark is Fred MacMurray and she’s scheming a murder.  In The Lady Eve, it’s a more innocent game, fleecing the rich, and Henry Fonda is the not-at-all-poor sucker who falls for her.  Turns out she’s not as cold as she thinks and she falls for him too.

Stanwyck plays a dual role, con artist Jean Harrington and her alter ego, faux Brit noble Lady Eve Sidwich—her character is so full of deceit you may at times wonder just who she is; she even seems to surprise herself a few times.  Fonda is the brewery heir Charles Pike, who spends half the movie affectionately known as Hopsie, a brave move surely for any actor.  Jean and Charles meet on a ship, the setting for the first part of the film, and later again, under very different circumstances, at a tony manor in Connecticut.  Throughout, the Stanwyck role is the one in charge, devising the schemes, leading the naïf played by Fonda all the way to the end.  Somewhere along the way there’s a wedding.  It’s a brief honeymoon, as Charles learns more than he cares to about the Lady, but the marriage gives director Preston Sturges a clever way to get one past the Hays Office at the end.

Stanwyck and Fonda give stellar performances.  It’s their second (and best) of three films together, and much of the movie’s appeal is watching them play off each other.  Sturges supplies them with plenty to work with—an intelligent script, great dialogue, and the perfect balance of wit, slapstick, and romance.  It doesn’t get better than this.  The Lady Eve is one of the true gems of screwball comedy.


The Lady Eve (1941)
Preston Sturges, director
Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda


The Lady Eve
Preston Sturges, director


Quote of Note
“I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”
—Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), The Lady Eve (1941)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 20 Apr 2010 @ 06:16 AM

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 19 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 77 | April 19, 2010

O Preston, Where Art Thou?

preston sturges_2This week we celebrate the man who invented kissproof lipstick.  (That’s what the bios tell us, so it’s as good as true.)  I’ve never used the stuff myself, but it’s one of those things that in no small way makes the world a better place.  Less mess, more kissing:  a combination we all can appreciate.  If only a gaggle of great statesmen could be so fruitful.

What sort of man invented kissproof lipstick?  Was he a Valentine with a chemistry lab?  A lover with a neat streak?  An inveterate romantic?  None of the above.  The man who invented kissproof lipstick was at heart a troublemaker.

Born Edmund Preston Biden in Chicago at the close of the 19th century, he is known to us today as Preston Sturges of Hollywood, the 1940s film director.  Sturges in fact was more than a director.  After a stint with his mother’s cosmetics business, he turned to writing plays and screenplays.  Unhappy with changes others had been making to his film scripts, he itched for more control over his work.  Paramount finally gave him a shot behind the camera.  He was cheap:  his fee was $10.  With The Great McGinty, Sturges became the first filmmaker of Hollywood’s sound era to get a “written and directed by” credit.  Thus it would be for the rest of his brief but brilliant career.

In the five years from 1940 to 1944, Sturges made a remarkable eight movies (of his twelve directing efforts).  It was a blaze of manic impulse, subversive wit, and mad genius.  Sturges loved to break the rules.  He took societal conventions and turned them upside down.  He made a mockery of the Production Code.  He paid tribute to anarchy.  Most of all, as anyone who’s seen his films knows, he made people laugh.

Comparing films from different eras is a tricky thing.  We forget the dreck from long ago; we remember the classics.  But if you want to make the case that movie comedy was better back then, the Sturges oeuvre should be Exhibit A.  Sturges was hardly the last funnyman to work in movies, but there’s no one making films like his today.

Something else we seem to be missing is a proper appreciation of Sturges’s work.  We have a proliferation of movie lists but too few give Sturges his due.  Case in point:  the current IMDb list of top 250 films, and not a single Sturges movie among them.  Cultural amnesia, anyone?  The AFI, which should know better, omitted Sturges in its 1998 list of “100 Movies” (he did make the 2007 update, but just once).

Debating the movies on movie lists is a rabbit hole I’d rather not go down.  I have to remind myself not to take the things seriously—but the lack of Sturges is not even funny.

Films directed by Preston Sturges

  • The Great McGinty (1940)
  • Christmas in July (1940)
  • The Lady Eve (1941)
  • Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
  • The Palm Beach Story (1942)
  • The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
  • Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
  • The Great Moment (1944)
  • The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)
  • Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
  • The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)
  • The French, They Are a Funny Race (1955)

  • Our theme this week
    Films of Preston Sturges

    The Great McGinty (1940)

     the great mcginty

    I got to Preston Sturges late.  Somehow I made it though grade school, high school, college—and who knows how many movies—without any memory of the man.  Then one day I read in the paper about the “genius” behind a new movie out on VHS.  It got me to the video store and I’ve been hooked ever since.

    That movie was The Great McGinty, a funny and scathing look at politics.  If Mr. Smith Goes to Washington strikes you as hopelessly sentimental and naïve, this is the film for you. 

    Brian Donlevy stars as Dan McGinty, a bum looking for a meal and a couple of bucks.  He not only sells his vote for mayor, he sells it 37 times.  That kind of ambition impresses the crooked party boss (Akim Tamiroff) who had devised the scheme to rig the election.  Next thing, McGinty is running for office himself, landing in the mayor’s, and later the governor’s, chair.  He marries for convenience, and his wife (Muriel Angelus) convinces him to try to do some good.  No Capraesque ending here, the change of heart leads to his downfall.  As the opening title explained:  “This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic.  One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute.  The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute.  They both had to get out of the country.”

    The Great McGinty is a very good movie, even if it doesn’t rank among the best of Sturges (a high standard indeed).  Nevertheless, it does account for the only Oscar that Sturges ever won, for original screenplay.


    The Great McGinty (1940)
    Preston Sturges, writer-director
    William Demarest, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff


    The Great McGinty
    Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff


    Quote of Note
    “If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics.  Men without ambition.  Jellyfish!”
    —Skeeters, the Politician (William Demarest), The Great McGinty (1940)

    …58…59…60.

    Posted By: John Farmer
    Last Edit: 10 Sep 2010 @ 10:19 AM

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