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A Sturges Celebration

Trailblazing Hollywood screenwriter-director’s son investigates father he never knew

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ 1942 “The Palm Beach Story.”
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When Tom Sturges, the son of the great Hollywood comedic auteur Preston Sturges, thanked me for remembering his father with kindness, I had to demur, reminding him of all the joy his father created with his brilliant, hilarious, and amazingly deep movies.

The younger Sturges, who never really knew his father, has written, in collaboration with Nick Smedley, “Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director.” It’s a thoroughly researched, illuminating, and heartbreaking portrait of the artist as a not so, really, but already old man who once sat atop the Tinseltown ladder, after an unprecedented string of critical and commercial successes. Beginning with his first directed feature, “The Great McGinty” (with his Oscar-winning script), Sturges brought audiences “Christmas in July,” Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” — but then came a crash as unprecedented as his meteoric rise had been. A string of films that were less than box office smashes, ownership of the fabulous but cashing-draining Hollywood nightspot The Players, an overweening ego, alcoholism, and poisonous professional jealousy combined to mangle a sterling career. Sturges found himself broke and unemployed, with a family to support and a passel of ex-wives, for nearly a decade until his untimely death at age 60 in New York.

In the 1940s, the films of Sturges and his brilliant contemporary Billy Wilder, especially, allowed their studio, Paramount, to perfect a picturesquely benevolent Hollywood fantasy of small town American life, filled with cheery eccentrics of every stripe. An astonishing range of gifted character actors who came to be known as the Sturges Acting Company — including William Demarest, Porter Hall, Akim Tamiroff, Raymond Walburn, Eric Blore, Robert Greig, Almira Sessions, and Esther Howard — existed in an idyllic, scrubbed-clean and shiny Neverland dotted with white picket fences, billowing lace curtains, and something yummy cooking in the spotless kitchens.

Such is the setting for “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

“It’s really my favorite of my Dad’s work, although I will never say that to anyone watching ‘The Lady Eve,’” Tom said. “You just have to wonder how he got away with something so completely outrageous, this film about a girl who becomes pregnant without benefit of marriage, not knowing who the father is, even leaving us with the thought that maybe there were a lot of husbands. It really began as only the sketch of an idea, maybe 40 to 50 pages of script was all he had. Then someone broke their leg on a film and there was this hole in the production schedule and would my Dad be ready to start? ‘Miracle’ hadn’t even gotten approval of the Hays Office [film censors of the time]. So he’s shooting the film all day, coming home at night after looking at the dailies, then writes another 10 pages of script and that is why that movie has that gorgeous frenetic pace, the best jazz you’re ever gonna see on film. He just gets Eddie Bracken into bigger and bigger trouble, and [Betty Hutton’s] getting closer and closer to her delivery date — and suddenly it’s Christmas and there’s a cow in the living room!”

Preston Sturges died in 1959, when Tom was three years old, “So I have no recollection of him at all. My search to find out who he was became this book. There had always been a big fuss over his amazing string of comedic successes in the early 1940s, making all that money. But the story of his later years — when he was out of work and couldn’t get backing for another film — no one would talk about. This author, Nick Smedley, contacted me out of the blue and said, ‘I want to write a book about your Dad.’

“I said, ‘With all due respect there have been 17 books about him and I feel the ground has been covered, but for the fact that when Mom died I found a four-inch high stack of letters they had written to each other. No one had seen them before, plus a bunch of his diaries. I said, ‘If you want to focus on the last 10 years, when everything had gone to hell, let’s find out what happened,’ He loved that.

“I turned over everything to him, and began the search for this man who was 58 when I was born — looking at me, a baby, and befuddled in Paris — and died at 60.”

“The Palm Beach Story” is my personal favorite Sturges, a breathless blend of some of his most witty, literate dialogue and lowest slapstick invention, with a crazed and drunken millionaire hunting party shooting up an entire train car, looking for Claudette Colbert who has latched onto them while escaping from her ever-broke and boringly upright husband, Joel McCrea.

“Apparently my Dad and Colbert didn’t like each other. They would get into terrible arguments on the set — in French — insulting each other and proving he wasn’t the sweetest guy in the world. There was a studio decree that at least two to three pages of script had to be shot every day, so he said to her, ‘Why don’t we get this shot before your face falls?’ Part of the problem was that he saw himself as the star, and his actors were just along for the ride. On a crumpled sidebar, if you are writing for Gay City News, there were a few good luck charms my Dad used in all his films, and one, along with William Demarest, was Franklin Pangborn, the most fastidious gay guy ever. I have letters from him to my Dad, which we donated to UCLA Library. They were great pals. He loved having Franklin around who was so bright and such a great actor but so gay. He plays the apartment house manager showing Colbert’s place to a prospective buyer, the immortal Wienie King (Robert Dudley).

“He was part of the great Sturges Acting Company. If you see two or three of my Dad’s films, you see the same motley crew who would come over to The Players after shooting, a great social thing. If you were an extra in the film, he saw to it that you automatically got paid for one week. And if you had a speaking part, even if it was merely one line, you got paid for the whole duration of the shoot. They helped him make his movies funny. He’d have a cigarette in the lobby where his films were shown and count the laughs.”

Unlike Colbert, Sturges really got along with Barbara Stanwyck, who gives such a matchless comic performance in the matchless “The Lady Eve”: “She was the one that got away. He loved Barbara Stanwyck, oh my God, and if he’d been able to figure that out with her, there would have been no me.”

Sturges had written the sparkling script for Stanywck’s “Remember the Night,” directed by Mitchell Leisen, and realized just how funny off-screen she was, although never really allowed to show that side of herself. He wrote “The Lady Eve” for her, and during the shooting insisted that she retake a certain scene in which she describes the man she loves about four times.

Stanwyck finally gave him a look which showed she was on to him — that he just wanted to hear her repeat lines he had written about himself, this woman who had rejected his romantic overtures to her. She told him that he had failed the 20-second test of hers, during which time she could figure out whether a guy was right for her or not.”

Tom’s mother, Sandy, was the last of Sturges’ four wives: “My Dad marred the same woman over and over again, all of them were in their early 20s when he met them. Mom was 20 when she stopped into The Players to say there was smoke coming from something. My Dad told her that was part of the building’s construction and introduced himself, she said, with that slightly hesitant pause that people who think they’re really important leave for the rest of us to react to. She had no idea who he was.

“What we learned from those letters was that the marriage was not as smooth as some would hope for. It could be like reading dialogue of a play with my father writing, ‘In your letter of August 6, second paragraph, you said such and such. That’s not true.’ And she would respond, ‘You only respect your marriage vows when they’re being practiced by somebody else. Fidelity is not a phase.’ She gave it right back to him. She was 30 when he died, leaving her a widow with no money who nonetheless survived, went to school to become a paralegal, and raised me and my brother all right.”

I had heard abut a brilliant screen adaptation Sturges had written for Katharine Hepburn of her stage success “The Millionair­ess,” by George Bernard Shaw, and Tom assured me that it existed and he has it, promising to send it to me.

“I still want that to become a movie, a wonderful story about a girl who doesn’t want Dad’s money and the conditions that go with it. All I would have to change is one letter of it, not even a word, and that would be an M to a B, making the title ‘The Billionair­ess.’”

PRESTON STURGES: THE LAST YEARS OF HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST WRITER-DIRECTOR | By Tom Sturges and Nick Smedly | Intellect Books | $29.50 | 324 pages

Updated 12:46 am, October 10, 2019
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