Preston Sturges (; born Edmund Preston Biden; August 29, 1898 – August 6, 1959) was an American playwright, screenwriter, and film director. In 1941, he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film The Great McGinty, his first of three nominations in the category.
Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for a Sturges character to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene.
Prior to Sturges, other figures in Hollywood (such as Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Frank Capra) had directed films from their own scripts; however, Sturges is often regarded as the first Hollywood figure to establish success as a screenwriter and then move into directing his own scripts, at a time when those roles were separate. Sturges famously sold the story for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures for $1, in return for being allowed to direct the film.
Sturges was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Mary Estelle Dempsey (later known as Mary Desti or Mary D'Este) and travelling salesman Edmund C. Biden. His maternal grandparents, Catherine Campbell Smyth and Dominick d'Este Dempsey, were immigrants from Ireland, and his father was of English descent.
When Sturges was three years old, his eccentric mother left America to pursue a singing career in Paris, where she annulled her marriage with Preston's father. Returning to America, Dempsey met her third husband, the wealthy stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who adopted Preston in 1902. According to biographers, Solomon Sturges was "diametrically opposite to Mary and her bohemianism". This included her close friendship with Isadora Duncan, as the young Sturges would sometimes travel from country to country with Duncan's dance company. Mary also carried on a romantic affair with Aleister Crowley and collaborated with him on his magnum opus Magick. As a young man, Sturges bounced back and forth between Europe and the United States. As Sturges spent much of his childhood and youth in France, he ended up fluent in French and a Francophile who always considered France his "second home".
In 1916, he worked as a runner for New York stock brokers, a position he obtained through Solomon Sturges. The next year, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Service, and graduated as a lieutenant from Camp Dick in Texas without seeing action. While at camp, Sturges wrote an essay, "Three Hundred Words of Humor", which was printed in the camp newspaper, becoming his first published work. Returning from camp, Sturges picked up a managing position at the Desti Emporium in New York, a store owned by his mother's fourth husband. He spent eight years (1919–1927) there, until he married the first of his four wives, Estelle De Wolfe.
In 1928, Sturges performed on Broadway in Hotbed, a short-lived play by Paul Osborn, and Sturges' first produced play, The Guinea Pig, opened in Massachusetts. The play was a success and Sturges moved it to Broadway the following year, a turning point in his career. That same year also saw the opening of Sturges' second play, the hit Strictly Dishonorable. Written in just six days, the play ran for sixteen months and earned Sturges over $300,000, a staggering amount at the time. It attracted interest from Hollywood, and Sturges was writing for Paramount by the end of the year.
Three other Sturges stage plays were produced from 1930 to 1932, one of them a musical, but none of them were hits. By the end of the year, he was working more in Hollywood as a writer-for-hire, operating on short contracts, for Universal, MGM, and Columbia studios. He also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky had been prepared to customarily pass Sturges' screenplay along to other writers for rewriting, but said, "It was the most perfect script I'd ever seen ... Imagine a producer accepting a script from an author and not being able to make one change." Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus 7% of the profits above $1 million. It was a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges' reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, "The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession."
For the remainder of the 1930s, Sturges operated under the strict auspices of the studio system, working on a string of scripts, some of which were shelved, sometimes with screen credit and sometimes not. While he was highly paid, earning $2,500 a week, he was unhappy with the way directors were handling his dialogue, and he resolved to take creative control of his own projects. He accomplished this goal in 1939 by trading his screenplay for The Great McGinty (written six years earlier) to Paramount in exchange for the chance to direct it. Paramount promoted the unusual deal as part of the film's publicity, saying that Sturges had received just one dollar. Sturges' success quickly paved the way for similar deals for such writer-directors as Billy Wilder and John Huston. Sturges said, "It's taken me eight years to reach what I wanted. But now, if I don't run out of ideas – and I won't – we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them."
Sturges won the first-ever Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty. He also received two screenwriting Academy Award nominations in the same year, for 1944's Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, a feat since matched by Frank Butler, Francis Ford Coppola, and Oliver Stone. (In the second Academy Awards, under a different nomination process, eleven screenplays were considered, including two by Bess Meredyth, two by Tom Barry, two by Hanns Kräly and four by Elliott J. Clawson.)
Though he had a thirty-year Hollywood career, Sturges' greatest comedies were filmed in a furious five-year burst of activity from 1939 to 1944, during which he turned out The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Half a century later, four of these – The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek – were chosen by the American Film Institute as being among the 100 funniest American films.
The film critic Ephraim Katz wrote that Sturges films "...parodied with pungent wit various aspects of American life from politics and advertising to sex and hero worship. They were marked by their verbal wit, opportune comic timing, and eccentric, outrageously funny camo characterizations." Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "Sturges repeatedly suggested that the lowliest boob could rise to the top with the right degree of luck, bluff, and fraud." Critic Andrew Dickos wrote that "the touchstone of Preston Sturges' screenwriting lies in the respect paid to the play and density of verbal language" and "establishes the standard of eloquence as one of poetry, of a cacophony of Euro-American vernacularisms and utterances, peculiarly—and appropriately—spoken with scandalous indifference."
Sturges' rich writing style has been described as that of "a lowbrow aristocrat, a melancholy wiseguy." His scripts were almost congenitally unable to deliver a single mood. In Hail the Conquering Hero, the series of lies, crimes, and embarrassments all somehow bolster the film's theme of patriotism and duty. Sometimes this attitude could be conveyed in a single line of dialogue, such as when Barbara Stanwyck describes the man of her dreams with a combination of love and malice: "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."
In recent years, film scholars such as Alessandro Pirolini have also argued that Sturges' cinema anticipated more experimental narratives by contemporary directors such as Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Zemeckis, and Woody Allen, along with prolific The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder: "Many of [Sturges'] movies and screenplays reveal a restless and impatient attempt to escape codified rules and narrative schemata, and to push the mechanisms and conventions of their genre to the extent of unveiling them to the spectator. See for example the disruption of standardized timelines in films such as The Power and the Glory and The Great McGinty or the way an apparently classical comedy such as Unfaithfully Yours (1948) shifts into the realm of multiple and hypothetical narratives."
He is essentially a satirist without any stable point of view from which to aim his satire. He is apt to turn his back on what he has been sniping at to demolish what he has just been defending. He is contemptuous of everybody except the opportunist and the unscrupulous little woman who, at some point in every picture, labels the hero a poor sap. That the invariable fairy godfather of each picture is not only expressive of his own cold-blooded cynicism but of typical Hollywood fantasy is an example of how this works. Another phase of his attack is shrouding in slapstick the fact that the godfather pays off not for perseverance or honesty or ability but merely from capriciousness.
Production on these films did not always go smoothly. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was being written by Sturges at night even as the production was being filmed in the daytime, and Sturges the screenwriter was rarely more than 10 pages ahead of the cast and crew.
Despite box office success for The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, conflict with Paramount's studio bosses increased. In particular, executive producer Buddy DeSylva never really trusted his star writer-director and was wary (and arguably jealous) of the independence Sturges enjoyed on his projects. One of the sources of conflict was that Sturges liked to reuse many of the same character actors in his films, thus creating what amounted to a regular troupe he could call upon within the studio system. Paramount feared that the audience would tire of repeatedly seeing the same faces in Sturges productions. But the director was adamant, stating, "[T]hese little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures." The way Sturges wrote and directed these actors created a succession of what film critic Andrew Sarris later called "self-expressive cameos of aggressive individualism."
Members of Sturges' unofficial "stock company" included: George Anderson, Al Bridge, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest,[Notes 1] Robert Dudley, Byron Foulger, Robert Greig, Harry Hayden, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, J. Farrell MacDonald, George Melford, Torben Meyer, Charles R. Moore, Frank Moran, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, Emory Parnell, Victor Potel, Dewey Robinson, Harry Rosenthal, Julius Tannen, Max Wagner and Robert Warwick. In addition, Sturges re-used other actors, such as Sig Arno, Luis Alberni, Eric Blore, Porter Hall and Raymond Walburn, and even stars such as Joel McCrea and Rudy Vallee, who both made three films with Sturges, and Eddie Bracken, who did two.
The prolonged clashes between Sturges and Paramount came to a head as the end of his contract approached. He had filmed The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek in 1942 and Hail the Conquering Hero in 1943, but Paramount was suffering from a surfeit of films. Indeed, some of the studio's finished movies were sold off to United Artists, which needed films to distribute.[Notes 2] The studio held onto Sturges' three films, since he was their star filmmaker at the time, but did not immediately release them.
Internally, studio heads expressed serious reservations about them, as did the censors at the Breen Office. Sturges managed to get The Miracle of Morgan's Creek released with only minor changes, but The Great Moment and Hail the Conquering Hero were taken out of his control and tinkered with by DeSylva. When the revamped Hail the Conquering Hero had a disastrous preview, Paramount allowed Sturges – who by that time had left the studio – to come back and fix the film. Sturges did some rewriting, shot some new scenes, and re-edited the film back to his original vision, all without pay. He was unable to similarly rescue The Great Moment, however. The historical biography about the dentist who discovered the use of ether for anesthesia ended up being Sturges' only flop during this period. More significantly, it marked the onset of a downturn from which Sturges did not fully recover.
Sturges was a temperamental talent who fully recognized his own worth. He had invested in entrepreneurial projects such as an engineering company and The Players, a popular restaurant and nightclub at 8225 Sunset Boulevard, which were both net losses. At one point the third highest paid man in America – for writing, directing, producing, and numerous other Hollywood projects – he was often known to borrow money (from his stepfather and studio, amongst others).
Millionaire Howard Hughes, who had formed a friendship with Sturges, offered to bankroll him as an independent filmmaker. In early 1944, Sturges and Hughes formed a partnership called California Pictures. The deal represented a major pay cut for Sturges, but it established him as a writer-producer-director, the only one in Hollywood besides Charles Chaplin and one of only four in the world, along with England's Noël Coward and France's René Clair. The status led, again, to widespread admiration and envy among his Hollywood peers.
However, this career peak also marked the beginning of Sturges' professional decline as Hughes proved an unstable and mercurial partner. While the startup California Pictures was being created and structured, it was three years until Sturges' next release. That film, a Harold Lloyd vehicle entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), for which Sturges had coaxed the silent film icon out of retirement, went over budget and far behind schedule, and was poorly received when it was released. Hughes, who had promised not to interfere in the film's production, stepped in and pulled the movie from distribution in order to re-edit it, taking almost four years to do so. Released in 1950 by RKO, which was by that time owned by Hughes, the retitled Mad Wednesday was no more successful than Sturges' original version.
In the meantime, California Pictures had put another film into production, Vendetta. At Hughes' behest, Sturges had written the script as a vehicle for Hughes' protégé, Faith Domergue. Max Ophüls was hired to direct, but after only a few days of filming, Hughes demanded that Sturges fire Ophüls and take over the direction himself. Seven weeks later, Sturges himself was fired or quit (accounts differ). The promising partnership between the two iconoclasts was dissolved after just one completed picture. As Sturges later recalled, "When Mr. Hughes made suggestions with which I disagreed, as he had a perfect right to do, I rejected them. When I rejected the last one, he remembered he had an option to take control of the company and he took over. So I left."
Coming on the heels of the failure of The Great Moment, these further flops, disappointments and setbacks served to tarnish the once stellar reputation of the golden boy of Hollywood.
Sturges was left professionally adrift. Accepting an offer from Darryl Zanuck, he landed at Fox where he wrote, directed, and produced two films. The first, Unfaithfully Yours (1948), was not initially well received by either reviewers or the public, though its critical reputation has since improved. However, his second Fox film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), was the first serious flop in star Betty Grable's career, and Sturges was again on his own. He built a theater at his Players restaurant, but the project did not pan out.
Over the next several years, Sturges continued to write, but many of the projects were underfunded or stillborn, and those that emerged did not approach the same success as his earlier triumphs. His 1951 Broadway musical, Make a Wish, underwent extensive rewriting by Abe Burrows and ran for only a few months. His next Broadway project, Carnival in Flanders, a musical which Sturges wrote and directed in 1953, closed after six performances.
Sturges was having no better luck in Hollywood, where his clout was gone. Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in the 1952 Broadway production of the George Bernard Shaw play, The Millionairess got Sturges to agree to adapt the script and direct. But she could not get a single Hollywood studio to back the project.
A 1953 lien by the Internal Revenue Service, with whom he had been having tax problems, cost Sturges the Players and other assets. Sturges put a brave public face on the situation, writing, "I had so very much for so very long, it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way for a while, and I really cannot and will not complain." However, his drinking became heavy, and his marriage and many of his relationships continued to deteriorate.
Sturges began spending more time in Europe, as he had as a young man. His last directorial effort took place there when he wrote and directed Les Carnets du Major Thompson, an adaptation of a popular French novel. The film was released in France in 1955 and two years later in the U.S., under the title The French, They Are a Funny Race. It failed to register with critics or the audience.
Sturges made four brief onscreen appearances during his career: in two of his own films – Christmas in July and Sullivan's Travels – in the Paramount all-star extravaganza Star Spangled Rhythm, and, in the years of his decline, in the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday, which was filmed in France and would be the last film he worked on. Two decades earlier, Sturges had been a writer on one of Hope's earliest film successes, Never Say Die.
Between flops, it is true, I have come up with an occasional hit, but compared to a good boxer's record, for instance, my percentage has been lamentable. I fought a draw in my first fight, stupified everyone by winning the championship in my second, got a couple of wins with picture rights, then was knocked out three times in a row. Dragging my weary carcass to Hollywood, I was immediately knocked out again, won a big fight some six months later, then marked time for six years as an ordinary ham-and-beaner, picking up what I could. Suddenly I saw a chance and offered to fight for the world championship for a dollar. To everyone's astonishment, I won that championship and defended it successfully for a number of years, winning nine times by knockout, fighting three draws, losing twice and getting one no-decision in Europe. I have just come over to America for a fight, but it was called off at the last moment, one of the promoters having gone nuts and having to have been locked up. Why I'm not walking on my heels after all this, I don't know. Maybe I am walking on my heels. It would be surprising if I weren't.
Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for a Sturges character to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene. Such versatility and dexterity can be seen in The Lady Eve, where a tender love scene takes place between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, which is enlivened by a horse as it repeatedly pokes its nose into Fonda's head.
Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel while writing his autobiography (which, ironically, he had intended to title The Events Leading Up to My Death), and was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His book, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words, was published in 1990. In 1975, he became the first writer to be given the Screen Writers Guild's Laurel Award posthumously. He has a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1601 Vine Street.