King of Comedy

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    Essential Sturges

    Dec. 24-Jan. 1 at Film Forum I’ll just go ahead and say it: Without Preston Sturges, modern movies wouldn’t be funny. The first Hollywood screenwriter to become a successful writer-director, Sturges assembled the screwball comedy formula as high art and bawdy entertainment in a neatly arranged package. The 10 features playing at Film Forum’s Essential Sturges series from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 contain the highlights from his speed run in the 1940s, illustrating the seeds of virtually every mainstream comedy. The imperfections of the imitators, however, merely illustrate the near-perfection of Sturges’ carefully calibrated skill. Sturges’ stories display a humanitarian’s impulse, with the punch lines serving as a well-oiled pathway to sharply observed morality plays. He often deals with feisty couples assailed by monetary woes, class snobbery or political corruption. None of these tribulations have aged in 60 years, hence the remarkable timelessness of the Sturges oeuvre. Despite the thematic density, Strurges tended to construct basic, synopsis-friendly plots. His directorial debut, The Great McGinty (1940)—which won Sturges his only Oscar—follows an accidental governor on a power trip that gives way to a sense of duty to the public. The Palm Beach Story (1942) stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a divorce-bound couple whose marriage gets saved by a last-minute display of affection. In The Lady Eve (1941), Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman smitten with the naive explorer she’s meant to swindle. These rudimentary outlines could serve as fodder for overwrought sentimental mush, but Sturges enlivens them with incessantly delightful verbal combat and dedication to the unexpected.

    While you can’t say the same for his imitators, the ambition is there. John Hughes’ teen comedies of the 1980s contain miniaturized Sturges characters, while the entire premise of Knocked Up seems like an inflated version of Sturges’ classic The Miracle of Morgan Creek (1944), in which a traveling soldier inadvertently knocks up a young beauty of his own. But Knocked Up offers up sophomoric jokes to fill in the cracks in the story, whereas Morgan Creek never leaves the realm of plausibility. If Hughes was Sturges’ youth incarnation, then Judd Apatow represents Sturges as fast food.

    On an entirely separate plain of inspiration, Joel and Ethan Coen have repeatedly lifted more style than substance from Sturges. O Brother Where Art Thou? takes its title from the movie-within-a-movie of Sullivan’s Travels (1941), where Sturges considered laughter as a cure for Depression-era blues—the centerpiece of Brother. Elsewhere, the Coens have written characters as gigantic quotation marks culled from Sturges’ universe, particularly with the fast talkers in The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty. Sturges has also been cited as an influence by none other than Vince Vaughn, although he hasn’t proven it yet. Vaughn’s collaboration with director Peyton Reed on Down with Love instead paid homage to the fluffy Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies of the 1950s — relics from an uptight age.

    For Sturges, the Great Depression was a narrative goldmine. When an automat breaks down in 1937’s Easy Living (directed by Mitchell Leisen from Sturges’ screenplay) the resulting feeding frenzy illustrates the desperation of the underclass. Sturges perfected this angle with Sullivan’s Travels—one of the best movies ever made—when a hotshot Hollywood filmmaker decides he wants to learn about the lives of poor people and inadvertently becomes one himself. Sturges had loads of contempt for upper-class snobbery. “Now that you’re a capitalist, I don’t know how you feel about working for a living,” a high-powered advertisement executive tells newly wealthy employee Dick (Jimmy MacDonald) in Christmas in July (1940), a delightfully unpredictable twist on the conventional holiday-movie formula.

    In 2000, the British Film Institute asked several contemporary filmmakers to explain their Sturges obsession. Peter Farrelly, noting that Sturges’ work was frequently considered an influence on There’s Something About Mary, extolled his predecessor for “keeping you off balance.” True, but it’s more delicate than that. When a Sturges movie makes you laugh, it’s never at the expense of making you think. Baz Luhrmann nailed it: “What I really relish is the way [Sturges] strikes a balance between high tragedy and comedy, making the transition in as little as a single gesture.” That unlikely duality unfolds in virtually all Sturges movies, but few examples are better than Remember the Night—another early Sturges screenplay directed by Leisen—which opens Film Forum’s series on a double bill with Christmas in July. In Night, Sturges gives us a fork-tongued prosecutor who ends up bailing out the defendant on Christmas Eve and falls for her. Remarkably, his pathos leads her to re-evaluate her thieving habit, setting up a moving climax that’s both tough to watch and irresistible. With this seamless maneuver, Sturges proves that some of the best happy endings are the sad ones.