Preston Sturges emerged as one of Hollywood’s premier directors of the 1940’s via a circuitous path.
The product of a reasonably affluent Chicago family with artistic aspirations — his Paris-loving mother was an ardent admirer and close friend of dancer Isadora Duncan — he was explicitly encouraged to pursue a career in the arts, notably the theater.
Interestingly, Sturges resisted at first.
Enamored of his vigorous, athletic stepfather, Solomon Sturges, a wealthy broker, he had hoped to become like him, a successful businessman. It was after several business ventures and inventions (Sturges was an ardent amateur inventor his whole life) didn’t pan out that he turned to writing for the theater. There success was to be had via his hit 1929 comedy, Strictly Dishonorable.
Then came movie scripts including the successful 1933 saga The Power and the Glory with Spencer Tracy and 1935’s Diamond Jim with Edward Arnold. By 1940, Sturges was determined to direct as well as write. He offered Paramount of the script he was working on for $10 providing he direct the film — The Great McGinty, which started his impressive string of hits.
The movie — shot on a three-week schedule on a budget of about $350,000 — starred Brian Donlevy (pictured above and at the top of this blog) as the making of a corrupt politician who climbs his way to mayor and governor but winds up tending bar in a seedy Latin American bar. The picture cynically tells the story of just how he got there, and tells it well — Sturges won an Oscar for his screenplay.
Now, on to the answers to our Preston Sturges Quiz.
1) Question: This Forties Sturges film propelled him into Hollywood’s higher echelons as a writer-director of the first rank. Which one of the following did the trick? a) Christmas in July; b) The Lady Eve; c) The Great McGinty; or d) Never Say Die.
Answer: As noted above, (c) The Great McGinty.
2) Question: As a director/writer Sturges has been compared (mostly favorably) with Orson Welles. a) True; b) False.
Answer: a) True. 1933’s The Power and the Glory, which Sturges wrote, tells its story non-chronologically via a series of flashbacks, recollections of the film’s narrator. The technique was said to be a precursor to the telling of Charles Foster Kane’s story in Citizen Kane.
3) Question: Another Sturges picture, dealing with sexual content, miraculously evaded Hays office censorship, and became one of the director’s biggest box office hits. Can you name this film?
Answer: 1944’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which has Betty Hutton as the daughter of a small-town constable who becomes impregnated by a soldier she met one night, but resolves the situation by marrying the town dummy (Eddie Bracken). The Hays Office demanded various changes, but by and large the picture emerged unscathed.
4) Question: As mentioned, Sturges cultivated a faithful “stock company” of character actors who appeared in many of his pictures. Which one of the following was NOT among this group? a) Franklin Pangborn; b) William Demarest; c) Eric Blore; or d) Clifton Webb.
Answer: d) Clifton Webb.
5) Question: In the mid Forties, Sturges left the Paramount Pictures stable to form an independent production company partnered with which one of the following? a) Harry Cohn; b) Charlie Chaplin; c) Howard Hughes; or d) Darryl F. Zanuck.
Answer: c) Howard Hughes. By mid Forties, Sturges left Paramount and formed California Pictures Corp. in partnership with Hughes. It didn’t work out.