Sunday, March 4, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Preston Sturges

PLEASE READ THE BEGINNING OF THIS POST, EVEN IF YOU USUALLY SKIP THIS SERIES. It contains some new information that may cause you to reconsider, which you'll need to know about for next time.

Welcome to year two of Getting Acquainted.

Didn't realize there was a whole year one? Or more accurately, realized it, but generally skipped these posts, either because they were too long or because they were about movies you hadn't seen?

I understand. Believe me, I do.

In fact, I eventually considered it a chore to write about these three featured movies each month. Not a chore to see them, though my schedule did sometimes make it difficult to watch the third before the end of the month. No, the chore was simply in the writing. It's because I'd gotten myself into the habit of feeling like I needed to expound on each film at length, almost like I were giving a full review including plot summary. See, the plot summary became more necessary because the films were older, meaning there was a greater likelihood you didn't know what they were about. Plus, writing about these films sometimes four weeks after I saw them, I often forgot what I really wanted to say, but felt pressure to devote an equal number of words to them as I devoted to the ones I saw more recently.

In fact, the reason I'm continuing this blog series into a second year -- by far the longest duration of any of my previous series -- is because I have really enjoyed watching these movies. That was the whole point of the exercise to begin with -- to watch more older movies, and familiarize myself with titans of the movie industry whose work had thus far eluded me. The point wasn't to write a particularly compelling or exhaustive blog post at the end of each month -- that was just a logical side product of watching the movies. But then I placed too much emphasis on the writing of the post, making me resent the series on the whole. It was poorly spent consternation, since fewer people are likely to even read a post about movies and talents they can't relate to from their own watching experiences.

So: Format change!

For year two, I'm going to do the following:

1) Start with a little introduction to the person and tell you why I chose him/her. This does not need to be very long and it does need to tell you everything you might want to know about this person. It just needs to establish a few reasons why he/she interested me. This I have already been doing.

2) I will write about each movie, but the format will be designed to present certain necessary information, followed by a single paragraph on my general impressions of the film. I don't care if it's the greatest film I've ever seen -- I'm not going to go on about it for ten paragraphs. Neither you nor I have the time.

3) At the end of each post, I'm going to tell you who I'm watching the following month. I didn't do this previously because I thought there was some value in surprising you. I've decided that's stupid. The real value, if there is any, is allowing you to watch along with me, if you are so inclined. Then you'll definitely be interested in reading the next month's post. In order for you to be able to do that, I'll also tell you which films I expect to watch, with the caveat that these are subject to change.

So. I better stop now or this post will be even longer than the ones I wrote last year.

Preston Sturges! He was someone I wanted to watch for a number of reasons, one of which was that I always confuse him with W.C. Fields. There is no real reason for this. Sturges was a playwright, screenwriter and director who lived between 1898 and 1959. Fields was a comedian, writer and juggler (!) who lived between 1880 and 1946. Their lives overlapped, and they both worked in the medium of comedy, but otherwise it's unclear why I associate them in my mind. In fact, if you google their names together, you only get mentions of them together in longer lists that include other people.

But more recently I'd heard some of his films mentioned on Filmspotting, my weekly film podcast bible. In fact, two of the films I watched came up for discussion on the podcast in the past year. The third was a recommendation from someone in the Flickcharters group on Facebook. If I didn't have my choices already curated for me by these various recommendations, I might have chosen differently, if only because these films represent only a small sliver of his career, all coming out in either 1940 or 1941. I usually like to sample from different time periods. However, it seems this period does represent Sturges at the peak of his talents, so that's a good approach to choosing titles as well.

Generally I knew that Sturges' films were marked by smart dialogue, possibly by fast line deliveries (the kind you get in a movie like His Girl Friday), and maybe some good physical comedy. What else characterized them? I was about to find out ...

The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)
Watched: Friday, February 3rd
One sentence plot synopsis: A homeless grifter (Brian Donlevy), recruited to participate in a voting fraud scheme, catches the eye of organized criminals and rises through the rigged political ranks to become governor of the state.
My thoughts on the film: The Great McGinty was a wonderful introduction to Sturges. The humor in this political satire felt fresh, sharp and not the least bit dated, and I caught myself laughing aloud more frequently than I usually do with older films. Credit for much of the laughter goes to Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, who plays the political boss with whom McGinty is always bickering. Aside from just being funny, though, the film shrewdly presents the ways in which a total fraud can be marketed and publicized into a figurehead capable of winning elections -- either rigged elections or legitimate ones. Given what I thought I knew about Sturges -- that he might really tell it like it is, without offering up any redemption for his characters -- I was surprised to see the film grow a conscience at the end, something that did not take away in the slightest from the scathing indictment of human nature presented earlier. Well played!

The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
Watched: Saturday, February 18th
One sentence plot synopsis: A father-and-daughter pair of card sharps (Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn) set their sights on an heir to a beer fortune (Henry Fonda) returning via ship from a year on the Amazon ... until she unexpectedly falls for her target.
My thoughts on the film: This film is a lot more like a straight screwball comedy. The Lady Eve of the title doesn't even appear until the second half, when the exposed card sharp played by Stanwyck tries to pass herself off as a different person in her attempt to win Fonda's character a second time -- part for sport, part for revenge at being spurned by him after he discovers her treacherous past. It takes the certain suspension of disbelief that's always necessary in a screwball comedy to believe that he would really be duped a second time -- that he wouldn't know it was the card sharp dressed up as a member of the British royal class. But the scenario works because the actors sell it, especially Stanwyck, whom I did not consciously know previously but fell in love with during this deft performance. Fonda makes a great straight-man dufus alongside her truly skillful and hilarious work. I'd say the story gets a bit silly near the end, but there are some pretty sharp observations about the behaviors of the male and female human being, not to mention enough physical comedy to just make the whole thing feel like a hoot.

Sullivan's Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
Watched: Friday, February 24th
One sentence plot synopsis: When a successful Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) wants to leave behind frivolous studio comedies and direct something serious about the poor, his bosses tell him he doesn't have the hard upbringing necessary to make such a movie -- so he decides to live among drifters to gain the necessary perspective.
My thoughts on the film: I was in love with this film for about its first two-thirds. Sullivan's heartfelt attempts to live a hardscrabble existence are repeatedly frustrated by his overbearing bosses and other handlers, who are all hilarious, and he keeps ending up back in Los Angeles through no fault of his own -- he just can't escape. When he picks up a failed starlet (Veronica Lake), things just get more juicy. But I was a bit thrown by the third act shift in focus, when Sullivan gets knocked unconscious by a vagrant and loses his memory, proceeding to commit a crime and receive a jail sentence. It was a tonal shift as well, and although the final five minutes of the movie redeem the choice, it still left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. But I really enjoyed the film overall, and was especially glad to be exposed to Veronica Lake for what I believe is the first time -- I know Lake primarily from the joke about her in L.A. Confidential. Maybe I'll have to get "better acquainted" with her sometime ...

Conclusion: I really enjoyed my Sturges month and am ready for more. After a couple-month break.

Favorite of the three: The Great McGinty

Next month: It's Jerry Lewis time. I'll be watching the erstwhile muscular dystrophy spokesman in At War With the Army, The Nutty Professor and The King of Comedy. I think.

Hope you enjoy the new format and I hope to see you here next month ...


Travis McClain said...

You know, you probably ought to have broken this up into two posts because the rundown on this series and its changes is lengthy enough that I had forgotten Preston Sturges was even part of where we were headed.

I've only seen Sullivan's Travels of the three you've cited. I'm surprised/disappointed you didn't note the obvious influence it had on O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I understand what you mean about the tonal change in Act III, and I'm inclined to agree. It didn't bother me as it did you, however.

I thought about this film quite a lot last October when I was hospitalized for my depression. One of the things that really had me down was feeling worthless and useless, because of how Crohn's disease has kept me out of being much of a contributor.

In the hospital, though, I was able to find my voice again and be reminded how valuable it is to have someone who just understands what you're going through. I was able to ask questions in group sessions, for instance, that other patients wanted to ask but were too timid to ask, or didn't quite know how to phrase. Also, I was able to offer anecdotes of my own that some found helpful. After each session, at least a few patients would privately thank me for what I had said or asked.

Above all, though, it was my ability to help make the patients laugh and feel at ease that allowed them to accept being where we were and to begin the process of addressing their assorted issues.

I had dreaded being hospitalized, convinced that--despite the fact I had nearly committed suicide on more than one occasion in the previous year--I didn't really belong there. I was certain I would be surrounded by people who had endured heinous physical and sexual abuse, survived wars, that kind of thing and would look at me and say, "Quit whining about your stupid guts! Some of us have real problems!"

Instead, what I found were a lot of people who were hurting and trying to find something to believe in about themselves again and who needed not just inspiration, but companionship.

I'll never forget sitting there on 8 October during the middle of one session and as I had a room full of patients laughing at some quip or other, I conjured the image of Joel McRae sitting there in the theater surrounded by the other inmates and I realized then and there why I have the talents I have and what value they really can have. I shared that epiphany with the group and recommended the film. One or two older patients recalled it, which was nice.

Vancetastic said...


I didn't note the influence on O Brother because I'm actually not a huge fan of that film. I actually think of that film to be more influenced by The Odyssey, but you may be right that there's a relationship with Sullivan's. I'd have to think about it more.

I'm glad to have written about a film that had an obvious influence on one of my readers. It's funny, I was worried I was writing about older films that weren't relevant to my readers, then I struck upon one that was quite relevant, quite by chance.

That's good that this film was "there for you" in your time of need. You of course know I sympathize with what you're going through from other discussions we've had, and I wish you the continued best in that regard.

Travis McClain said...

Oh, certainly the greater influence on O Brother was Homer, not Sturges. It's my belief, though, that Sullivan's Travels played a significant role in the adaptation process; that is to say, it provided the paradigm for the setting and aesthetics, as well as that specific scene in the theater. I don't believe the framing and blocking of that sequence was anything other than a direct homage to Sturges.

The greater point I hoped to make in sharing my experience was that there is a power to film that perhaps in our every day lives, we overlook. It is in a situation like mine where I feel film reveals itself most as an art form; simultaneously depicting and influencing the human experience. Indeed, that is the very thesis of Sullivan's Travels and I think that's why it struck me so poignantly.