Preston Sturges was one of us. He was an Academy Award winner, actor, playwright and the first true screenwriter-director multi-hyphenate.
He is a reminder that “it” can happen for you, me, and all our friends with a lot of determination and tons of hard work.
In 1928, he was a Broadway actor, appearing in Paul Osborn’s “Hotbed”. In 1929, his playwriting career took off with his plays: a comedy “The Guinea Pig” and the romantic comedy “Strictly Dishonorable.”
“Dishonorable” is notable because it was his first hit earning him over $300,000, which would be about $4.1 million today. It was co-directed by none other than Tony Award namesake, Antoinette Perry.
After a couple of theatrical flops, he did what any good playwright does: he or she goes to Hollywood.
Off to Hollywood
Based on the success of “Strictly Dishonorable” he was able to land work as a freelance writer for Columbia, MGM, Paramount and Universal where he redefined screwball comedies and forever changed screen dialog writing from the stodginess of the early talkies to the more natural dialog we take for granted today.
In 1933, he sold his spec script of “The Power and the Glory” to Twentieth Century Fox. It became a star vehicle for Spencer Tracy and one of the inspirations for “Citizen Kane.” Fox paid him $17,500 (~$315,900 today) and, a then, unheard of percentage of the profits. Sturges would then settle into the studio system earning $2,500 (~$44,800) per week as a screenwriter.
Eventually, he would grow frustrated by how directors handled his dialog. He decided to take control of his destiny and sold “The Great McGinty” to Paramount for $10 (~$168.95 today) and the opportunity to direct, thus making him the first Hollywood writer to direct his own script.
“McGinty” would bring Sturges the very first Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay” in 1940.
The following year, in 1941, Sturges created his masterpiece with “Sullivan’s Travels” starring Joel McCrea and the insanely beautiful Veronica Lake.
“Sullivan’s Travels” is part road picture and part satire. It is the story of Hollywood comedy director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) who has tired of making of making banal comedies and wants to make a serious picture based on a fictional book about the depression called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The Coen Brothers film of the same name is a reference to it and some scenes are an homage to it.
The only problem is, he’s rich and doesn’t know the first thing about being affected by the depression. He then dresses as a hobo, finds an open boxcar and hits the railroad. He encounters “The Girl” (Lake and yes, that was the character’s name), an actress about to give up on her dream, who takes pity on him and buys him breakfast.
A few funny bits later, The Girl finds out Sullivan is really a director and joins him on his quest.
What follows was a bold depiction of the depression era that, for those of us born long after it’s end, we can’t even imagine: mobs of starving people, open access to dangerous rail yards, multiple assaults, amnesia, and chain gangs. It also features a rare instance in films of that era where people of color were treated with respect.
Perhaps the most moving sequence of the movie is when Sullivan has his epiphany and realizes that comedy does far more for people than any drama will. This occurs while he is watching “Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto” in Southern African-American church with church congregants and other chain gang members. This sequence was, at the time, considered quite ground breaking. Walter F. White, then Secretary of the NAACP called it a “dignified and decent treatment” of African-Americans in film.
Sturges’ greatest bit of output was between 1939 and 1944 where he wrote and directed seven features of which “Easy Living,” “Remember the Night,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” and “The Great McGinty” are still considered some of the best films of all time and have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sadly, from 1945 until his death, Sturges was unable to recapture the magic of his earlier work despite directing another five films and writing ten.
On August 6th, 1959, died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York City.
Those of us who freely and proudly enjoy the moniker of writer-director owe a debt of gratitude to Preston Sturges; the man who held the title first and blazed a trail for all of us.