Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Screwball Life of Preston Sturges--Part 1

Preston Sturges, screwball comedy auteur.

Playwright/screen writer/Director Preston Sturges was known as the king of the screwball comedy but with an eccentric/bohemian upbringing and his own star crossed romantic life including four wives, the urbane master could have been a character in one of his own films.
He was born on August 29, 1898 as Edmund Preston Biden in Chicago to a second generation Irish lass, Mary Estelle Dempsey, and the proverbial traveling salesman, Edmund C. Biden.  His father, the first of Mary’s several husbands and strings of lovers was soon out of the picture and his mother was off to Paris to pursue her dream of being a singer.  She obtained an annulment from Biden, questionable under U.S. law, in France.   Mary wed and disposed of a second husband. 
Young Preston with his beautiful bohemian mother in 1901.
Bouncing back and forth between continents, Mary wed wealthy and proper stockbroker Solomon Sturges in 1902 who adopted the toddler and gave him his name and financial security.  The senior Sturges disapproved of his wife’s bohemianism—what did he expect?  She spent much of her time with her son in France.  There she became associated with modern dance diva and avant garde icon Isadora Duncan.  As a child Preston often lived out of a trunk on Duncan’s tours.   Mary wed and disposed of a second husband and had an affair with English author and occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom she collaborated on his master work Magick.  As a child Preston often lived out of a trunk on Duncan’s tours.  Preston became fluent in French and considered France more of a home than the U.S. which he saw only sporadically and became a life-long Francophile. 
With war raging in Europe Preston returned to the U.S. in 1916 probably at the insistence of his mother to keep him from enlisting in the French Army.  His adopted father got him a job as a runner at the New York Stock Exchange in hopes it would lead to a successful, stable career. But the young man took to it like a duck to the Sahara and couldn’t imagine a more dreadful and dull prospect.
Sturges as an Army aviation cadet at Camp Dick in Texas in 1918.
The American entry into the War saved him from that fate.  No one could stop him from enlisting in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from which he entered the Army Air Service and graduated as a pilot and lieutenant from Camp Dick in Texas in 1918, too late to see active service in France.  But a smart uniform lent just the right amount of irresistible dash to the handsome young man when he returned to New York and it nightlife.
Rather than settling into a brokerage seat, Sturges miraculously was tapped as a manager of his mother’s fashionable beauty product boutique the Desti Emporium—named for a corruption of one of her Irish grandfather’s names, the Anglo/Norman d’Este—an indulgence from yet another husband. Purveyors of upscale accouterments the store had a glittering clientele.  Old friend Isadora Duncan was strangled by a Desti scarf in her famous final accident.  Evidently the position was not too demanding and left plenty of time for him to prowl as a young man about town in the Gatsby era Big Apple.
In 1922 Sturges began living with an older married woman, Estelle De Wolfe in an apartment he personally designed behind the Brooklyn plant that manufactured items for the store.  The couple were married a year later after Estelle’s divorce.  Their happiness was interrupted when his mother returned from Paris after disastrous marriage number 5 and demanded to take control of the business which Sturges believed had been given to him. Forced out, he and his mother fell into a  bitter estrangement.  Through a nasty legal battle, he did retain ownership of a lip stick brand he had developed, which gave him a modest income.
His relationship with Estelle, which bordered on obsessive, ended abruptly in 1925 when she suddenly announced that she didn’t love him anymore.  Heartbroken, he considered suicide while staying with his adopted father in Chicago.  Mary returned from Paris to reconcile with him and comfort him.  She even returned control of Desti to him and his father promised $1000 a month to underwrite reestablishing the business.  He also gave Mary a similar monthly stipend to return to Paris where she again became Duncan’s companion.
At loose ends, Sturges turned his attention to the stage.  Back at Camp Davis he had published an essay called Three Hundred Words of Humor which revealed a flair for comedic writing.  He began to tinker with using that skill in scripts.  He also tinkered with songwriting, including the libretto for a failed operetta.  Recuperating from a nearly fatal bout of appendicitis, he wrote a hospital comedy from his sick bed.  He jettisoned that effort but responded to the taunts of an actress he was seeing who told him she was writing a play about a bore and he was the model, he dashed off a new comedy, The Guinea Pig, which he managed to get staged as a summer stock production by the Warf Player in fashionable Provincetown, Rhode Island. 
The play got excellent notices and Sturges tried to interest Broadway producers who were unwilling to give an unknown a try.  He charmed the wealthy hostess of a party at which he read excerpts from the play into backing a shoestring production with $2,500.  The modest production opened just after Christmas of 1928 and attracted the attention of major critics who had no other new productions to see.  It got excellent notices and ran for 56 performances, very respectable for a small independent production.  Sturges was now on the Broadway radar.
Meanwhile, he picked up work as a stage manager and ensemble cast member in touring productions.  A script that Sturges dashed off in just six day was picked up by producer/director Brock Pemberton with whom he had worked as a stage manager.  Strictly Dishonorable was set in a venue the author had intimate familiarity  with—a speakeasy operated by low level Italian gangsters. Pemberton and members of the cast all tinkered with the script, which Sturges first resented but ultimately embraced as a model of the theater as a collaborative art form.
The play, co-directed by Antoinette Perry was an astonishing success and ran for 557 performances at the Avon Theater from September 18, 1929 to January 1931 surviving the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression which killed many shows.  Sturges made a life changing $300,000 from the production, a fortune at the time.  

A suave Paul Lucas starred in the film version of Sturges's Broadway hit Strictly Dishonorable.
Shortly after the Broadway run ended Universal Pictures paid Sturges a near record $125,000 for the film rights.  Although Sturges was not directly involved further in the production and was not credited as the screenwriter, most of his dialogue was left intact, as was the boatload of sexual innuendo  because it was a pre-production code film.  The movie starred Paul Lucas as a suave Italian opera singer who in reality was an Italian-American risen from the slums, Sydney Fox as a virginal but romance hungry Southern belle, George Meeker as her sappy and officious fiancé, and Lewis Stone as a world wise judge and reluctant referee in the love triangle.  The film, released on December 31, 1931, was also a hit and helped make Sturges in demand in Tinsel town.
Before turning his attention to Hollywood, however, Sturges returned to Broadway with Recapture, a comedy/drama based on his tumultuous relationship with his first wife.  In it a jilted husband sets out to re-win the wife who left him.  He succeeds in the second act and in the third she falls down an elevator shaft to her death.  Critics and audiences both hated his thinly veiled romantic revenge fantasy.   Two other Broadway plays, including a musical also flopped.
Second wife Eleanor Post Hutton was an heiress who would file for an annulment and go on to many more marriages.
Escaping his flops and spending his new wealth on with his yacht in Palm Beach, Florida in 1930 Sturges met and wooed socialite Eleanor Post Hutton, an heiress to the Post Cereal and other fortunes. The pair eloped but their stormy relationship ended in an annulment less than two years later after she fled to Europe to pursue singing lessons—a bizarre replay of the story of his natural father and mother.  To make it more poignant, his mother returned in poor health having never recovered from the death of Isadora Duncan and died in April of 1931, just weeks before his wife’s departure.
By the end late 1930 Sturges was already doing short term contract work at Paramount and establishing himself as a screenwriter.  He worked on several films, both credited and uncredited at several studios and by mid-decade was making a good income of about $2,500 a week.  But he was unhappy with the gang of writers, dialogue and script consultants, directors and producers who contributed to most films.  His first screen credit was for English dialogue for Maurice Chevalier’s The Big Pond/La grande mere   (simultaneously produced in both languages) with Claudette Colbert.
After participation in several other projects  finally broke through in 1933 with an original screen play partially based on his ex-wife’s grandfather C.W. Post.  Sturges sold The Power and the Glory to Fox as a star vehicle for Spencer Tracy.  Producer Jesse Lasky paid and astronomical $17,500 for the script plus 7% of the profits above $1 million, an unprecedentedly rich deal for a screen writer.  And Lasky didn’t even turn it over to a gang of writers for an overhaul, as was customary. “It was the most perfect script I’d ever seen” he said, “Imagine a producer accepting a script from an author and not being able to make one change.”

The Power and the Glory was Sturges's first solo screen play and starred Colleen Moore and Spencer Tracy.
The innovative script used flash backs and flash forwards to trace the rise of a tycoon from scruffy railroad track walker to king of the boardroom.  It heavily influenced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane years later.  The film also starred silent movie queen Coleen Moore as the tycoon’s neglected wife and Ralf Morgan as the surrogate father figure who guided him in his early years and witnessed the estrangement with his family because of his obsession with success and narrates the story after witnessing the funeral.  Highly regarded in first release, the film almost disappeared and was once considered lost but has been restored and revived on TCM and other classic movie outlets. 
Despite this success, which Sturges said drew as much resentment as admiration from other screen writers.  And he was right back to working on short term contracts without creative control of his work.  Meanwhile, he spent his money lavishly on comfortable living, chasing actresses, and side projects like a company to produce gadgets  he invented and tinkered with  and his own night spot, the Players Club.
Preston Sturges with third wife Louise Sargent Tevis and son Solomon Sturges IV.
In 1938 Sturges eloped again, this time to Reno with former actress Louise Sargent Tevis who he had met at the Players Club.  At least for a time, it seemed that he had at last found elusive familial happiness which grew with the birth of his son, Solomon Sturges IV in 1941.
Among the films Sturges worked on, sometime uncredited, over the next several years were both classics and programmers, Among the most notable were The Invisible Man, The Twentieth Century, Claudette Colbert’s original version of Fanny Hurst’s Imitation of Life, bio-pic Diamond Jim, Hotel Haywire which was another original screen play but produced as a Paramount B movie starring Leo Carrillo of all people, the Ronald Coleman swashbuckler If I Were King, and his first full on screwball comedy Remember the Night with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in 1940. 
The success of the last film finally got Paramount to give Sturges what he had always wanted—total control of a picture.  Of course to get it, Sturges had to make the studio an offer they couldn’t refuse—the script for only $1 in exchange for the director’s chair and complete final control.  For legal reasons that was upped to $10, but still a hell of a bargain.    Thus began Sturges’s golden run as undisputed master of the screwball comedy.  

Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelis, and Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty which earned Sturges an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
In The Great McGinty Brian Donlevy played a hobo whose unexpected talent for vote fraud causes his spectacular rise in the corrupt political machine run by the ruthless Boss played by Akim Tamiroff.  He moves from alderman, to phony reform mayor, to the governorship.  Along the way he acquires a wife of convenience with two children and adorable wiener dogs.  The couple surprise themselves by actually falling in love and the good woman, played by English film star Muriel Angelis, convinces him to go straight and do the right thing by the Voters.  McGinty has to skip the county—and leave behind the family he finally deserves to escape prison.  The virtuous wife was said to be a tribute to his own new bride.  The picture owes undoubted debt to Frank Capra but crackles with Sturges’s sharper dialog.  The writer won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 1941.
His next Paramount outing was not quite the same box office bombshell as the The Great McGinty, but was a charming preview has his more famous films of the next few years.  Christmas in July, based on his unproduced 1931 play A Cup of Coffee.  In the film, much changed from the original play but with the same central idea, a dreamer played by Dick Powell who habitual enters—and loses—radio contests fantasizes about winning a $25,000 prize for a new Maxwell House Coffee jingle—an early example of prominent product placement in a film.  It’s all he can talk about and his irritated co-workers conspire to play a cruel joke on him.  They forge a telegram saying that he won the big prize.  Elated, his good fortune seems to grow when his impressed boss gives him a promotion and a raise.  He spends lavishly on gifts for all of his friends and co-workers, and has the courage to ask his longtime girlfriend, Ellen Drew of the legendary Barrymore clan,  to marry him.  Of course when the truth comes out there are consequences and lessons for everyone.  The film is also notable for firming up Sturges’s stock company of supporting players who enlivened his best films with memorable characters.  They included William Demarest, wall eyed Raymond Walburn, prissy Franklin Pangborn, and Harry Rosenthal an actor/pianist/composer who went back to Sturges’s Broadway days.

Stars Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and director Preston Sturges on the set of The Lady Eve.
Next up was a true masterpiece that began with germ of  Sturges’s failed Palm Beach marriage  and his comedic but complicated thoughts about veiled identities, love, and marriage.  And yet it is not autobiographical the way his Broadway failure Recapture was.  In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman who falls for her mark, Henry Fonda as a naïve beer fortune heir, on a cruise from Latin America.  The attraction is mutual but just when she is about to renounce her villainous ways and leave behind her swindling clan including father Charles Coburn, Eric Blore, and the ever present Demarest the sap discovers the truth and rejects her with a cruel and moralistic speech.  To get revenge Stanwyck invents a new identify with a new hair color and swankier clothes, Lady Eve Sidwich who ingratiates herself with his wealthy family—father Eugene Pallette and mother Janet Beecher and wins his heart—and marriage ring.  Complications are many, especially after the phony Eve realizes that the real Jean actually loves the mope she’s trapped.  

Tomorrow:  Part II--Peak and decline.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Was this guy naturally such an ants in his pants kinda person, or was he prescribed some sorta mood enhancer like amhetamines? He never sat still.