Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Preston Sturges and the 40s

A talented comedian of my acquaintence, Phil Austin, upon being asked who his favourite director was, answered Preston Sturges. I had seen Sturges' Sullivan's Travels in film class in 1972. I remember enjoying it immensely, but little about it. The local classic dvd store had no Sturges, so I signed up for Zip.Ca, the Canuck equivalent of Netflix in order to see more of Sturges' work. Another Firesign Theatre friend, David Ossman named his youngest son Preston in honour of this director. I had to see his work!
The first DVD that arrived in the mail was Miracle at Morgan's Creek. It starts out really funny. Austin called it the oddest war story, and to some extent it was that. The special features of the DVD told how the flick subverted the Hayes Code rules but that's too long ago to matter to a watcher in 2007. It reminded me of Its' a Wonderful Life, even though critics called Sturges the anti-Capra. Certainly his work is more cynical, subversive in the sense that Tom Paine and The Firesign Theatre are subversive, in that they imagine a better world is possible. Both Capra and Sturges seem to grow healthily in that American sunlight only Hollywood can create. All the Sturges flicks I saw were numinous in that sense.
Following Morgan, I saw the noirish Rex Harrison vehicle, from toward the end of Sturges' career, Unfaithfully Yours. The commentary by Terry Jones was particularly enjoyable. In general, the commentarys on all the DVDs were profoundly meaningful to me as a one time student of film and as someone who grew up among film people. Terry Jones figured it was too complex, too adult to be successful. I thought its slapstick strangely unfunny and Rudy Valee not nearly as amusing as his character was supposed to be. Jones was also bowled away by the dialogue. That's true in all 4 Sturges films I've seen thusfar. It is amazing dialogue. It's so fast. Like the Firesign goal of making us use our brains at greater efficiency, Sturges must have wanted to do the same with his audiences, or perhaps just make them have to see the films repeatedly to get all the jokes.
Seeing Sullivan's Travels again after 35 years was even more enchanting than the first time. What a perfect movie! There isn't anything you can say about it. Go rent it and let its numinous hilarity pour over you.
Austin had claimed The Palm Beach Story as his favourite Sturges so I thought it would have to be amazing to beat Sullivan's Travels. For me, it didn't. The Joel McCrae character you cheered for in Sullivan seemed more pathetic in this flick. Great dialogue, but that's a given with Sturges. The Claudette Colbert person seemed too old for her role, as if she had been beautiful long, long ago, and refused to leave that world in her mind, though her face told other tales.
While watching all of these movies from the 40s, I thought about my parents watching them when they first came out. They were young then, younger than most of the actors on the screen. Did they delight in Sturges in their day? There is something so much of that era, the 40s, the days of their youth in his films. The well-lit idealism. A different, alien world to me but thankfully I have Sturges to show me that world.


At 12:16 PM, Blogger Alan Smith said...

Sullivan's Travels is a sad and moving story couched inside a light comedy. It's the Jerry Maguire of the 40s. I'm surpised nobody's pegged it for a remake.



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