Preston Sturges Reviews

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Preston Sturges - The Filmmaker Collection (Sullivan's Travels/The Lady Eve/The Palm Beach Story/Hail the Conquering Hero/The Great McGinty/Christmas in July/The Great Moment)

Review Preston Sturges was the first prominent screenwriter to direct his own script. He went on an unparalleled creative streak that brought to the screen some of the most beloved films of all time. This collection pays tribute to seven of his finest and funniest films, starring cinema's most illustrious screen stars. The Great McGinty An opportunist (Brian Donlevy), turns corruption into a promising political career, but struggles to stay on top when he tries to go honest. Christmas in July Hope springs eternal when an office clerk (Dick Powell) mistakenly believes he's won a coffee slogan challenge and spends the "prize money". The Lady Eve It's the ultimate battle of the sexes when a wealthy heir (Henry Fonda) falls (literally!) for a con woman (Barbara Stanwyck) with a shady past. Sullivan's Travels In this comedic masterpiece, a wealthy director (Joel McCrea) wants to find "real" people for his next great film (co-starring Veronica Lake). The Palm Beach Story Money makes the world go 'round, or so Gerry (Claudette Colbert) believes when she divorces her struggling husband (McCrea) and supports him by marrying a millionaire. The Great Moment This stirring biopic follows the fascinating life of W.T.G. Morton (McCrea), a 19th century dentist who successfully develops the first anesthesia. Hail the Conquering Hero A quirky soldier (Eddie Bracken) gets an unexpected homecoming when a group of uproarious Marines decide to "make" a hero out of the comic misfit.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Review Preston Sturges was a 20th-century Renaissance man who, at Paramount Pictures between 1940 and 1943, wrote and directed eight original movies unlike anything before or since. All but one were high-energy, brilliantly detailed, and very, very funny comedies that became instant classics. No one ever dreamed up a more colorful assortment of characters, wrote more lovingly textured dialogue for them, or sent them hurtling and skittering through more outrageous situations, with undertones often darker than most dramatic films. Seven of these pictures comprise this boxed set; The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is missing because it remained with Paramount when most of the studio's pre-1949 inventory was acquired decades ago by Universal/MCA. (It's on DVD via Paramount.) The omission of a single film from the cycle--and one of the very best--is regrettable, but there's plenty here to relish.

Sturges was already an established playwright and screenwriter when he cajoled Paramount into letting him direct one of his own scripts. The Great McGinty won him the 1940 Oscar for best original screenplay, the raffish tale of a bum (Brian Donlevy) who ingratiates himself with the political machine of a heartland city by successfully voting 37 times in one election, then rises to become "reform" candidate for governor. The film is a glowing example of Sturges's penchant for filling the foregrounds as well as backgrounds of his movies with flavorful, mostly nameless character actors and according each of them star status, if only for one world-class line of dialogue. They and Sturges stood by one another throughout the cycle, and the result was a richness variously--and aptly--likened to Dickens or Bruegel.

Christmas in July (1940) followed, a sardonic but big-hearted comedy about a young working-class couple (Dick Powell and Ellen Drew) duped into believing one topsy-turvy afternoon that they've struck it rich by winning a slogan contest. Then came the film widely regarded as Sturges's most side-splitting, The Lady Eve (1941). Barbara Stanwyck is merciless--and breathtakingly sexy--as a second-generation con artist who targets brewing heir Henry Fonda, a clueless amateur herpetologist who has spent entirely too much time up the Amazon.

Then again, there are people who name Sullivan's Travels (1942) among the best films ever made. Joel McCrea plays a successful director of Hollywood comedies who decides he must make a social-consciousness allegory, O Brother Where Art Thou? His exploratory road trip disguised as a hobo, with starlet Veronica Lake for companionship, combines Hollywood satire with starkest drama verging on horror. The film is utterly unique and shatteringly powerful.

The Palm Beach Story (1942), a return to screwball comedy, dances a goofy tarantella on the American obsession with wealth. There are a couple of dozen millionaires at large in this movie, every one of them insane: Robert Dudley as a comic deus-ex-machina ("the Wienie King"), a railroad club car filled with Sturges stalwarts ("the Ale and Quail Club"), and '20s crooner Rudy Vallee ascending to character-actor immortality as the devoted suitor of Joel McCrea's runaway wife, Claudette Colbert. At that point (still in 1942) Sturges embarked on his most tortuous project, Triumph over Pain, the fact-based chronicle of the Boston dentist (Joel McCrea) who discovered the use of ether for anaesthesia. Instead of being canonized, he was destroyed. Sturges, whose 1933 screenplay The Power and the Glory had anticipated the fractured time scheme of Citizen Kane by eight years, tried for even more complicated narrative-in-reverse here--and also studded the tragic story with startling bursts of slapstick humor. Paramount recut the film drastically and changed the title to The Great Moment; the fitful results would not be released till two years later.

Meanwhile, Sturges scored a pair of best-screenplay Oscar nominations in 1944 for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, two small-town comedies starring Eddie Bracken as a nebbish ill-made for heroism yet obliged by wartime circumstance to rise to the occasion. Each of these films is a comic masterpiece, each asking discomfiting questions about cherished, arguably destructive American values, yet finding its own cockeyed way to affirmation. Miracle isn't available here, but Hail the Conquering Hero casts a lingering spell, beyond satire. To quote its last line: "You got no idea." --Richard T. Jameson

Ball of Fire (DVD)

Review A Hollywood director poses as a hobo for his next work, a serious social epic.
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington / It Happened One Night / You Can't Take It with You / Mr. Deeds Goes to Town / American Madness / Frank Capra's American Dream)

Review This wild tale of wacky wedlock from Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve) takes off like a rocket and never lets up. Joel McCrea (Sullivan’s Travels) and Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) play Tom and Gerry, a married New York couple on the skids, financially and romantically. With Tom hot on her trail, Gerry takes off for Florida on a mission to solve the pair’s money troubles, which she accomplishes in a highly unorthodox manner. A mix of the witty and the utterly absurd, The Palm Beach Story is a high watermark of Sturges’s brand of physical comedy and verbal repartee, featuring sparkling performances from its leads as well as hilarious supporting turns from Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor as a brother and a sister ensnared in Tom and Gerry’s high jinks.
Unfaithfully Yours (The Criterion Collection)

Review After a wild farewell party for the troops, Trudy Kockenlocker, a small-town girl with a soft spot for American soldiers, wakes up to find that she married someone and can’t remember his name. Even worse, he’s disappeared and she learns she’s pregnant!
The Sea Wolf [Blu-ray]

Review In this pitch-black comedy from legendary writer-director Preston Sturges, Rex Harrison stars as Sir Alfred De Carter, a world-famous symphony conductor consumed with the suspicion that his wife is having an affair. During a concert, the jealous De Carter entertains elaborate visions of vengeance, set to three separate orchestral works. But when he attempts to put his murderous fantasies into action, nothing works out quite as planned. A brilliantly performed mixture of razor-sharp dialogue and uproarious slapstick, Unfaithfully Yours is a true classic from a grand master of screen comedy.
The Elia Kazan Collection

Review Preston Sturges has his great run in 1940-44, with a series of comedy masterpieces unparalleled in Hollywood film. 1948's Unfaithfully Yours proves that he still had the touch, if only he could have found a supportive studio for his genius. (It would've helped if Unfaithfully Yours had been a hit, which it was not.) Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) is a witty, vain orchestra conductor, a celebrated man married to a beautiful woman (Linda Darnell). He becomes convinced of her infidelity, and while he is on the podium during a concert, he fantasizes three homicidal revenge fantasies--all set to the classics.

The conductor looks suspiciously like a self-portrait by Sturges, and the delicious dialogue comes pouring out of Rex Harrison like pearls from a goblet. The film's main disappointment is that it doesn't feature the teeming stock company of character actors that crowd Sturges's earlier pictures (although Rudy Vallee, Lionel Stander, and Edgar Kennedy come through nicely). The film, while morbid, is often laugh-out-loud funny, but it also has something sneakily brilliant to say about the gulf between art and life: how the exquisite timing and perfect mechanics of Sir Alfred's imagination come a-cropper when he actually tries to enact his fantasies. Unfaithfully Yours was remade in a not-bad version with Dudley Moore in 1984, but this one's the keeper. Too bad it couldn't save Sturges--this is the last worthy film in a too-brief career. --Robert Horton

Film Noir 10-Movie Spotlight Collection (Double Indemnity / Touch of Evil / This Gun for Hire / The Glass Key / Phantom Lady / The Blue Dahlia / Black Angel / The Killers / The Big Clock / Criss Cross)

Review Naturalist son of a wealthy tycoon comes out of the jungle after a year up the Amazon studying snakes. The games begin when, on board ship, he falls for a female cardsharp and they split on bad terms. Later she disguises herself and returns to tease and torment her former beau.

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