Preston Sturges, king of comedy.

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Nov. 22 2006 6:29 AM

The Miracle of Preston Sturges

The comic genius who made eight comedies in four years.

Preston Sturges DVD box set

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek stars Betty Hutton as a boy-crazy small-town girl named Trudy who goes to a dance for departing soldiers and winds up drunk, married, and pregnant. She wakes up fuzzy on the details, and her soldier husband, who's off to war, has apparently forgotten her, too. So, she enlists the sap who's always loved her in a scheme to undo her marriage. Nine months later, he's in jail and she has sextuplets. The crooked governor sees tourist revenue in this "miracle," and he fixes everything so the girl and the sap are married ("retroactively"), the previous marriage is annulled ("never happened"), and the new husband and "father" is a colonel in the state guard (a nervous condition kept him out of the war). The result is much more than tourists: When Hitler and Mussolini get word of the "Platoon Born in Midwest" (one of many newspaper headlines), they both surrender.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

James Agee, in his review of Morgan's Creek for The Nation, said that the Hays office—responsible for policing Hollywood's then comically strict sexual standards—had been "raped in its sleep." And it wasn't just the sexual shenanigans: The movie also savages, in Agee's words, "the sanctity of law, order, parenthood, and the American home—to say nothing of a number of cherished pseudo-folk beliefs about bright-lipped youth, childhood sweethearts, Mister Right, and the glamor of war." He might have mentioned blasphemy, too: The "miracle" sextuplets are born on Christmas Day. Oh, and the movie was the box office smash of 1944.

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Today, such a production would no doubt be pilloried as a liberal assault on small-town America and our fine men and women in uniform. We may live in an age of satire, but, as Paul Lewis suggests in the new book Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, these days, we tend to laugh less at ourselves and more at the other political side. Humor is just one more weapon in the culture wars. (Fox News has recently announced plans for a conservative Daily Show.) In 1944, on the other hand, and despite the rising casualty numbers, Morgan's Creek was embraced by Americans of all stripes. Perhaps it's easier to mock soldiers when there's a draft on and half the jerks everyone knows are risking their lives for the survival of democracy. Or perhaps Americans simply had enough confidence and optimism to laugh freely at their own pieties.

It helped that Preston Sturges was making the jokes. Morgan's Creek was his seventh movie since 1940, the year he offered a screenplay to Paramount for a dollar on the condition that he direct it, thus becoming Hollywood's first true writer-director. He was not, however, your standard-model auteur: neither a visual perfectionist, like Hitchcock, nor an innovator on the scale of Welles, nor the director of "serious" movies with "big ideas" like those of Capra. And he has not, in the years since, received the Great Artist treatment like those other directors: Four of the eight movies he made between 1940 and 1944 ("one of the most brilliant and bizarre bursts of creation in the history of cinema," in the words of Andrew Sarris) are just now becoming available on DVD, as part of Universal's Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection. These movies display a satirical intelligence unmatched in American cinema—and they suggest that, if Sturges is underrated, it's because his movies are like no one else's.

They lack heroes, for one thing—an odd trait for a medium so dependent on star power, but one essential to Sturges' satire. His directorial debut, The Great McGinty, depicts the rise and fall of a Chicago bum who gets snatched up by the city's political boss and made an alderman, then mayor, and finally governor—only to wind up in prison when he tries to go straight. McGinty is great, all right—fearless and weirdly innocent in a distinctly American way—but he's no hero. He goes straight only because his beloved wife, whom he married for political reasons, nags him about it. And her limousine liberalism does not seem nearly as persuasive as the attitude espoused by the brilliant comic actor William Demarest, in his first of eight roles for Sturges: "If it wasn't for graft," he says, "you'd get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish!" McGinty's no jellyfish, but like all of Sturges' leading men, his success or failure is, contrary to Horatio Alger, almost entirely beyond his control.

While Sturges' men have less power than one might expect, his women have more. After making low-budget hits out of McGinty and Christmas in July, Sturges got enough studio money to write a script for Barbara Stanwyck, and he created a role inspired, in part, by his own mother—who began life as the poor, Irish-Catholic Mary Dempsey, then married three times, had Preston, divorced again, sailed to Europe, changed her last name to Desti (insinuating a connection to Italian nobility), and became the boon companion of the trailblazing modernist dancer Isadora Duncan. This example simply couldn't be ignored, and Sturges filled his movies with decisive, adventuresome women—none greater than Stanwyck's Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve.

Jean works with her father as a con artist finding dupes on transatlantic cruises. (There are few "traditional" families in Sturges' films.) They find the ultimate sucker in Charles Pike, played by Henry Fonda, son of a beer magnate and devoted ophiologist (he studies snakes)—with whom, of course, Jean falls in love. Sturges milks this scenario for all its Biblical and Freudian worth: Jean's first act is to drop an apple on Pike's head, shortly after which we see him reading a book titled Are Snakes Necessary?  The movie is an exemplary comedy of remarriage, depicting the triumph of Jean's wordliness over Pike's outdated prudery: "You don't know much about girls," Jean tells Pike at one point. "The best ones aren't as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad."

The Lady Eve was Sturges' biggest hit yet, and the reviews were so good they "scared the bejesus out of" him. "I feel like making a good safe tragedy," he wrote to one critic. Instead, he turned his satirical eye on himself with Sullivan's Travels, about a successful director of Hollywood comedies who wants to make a tragedy—specifically, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, based on the novel by Sinclair Beckstein. But Sullivan first has to persuade the studio executives, who want another comedy like his hits Hey Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939 ("How about making Ants in Your Plants of 1941?" they ask; sequels were good business then, too). But no: Sullivan, played with perfect self-deprecation by Joel McCrea, wants to make "a picture of dignity ... a true canvas of the suffering of humanity." "But with a little sex in it," says one of the studio execs. "But with a little sex in it," he concedes.

The studio execs persuade Sullivan that he lacks the experience to make this great tragedy—so, he dresses up as a hobo and goes out looking for it. Though he needs several tries just to get out of Hollywood, he eventually gets himself arrested and put on a chain gang in some indeterminate Southern location. He endures hard labor and the "sweat box" before the boss takes all the prisoners to a "picture show" at a black church. There, in a remarkable scene, Sullivan laughs along with the other prisoners at a Mickey Mouse * cartoon, and decides that he doesn't want to make a tragedy after all—he wants to make another comedy.

But the lesson of Sullivan's Travels, if there is a lesson, is not nearly so simple. The movie itself, after all, is not a Mickey Mouse *  cartoon: Along with the pratfalls and the zingers, it gives us that scene in the black church and, before that, a long, wordless montage worthy of Walker Evans. In other words, it's a "true canvas of the suffering of humanity"—with a little sex in it, courtesy of Veronica Lake. The same could be said of nearly all Sturges' movies (though the amount of sex varies): They turn an honest, unapologetic eye on our foibles and pretensions, and they don't spare any particular side. It's a gift we could sorely use today—if, that is, we had the confidence and the graciousness to accept it.