Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was the first writer-turned-director in the history of talking movies, and one of the greatest film directors of any variety. He is best known for the comedies he made in the early 1940s. His films are distinguished by a zany wit and brilliant, madcap dialogue.
Preston Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898 in Chicago, Illinois. His was not a traditional upbringing. His mother, Mary, had several husbands and lovers. She was also a close friend of the dancer Isadora Duncan, sharing with her a lifestyle that might be described as "loose." In the autobiography, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, the director describes his mother as having a "vivid fantasy life … anything she said three times she believed fervently." In turn, his father, Edmund Biden, was an alcoholic.
By 1900, two years after Edmund Preston was born, his parents had divorced. Mary had earlier begun a relationship with Solomon Sturges, a wealthy Chicago stockbroker, whom she married in October 1901. In January 1902, Solomon formally adopted her son, who was thereafter known as Preston Sturges.
Sturges's mother soon found life as the wife of a Chicago stockbroker too restrictive. The couple agreed that Mary would spend half her time in Europe, half in Chicago. With her friend Isadora, she cavorted around the Continent, leaving Preston parked with various acquaintances, and, later, at various boarding schools. In 1911, Solomon Sturges filed for divorce. Even though he was not Preston's birth father, he still treated him as a son and the two remained extremely close-in contrast to Preston's relationship with his real dad, who only reappeared much later in his life to ask for money.
The Young Continental
There were advantages to Sturges's bohemian childhood. As Donald Spoto wrote in Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, "[As a teenager], he had an easy poise and engaging charm, for his innate intelligence and quickness of wit had been naturally augmented by an exposure to the widest variety of cosmopolitan influences … he had become, in fact, a young Continental, with a keen appreciation of good food and wine, of wit, sensuality and sociability."
In his later teens, Sturges lived in New York, attending school on and off, and working in his mother's cosmetics business. In 1918, he reported as a cadet in the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps. He served for 14 months and received his commission as a second lieutenant. After completing his military service, he returned to New York and the cosmetics business. Sturges became interested in science and enjoyed playing with gadgets. For the next few years, he spent much of his time working for his mother and trying his hand at inventing.
Sturges was tall and handsome, and eventually stole 19-year-old Estelle Godfrey away from her rich husband. Godfrey, who was well-off financially, married Sturges in 1923. The two purchased a house in Westchester, New York. Between 1924 and 1926, they alternated between country life in the suburbs and an avid social life in the city; however, the marriage ended in 1927.
A Late Bloomer
It was not until Sturges was about 30 that he began his writing career. An aspiring actress had ended an affair with Sturges, telling him that she had only dated him to find material for a play she wanted to write. Sturges told her that he could write a better play than she could. In three weeks, he produced a comedy based on the affair called The Guinea Pig.
While getting a play produced in the United States has never been easy, New York in the late 1920s offered many opportunities for a young playwright. Between Broadway and small theaters, about 250 plays were produced each year. Hoping to meet a prospective producer, Sturges entered the theater world as an assistant stage manager. Soon he met a lawyer, Charles Abramson, who told him that a playwright could produce a play himself for as little as $2,500, plus theater rental. A wealthy friend of his mother's lent him the money, and Sturges opened his play in early January 1929. Most of the New York papers gave it good reviews, and, for a small production, the show made a nice profit.
First Big Success
Within a few months, Sturges had written his next play, Strictly Dishonorable. The plot revolved around an Italian opera star and ladies' man who seduces the innocent fiancee of an uptight prig. However, what begins as sexual conquest becomes love, and the play ends with the two set to travel the world and have 11 children. As Spoto writes in Madcap, the play "… had all the characteristics of Preston Sturges's best achievements of the stage and screen: the witty, pointed conversation; the acute sense of social satire; the deftly developed characters; and action as well as dialogue that typically derives from those characters-never from an imposed theme or labored thesis." The play was a big hit with audiences and made Sturges a wealthy man-at least temporarily.
With a successful show, Sturges was soon sought out by film studios to polish scripts. He was paid $10,000 to provide a few lines for the The Big Pond, which took him just a couple of days to complete. He also quickly wrote another play, Rapture, which opened in January 1930. The reviews were poor, and it closed after 24 performances. In November, his fourth play, The Well of Romance, lasted just eight days. After his fifth play, Child of Manhattan, was released, a The New York Times review stated, "The more young Mr. Preston Sturges continues to write follow-ups to Strictly Dishonorable, the more we wonder who wrote Strictly Dishonorable."
Perhaps Sturges was distracted by his affair with Eleanor Post Hutton, a wealthy socialite. Her family was fiercely critical of the alliance, and the two eloped in April 1930. This marriage did not last either, and the couple parted in 1932.
Go West, Young Writer
In December 1932, with a string of failed plays and in debt, Sturges headed West. He signed on for three months as a contract writer at Universal Studios for $1,000 a week. He was put to work on the film The Invisible Man, but the proposed director was unhappy with his work, and his option was dropped.
On his own, Sturges wrote The Power and the Glory. The film received mostly good reviews, but it did not do well at the box office. The unusual and powerful screenplay did, however, enhance Sturges's reputation significantly. In fact, it did much more. Not only did the film introduce Spencer Tracy to filmgoers, it was also sold on a royalty basis with the provision that it not be changed by the director-a first for Hollywood. Sturges was on the set throughout filming and had a major hand in the final product, acting much more like a playwright than screenwriter. Additionally, the experience made Sturges realize that it really was the director who held sway on the set, and it confirmed his ambition to direct his own films someday.
Over the next several years-while living with a fiery beauty, Bianca Gilchrist-Sturges worked as a screenwriter, spending a few months at one studio, then moving on to another. Columbia, Universal, and others all paid him handsomely to work on their pictures. Paramount was especially hospitable to writers, and it was there that Sturges perfected his skills as a writer of screwball comedies in films like Easy Living. By 1938, he was making $2,750 a week; he was one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood. That year, he married his third wife, Louise Sargent Tevis, who would give Sturges his first son in 1941, Solomon Sturges IV. The marriage was a relatively long one for Sturges, ending almost nine years later in 1947.
With his improved financial situation, Sturges indulged his love for mechanical contraptions and established the Sturges Engineering Company in 1935. It sold an improved design of the internal combustion engine. Sturges was not a passive investor; he would stop by the factory to talk with the foreman and maintained a keen interest in technical developments. The company survived during World War II, but was liquidated soon afterwards.
Sturges also became involved in the restaurant business, financing Snyder's Restaurant in 1936. In 1940, he opened another, much bigger restaurant, The Players. It became a hangout for Hollywood celebrities, like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. Both restaurants were money-losers. Snyder's closed in 1938; The Players lasted until 1953, but only with Sturges making up significant deficits.
The Great Director
As the 1930s drew to a close, Sturges finally realized his dream of directing. He sold The Great McGinty to Paramount for $1 (eventually upped to $10 by the studio's legal department), with the condition that he would be allowed to direct it. While writer/directors, like Billy Wilder and John Huston, were to become common, in Sturges's day they were unheard-of. A political satire, McGinty was about, as Diane Jacobs wrote in Christmas in July: The Life and Times of Preston Sturges, "the American dream rebuked by American reality. About the inexorableness of character, the dire consequences of romantic love, the inadequacy of justice, and the quarrel between free will and destiny." Despite a bout with pneumonia, Sturges brought the film in ahead of schedule and under budget. McGinty was a resounding critical and financial success when it opened in 1940.
Over the next five years, Sturges would direct the string of comedy hits that movie watchers continue to adore: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. These films, as David Everitt wrote in The New York Times, "were peopled with such characters as the man-crazy bobby-soxer Trudy Kockenblocker, the bemused millionaire John D. Hackensacker 3d, and a would-be war hero saddled with the moniker Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith." The movies are replete with brilliant, hilarious dialogue, like the repartee between galon-the-make Barbara Stanwyck and millionaire ophiologist (snake scientist) Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Geoffrey O'Brien wrote of Sturges in The New York Review of Books, "He breaks every rule of movies by putting language at the center and making the whole film swirl around it."
Decline and Fall
Hail the Conquering Hero, released in 1944, marked the high point of Sturges's career. Soon afterwards, his The Great Moment, opened to mixed reviews and was a commercial failure. The following year, he joined with the ty-coon Howard Hughes to form the California Pictures Corporation. Sturges was to make films; Hughes would make airplanes and supply the money for both. The venture soon went sour and Hughes ended the partnership.
The film that probably ended Sturges's career was Unfaithfully Yours, made for movie mogul Daryl Zanuck at Fox in 1948. It opened to only mildly positive reviews and was a commercial flop. Not only was the film expensive to make, but it was the victim of poor luck. Its plot includes a scene where the lead character, played by Rex Harrison, kills his wife. Just before the film was set for release, actress Carole Landis, apparently grief-stricken over a doomed, much-publicized affair with Harrison, committed suicide. There was no way Fox could show the picture under the circumstances, and its release was postponed for several months. Shortly afterward, another Sturges film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, also proved disappointing.
In 1951, Sturges married his fourth wife, Anne Margaret Nagle, known as "Sandy." They had two sons, Preston and Thomas Preston. Professionally, the 1950s were punctuated by failure. Sturges did manage to write and direct one movie for a French production company, which was released in America under the title The French They Are a Funny Race. The film did well in Europe and made a modest profit in the United States, but it did little to rehabilitate Sturges's reputation.
In February 1959, Sturges began work on his autobiography, commissioned by the publishers Henry Holt. In his New York Review article, Geoffrey O'Brien writes, "It was somehow in keeping with Sturges's destiny to have the rare privilege of scripting his own death scene." While working on his autobiography, Sturges wrote "[I have] a bad case of indigestion … I am well-versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don't croak." As O'Brien reports, he died twenty minutes later, on August 6, 1959 in New York City.
Further Reading on Preston Sturges
Jacobs, Diane, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1992.
Spoto, Donald, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Little, Brown 1990.
Sturges, Preston, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, Simon &Schuster, 1990.
Atlantic Monthly, February 1996.
New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990.
New York Times, July 19, 1998.
"Preston Sturges Index," http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/7321/sturgesindex.html (March 9, 1999).
"The Official Preston Sturges Site," http://www.prestonsturges.com/biography.html (March 9, 1999).