Tag Archives: Preston Sturges

The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.

Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.

Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.

One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.

There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.

The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.

The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).



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Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


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The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

Preston Sturges has a great structure to The Lady Eve. The first part of the film–the majority of the runtime–has wealthy oddball Henry Fonda returning home on a ship and falling in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Makes sense, as she’s wonderful, only she (and her father, Charles Coburn) are card sharps out to fleece rich passengers. This part of Eve is the most luxurious in terms of the storytelling–Fonda and Stanwyck have great chemistry and, in addition to Coburn providing support, there’s also William Demarest as Fonda’s comically rough valet.

With a subplot or two and a happy ending, Sturges could’ve just told the entire story on the ship. Instead, he jumps ahead. It’s kind of hard to talk about Lady Eve without including a spoiler or two; I’ll tread carefully.

The jump ahead changes up the dynamics of the relationship between Stanwyck and Fonda, with Fonda assuming the rube role he never took in the first part of the picture. And Sturges, while giving Stanwyck excellent material and the most screen time, also changes the tone of the film. There’s slapstick; the previously established characters, contained in that first section, are looser. Sturges doesn’t play the comedy for the viewer (except some of Demarest and Eugene Pallette–wonderful as Fonda’s father). It’s for the characters. So Lady Eve can be loud and lovely.

Fantastic performances and character moments throughout. Eric Blore and Melville Cooper have nice smaller parts.

Sturges, Fonda, and Stanwyck–especially Stanwyck–make magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on a story by Moncton Hoffe; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Jean), Henry Fonda (Charles), Charles Coburn (Colonel Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Martha O’Driscoll (Martha), Robert Greig (Burrows) and Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike).


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The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.

The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.

One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.

Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.

Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager) and Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King).


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