HOLLYWOOD—There’s never been a Hollywood career quite like his. Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was generously supported for the first half of his adult life by his adopted father Solomon Sturges, a well-off Chicago businessman. He grew up largely in France with his fashionista mom.
In the roaring 20s he came to New York and wrote a comedy that was a hit on Broadway. Sturges, who didn’t start writing until he was 30, did the play on a dare with a girlfriend who was already writing a play. He said he could write one better. She was his first critic and said his dialog flowed like champagne. After his success on Broadway, he wrote more plays, none successful, and some closed before they opened. It must have been pretty rotten.
Let me mention that Sturges’ hit play wasn’t a total fluke. He decided to be a writer after a bout of appendicitis, and his first stories were written while convalescing. Before that, he had managed his mother’s fashion business in Paris till he was 25. Then she booted him out and he turned to inventing things in Chicago and later New York. An example was a real-time stock market bulletin board that would have eliminated the need for some flunky to chalk all the market changes. Sturges strikes me as having had ideas for things way better than the people around him could assimilate. It must have been rotten writing all those plays and having all those inventions ignored.
Sturges didn’t know it at the time, but these stillborn plays were a pot of gold. Ten years later they would becomes “The Palm Beach Story,” “Christmas in July,” and “Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.” Dialog that’s a dream and a dash of slapstick: box office gold. Those plays gave him the ammo for a four-year, seven-film satirical streak unparalleled in screen history.
He got on the train for Hollywood in 1932. Screenwriting was low-rent, but the pay was good. Right away Sturges knew he wanted to be in the director’s chair; he would be the first writer-director, a pioneer who set the precedent for other writers to become directors. Toward that end he got a stepladder and observed on the set. During his apprenticeship he wrote “The Power and the Glory,” the first movie to use the Kane conceit, beginning a story with a man in his coffin and, following multiple strands in his life through a fractured timeline.
After seven years he got to move from the stepladder to the director’s chair. He batted ‘em out of the park. There were gales of laughter and loads of loot at the box office, starting with the political satire, “The Great McGinty.” In the early 40s’ Sturges became the highest paid man in America, and the hottest ticket in town was Saturday night dinner at the Sturges’ where luminaries, actors and artists mingled.
Halfway through his Hollywood streak, he ran out of plays to adapt and had to create something totally new. “Sullivan’s Travels” is what resulted: a Hollywood comedy fused with brutal drama that took comedy into the darkness. Sturges sought greener pastures and left Paramount to partner with Howard Hughes. Didn’t work out. For the last decade of his life he drifted back and forth between France and America.
In the early 1950s, his house on Ivar was torn down for the future Hollywood freeway. So when you’re driving down the 101 you’re driving through Preston Sturges’ living room. In the 50s’ David Sarnoff offered him television work at NBC. He didn’t go for it because of deadline fear he suffered during his youth when he drew a weekly comic strip.
You know, who can second-guess life. Billy Wilder, who followed Sturges’ lead to write and direct at Paramount, tried to sum up the vicissitudes of Sturges’ life, “He didn’t have a third act.” Which reminds me of one of the more odious celebrated lines in American letters, Scott Fitzgerald’s “there are no second acts in American lives.” Look, Hollywood was Sturges’ second act and his third acts shines on in revival houses and in the belly laughs of movie buffs. Unfortunately, being deceased, he doesn’t get to enjoy much of it.
At one point in the 50s’ his bank balance got down to 37 cents and he said the loveliest thing:
“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.”
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of “Late Bloomer” and “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet.” Reader mail is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.