Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer

To say that Sturges was a cinematic genius almost seems to undermine or too fully abstract just what a brilliant creative artist he was. Like most great artists, his life was as fascinating as his work, and like too many great artists it was cut short by bad choices, but, occasionally, sheer bad luck. This documentary film, which is available on the Sullivan’s Travels Criterion disc, is surely the definitive film on Sturges’ life and work. Nearly feature length itself, it deftly covers his life from his upbringing, in which he was raised in culture and high society by his mother but in a more unpretentious and down-to-earth surroundings by his fathers. It’s that ability to tread between the heights of cultural sophistication and the honest soul and crust of the everyman that gives his film such tremendous, humanistic potency.

It’s a testament to Sturges’ personality that he got started in the arts not on an innate, lifelong drive (he rather despised high culture because of his overexposure to it), but because of a challenge imposed on him by a woman who said she was only seeing him to study him so that she could write a play. To this he indignantly stated that if she could write a play, so could he, and his would be better—and it was. Sturges’ first play was a hit on Broadway, and within a few years he was invited to Hollywood with excellent contract offers. When his screenplays proved extremely successful, Sturges was invited to be both writer and director, which was an almost unheard of thing in the Hollywood studio system at the time (though not altogether unprecedented).

The first result of his efforts, The Great McGinty was another smash hit that cemented his name as a genuine literary and cinematic talent within Hollywood. From 1940 to 1944, Sturges went on a run that has never quite been equaled in cinema history, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece, in which many films, like The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek are still considered some of the best films ever made. But tension between Sturges and the studios began mounting, at first over creative differences, but then over output, and when The Great Moment flopped, Sturges hit a downturn that he never recovered from. While Sturges still released films—many of which considered quite good—after ’44, he never again attained the kind of creative freedom from the studio system he once enjoyed. His attempts to go independent proved disastrous, bankrupting him and nearly sending him into exile from which he never returned.

Sturges has often been compared with Orson Welles’, who was another artistic dynamo that went up like a firework and dispersed just as quickly. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Welles continued to make cinematic masterpieces in spite of his struggles with the studios while Sturges was never able to equal his output when he was supported by the studio system. This allowed Welles a longevity, though a longevity fraught with creative troubles, that Sturges never enjoyed. But during his prime, Sturges’ achievements were almost miraculous; his films are marked by a verbal, poetic gift that has never been equally replicated. While his direction was never as poetic as his writing, it was nonetheless the paradigm of Golden Age economy.

As a documentary, perhaps this film can be criticized for being a bit too drab and plain and lacking in the exuberant, sparkling wit and vigor of Sturges and his films, but it is supremely comprehensive, superbly entertaining, and as definitive as such a biographical documentary could ever hope to be. My highest possible recommendation to Sturges’ fans.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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