Fun stuff on Criterion, Part 1: Preston Sturges

Criterion offers the important works of Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni. But movies aren’t entirely intended to make you feel miserable. In the middle of March, The Criterion Channel adds three series spotlighting great auteurs who used their genius to make people laugh.

The first, and the only one yet streaming on the Channel, is Preston Sturges. In a few days, he’ll be matched with Charlie Chaplin and Georges Méliès.

Preston Sturges had a brilliant but brief heyday at Paramount. From 1940 through 1944, he made seven sparkling, satiric comedies – and one lousy drama. At one point, he was the third-highest salaried American. But when he left Paramount, his career went over the cliff.

Here are the eight films in the series:

A+ The Lady Eve (1941)

Like all great screwballs, The Lady Eve looks at class differences as well as the differences between a free-spirited woman and an uptight man (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda). Stanwyck plays the younger half of a father/daughter team of card sharks, who makes the mistake of falling in love with her current mark – a shy, scientifically minded, naïve aristocrat played wonderfully by Fonda. The result: crazy hijinks in glamorous settings. Read my appreciation.

A+ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

At a time when it was impossible for a Hollywood picture to criticize the American military or even suggest that a young woman could get pregnant out of wedlock, Preston Sturges made a very funny comedy about a teenage girl who goes out with some soldiers and comes back in a family way. Betty Hutton plays the knocked-up Trudy Kockenlocker (probably the funniest character name outside of the Marx Brothers). The hilarious Eddie Bracken plays the young man who loves Trudy, despite the desperate place she’s put him in. Read my A+ appreciation.

A Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Only Sturges could find a way to satirize patriotic hoopla at the height of World War II. A draft-board reject (a very funny Eddie Bracken) feels too disgraced to return to his small town. So, a group of real marines set out to help him by loaning him a uniform and taking him home, praising his heroism all the way through. Of course, there are complications.

A- Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Preston Sturges bit the hand that fed him caviar with this satire of Hollywood itself. Joel McCrea stars as a successful director tired of making light-hearted comedies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. To prepare himself for making a serious drama about the depression, he disguises himself as a hobo and rides the rails. The movie turns surprisingly dark in the last act, and ends with a stirring speech proclaiming Sturges’ message: “Movies shouldn’t have messages.”

A- The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Although this one doesn’t quite come up to the brilliant level of The Lady Eve, this screwball is still a great time at the movies. It’s not just the absurdity of casting singer Rudy Vallee as the millionaire rival ready to win Claudette Colbert from husband Joel McCrea. It’s also the Weenie King, the Ale and Quail Club, Toto, and the most ridiculous happy ending ever filmed.

B+ Christmas in July (1940)

In his second film, Sturges creates a charming yet bitter comedy about the American Dream – with themes that come out of King Vidor’s much more serious masterpiece, The Crowd. Dick Powell stars as a lowly clerk who thinks he has the makings of a brilliant advertising executive.

B- The Great McGinty (1940)

Sturges’ directorial debut isn’t nearly as funny as the films to come, but this story of a crooked politician who ruins his life by going straight has its charms and laughs.

B- Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Sturge’s best post-Paramount film involves classical music, private detectives, possible adultery, but for the most part, very little humor. But as the movie comes toward the end, it suddently becomes screamingly funny. Rex Harrison plays a famous conductor who suspects his wife is cheating. As he conducts, he dreams of several ways to get rid of his possibly cheating spouse. But when he tries to turn his evil daydreams into reality, everything goes wrong – including a gloriously funny sequence about the problems of technology.

Coming up soon: Chaplin and Méliès.

One thought on “Fun stuff on Criterion, Part 1: Preston Sturges

  1. We saw Unfaithfully Yours years ago and loved it — it’s an over-the-top look at the world/pretensions of a maestro with surreal scenes playing out in his head (accompanied by great music, of course).

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