Film director Preston Sturges lived a life that could happen only in the movies. And he used his experiences to create some of Hollywood’s greatest: The Great McGinty (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948).
Sturges grew up in pre-World War I Europe, where his mother had taken him to live the bohemian life (her closest friend was Isadora Duncan). Mother and son returned to the U.S. at the outbreak of World War I, when Preston was 16. He later served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, although the war ended before he saw action.
In 1927 he was 28 years old and working in his mother’s cosmetics business when his first marriage broke up. He consoled himself by learning to play the piano and write songs. By the end of that year, he had written a musical comedy. A few months later, he wrote his first play, The Guinea Pig, to vent his anger at a young actress he was dating who had used him to rehearse a play she was writing — without his knowledge. His second play, Strictly Dishonorable, was inspired by a failed seduction that occurred at a friend’s summer house in Monte Carlo. The comedy was the hit of the 1929-30 Broadway season.
That winter, on the train to Palm Beach, he met Eleanor Hutton, the 20- year-old daughter of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and financier E.F. Hutton. Her parents objected, but the kids didn’t listen: Eleanor and Preston eloped in April 1930. Their happiness was short-lived, however. His mother died on their first wedding anniversary; they separated on their second.
Looking for yet another new start at age 33, Sturges went to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. By the time he died in 1959, he had written 31 movies and directed 14 of them.
Sturges began to write his autobiography in 1959 but did not finish it. His fourth and last wife, Sandy, with whom he had two sons, took the manuscript as well as Preston’s journals, diaries, and letters, and edited them into a book. Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges will be published in September by Simon & Schuster.
Hollywood I started at the bottom: a bum by the name of Sturgeon who had once written a hit play called Strictly Something-or-Other. Carl Laemmle of Universal offered me a contract, with unilateral options exercisable by the studio, to join his team as a writer. My wife (Eleanor Hutton) had decamped, my fortune was depleted, and even though I was living on coffee and moonlight, my costs of living continued to cost. I did not have to wrestle with any principles to leap on Laemmle’s offer. On Sept. 9, 1932, I arrived in Hollywood with my secretary, Bianca Gilchrist.
I was to write, offer suggestions, and make myself generally useful, and for this I was to get a nominal or beginning writer’s salary of a thousand dollars a week. Junior writers got less, of course, but I had written Strictly Something-or-Other, and that made me a kind of senior beginner. I was charmed; it vindicated my contention that writing was my profession, and the money proved it.
There were a great many writers on the lot, and the reason for this was that at the time, writers worked in teams, like piano movers. It was generally believed by the powers down in front that a man who could write comedy could ! not write tragedy, that a man who could write forceful, virile stuff could not handle the tender passages, and that if the picture was not to taste all of the same cook, a multiplicity of writers was essential. Four writers were considered the rock-bottom minimum required. Six writers, with the sixth member a woman to puff up the lighter parts, was considered ideal. Many, many more writers have been used on a picture, of course; several writers have even been assigned the same story unbeknownst to each other.
Bianca and I were assigned beautiful offices in a little bungalow on the Universal lot affectionately known as the Bull Pen. It took me exactly two days on the job as a hired writer, or until I met my first director, to find out that I was in the wrong racket. I had expected my producer to be peculiar, of course, because the facts about Hollywood producers had been well publicized throughout the land. On meeting him, I was not disappointed. About directors, though, I knew very little, and it took me a few minutes to get the point.
It was not so much what the director said; it was the way he said it, especially the way he looked at me (a writer): coolly, confidently, courteously, but with a curious condescension. He was a perfectly polite and affable little man and did his best to put me at my ease, but one of my knees kept twitching and I had the uneasy feeling that instead of standing on my feet looking down at him, I should have been on one knee looking up at him. The man was obviously a prince of the blood.
The more directors I met, the more I realized that this was not an isolated case. They were all princes of the blood. Nobody ever had them directing pictures in teams with one of them handling the horseback scenes and another handling the bedroom interludes. The bungalows they lived in on the lot had fireplaces and private bathrooms and big soft couches. Nobody ever assigned them to pictures they didn’t like; they were timidly offered pictures. Sometimes they graciously condescended to direct them, but if they said, no, a story was a piece of cheese, it was a piece of cheese.
This ennoblement, of course, had been conferred upon directors during the silent days, when the directors truly were the storytellers and the princes of the business. By the time I got to Hollywood, this aristocracy was merely a leftover from an earlier day. The reasons for it were no longer apparent, like the reasons for so many other aristocracies. Years later when I became a writer-director, actually the storyteller again, people said I was doing something new, but I was not; I was doing something old.
As I had never written anything but comedies, my producer assigned me the job of writing the ninth script of a horror picture: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ book The Invisible Man. Hardly any of Wells’ story was suited to a motion picture, so it actually meant coming up with an original story. Eight well-known writers had already been paid for adaptations which the studio said could not be used, and I thought that if mine were used, my future at Universal would be assured.
I hurried into the Bull Pen and came out 10 weeks later with 180 pages of stuff so chilling that it would cause the hair of a statue to stand on end and cold sweat to stream down its sculpted back. The director said it was a piece of cheese. The studio did not pick up its option on my services and I was fired without further ceremony.
I had just been assigned a rewrite of a continuity for Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts when my contract was up, but I stayed on at the studio to finish the job and made them a present of a couple of weeks’ work. For this they pronounced themselves grateful, and my hope was that this bread cast upon the waters would return as ham sandwiches.
Although off salary, I was not idle. Thoroughly displeased with the abysmal status of a Hollywood team writer, I considered the benefits of free-lancing, writing scripts on my own time and selling them to a studio later. I could then write anywhere I liked, spend the spring in Paris, for instance, the summer on my boat, the fall in New York, and the winter in Palm Beach, coming to California for a couple of days a year to sign contracts for the sale of the scripts.
Free-lancing to me was also a stab at raising the writer’s status, if not to the level of prince of the blood, tender of the royal shaving paper or something of equal dignity; anything to get out of the cellar to which custom had assigned the Hollywood team writer.
Bianca got behind the typewriter and I got to work on The Power and the Glory, a story inspired by some incidents Eleanor had told me about her mother’s father, C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Co., known today as the General Foods Corp. The fruits of inspiration bore no resemblance to the actual life and times of Eleanor’s grandfather, of course, but I chose the nonchronological structure of the screenplay because I noticed that when Eleanor would recount adventures, the lack of chronology interfered not at all with one’s pleasure in the stories and that, in fact, its absence oftennsharpened the impact of the tale.
The screenplay for The Power and the Glory had one thing that distinguished it from other scripts of the time. So far as I know, it was the first story conceived and written as a shooting script by its author on his own time and then sold to a moving picture company on a royalty basis, exactly as plays or novels are sold. It established a couple of other ”firsts,” too. It was the first script shot by a director almost exactly as written. It was also the first story to use what the publicity department dubbed narratage, that is, the narrator’s, or author’s, voice spoke the dialogue while the actors only moved their lips. Strangely enough, this was highly effective and the illusion was complete.
It was neither a silent film nor a talking film, but rather a combination of the two. It embodied the visual action of a silent picture, the sound of the narrator’s voice, and the storytelling economy and the richness of characterization of a novel. The reason for trying this method was to see if some way could be devised to carry American films into foreign countries. It would be extremely easy to put a narrator’s voice on the soundtrack in any language, because the narrator is heard but not seen. The further advantage of a narrator is that, like the author of a novel, he may describe not only what people do and say but also what they feel and what they think.
I sold the screenplay to Jesse Lasky at Fox in February 1933 for a large down payment and a percentage of the gross, cast it, and directed the dialogue. Shooting started in March.
At that time, very few successful writers had ever watched the process of making a picture from beginning to end, including the rushes and the cutting, because they were usually on salary and busy writing something else while their last scripts were being filmed. I, however, was not a successful writer busy writing something else and could do as I liked. I spent six weeks on the set, at my own expense, helping to stage the dialogue and acting as sort of a general handyman, what one might call speculative directing. The director, Mr. William K. Howard, had a nice chair in front of the camera and a property man to take care of his hat and coat. He told everybody what to do and, in general, he had a nice time. Most of my time on the set was spent on top of a green stepladder in the back, watching and learning. Occasionally I would hurry down the stepladder to explain to Mr. Spencer Tracy or to Miss Colleen Moore what I meant by a line and how I thought it should be read, then hurry back up the stepladder and watch it being shot.
And there, on top of the green stepladder, watching Mr. William K. Howard direct The Power and the Glory, I got a tremendous yen to direct, coupled with the absolutely positive hunch that I could. I had never felt anything quite like it before. Never while watching a heavyweight title match had I had the desire to change places with one of the gentlemen in the ring. Nor at the six-day bicycle races, while a fallen rider was picking splinters out of his rear, had I felt impelled to swipe his vehicle and lap the field. I am not an envious man. But from the top of the green stepladder, I ached to change places with Mr. William K. Howard, who was doing such an excellent job transferring my screenplay to film.
When the picture was released, I received sole credit as the writer, and found my name in the advertisements the same size as the director’s. This, coupled with the deal I made for the screenplay, made nothing but enemies for me. The directors said, ”Who is this bum getting his name the same size as ours?” The producers said, ”This sets a very bad precedent; you give these upstarts an inch and they’ll want their names up in lights!” The heads of the studios said, ”What is this rubbish about giving writers a percentage of the gross, which shakes the very foundations of the industry?” The trade press said, ”What is this business of shooting a picture by a single writer when we are accustomed to getting ads from six or eight of them per picture?” And the writers, yea, even my brethren, viewed with alarm the whittling down of jobs that would ensue if only one writer, God forbid, worked on each script. I was as popular as a polecat and, with all that money in the bank, as independent.
It is true that I was voted that year’s equivalent of an Academy Oscar for the best original screenplay. But it is also true that I didn’t get any work for a long, long time. So long that I had to go out and borrow money.
It was during this period that I decided to change my profession once more and become a director instead of a team writer. It seemed easier for one man to change his profession than for hundreds of men to so improve theirs that I would be proud to be a screenwriter.
Selected Film by Preston Sturges
The Power and the Glory (screenplay, 1933)
Spencer Tracy, Colleen Moore. A businessman’s rise to power is chronicled in flashbacks.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff. The story of a bum who enters the political arena, it was Sturges’ first directing assignment.
Christmas in July (1940)
Dick Powell, Ellen Drew. A man who thinks he has won $25,000 in a contest goes on a spending spree.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. A cardsharp plays her way across the Atlantic on a luxury liner.
Sullivan’s Travels (1942)
Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake. A disillusioned film director goes in search of real-life stories for inspiration.
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee. A bored wife heads south to find a millionaire to entertain her.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken. A small-town girl does her patriotic duty with a soldier she meets at a dance.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Eddie Bracken, William Demarest. A young man is mistakenly given a hero’s welcome home.
The Great Moment (1944)
Joel McCrea, Betty Field, William Demarest. A biography of the inventor of anesthesia.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell. A conductor thinks his wife is having an affair.
The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)
Betty Grable, Cesar Romero. A saloon singer in the old West accidentally shoots a sheriff.
The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1997)
Harold Lloyd, Jimmy Conlin. A jobless bookkeeper has a night on the town. Recut in 1950 as Mad Wednesday.