American Masters: Martin Scorsese Directs

The first three editions of American Masters‘ fifth season salute a disparate trio of American directors: Preston Sturges, John Cassavetes (July 9), and Martin Scorsese (July 16).

Everybody knows Scorsese, perhaps the greatest director alive; the late Cassavetes was as famous for acting as he was for directing character studies like Faces and Husbands.

But Sturges, the first subject, has plummeted from considerable prominence in the ’30s and ’40s to something less than cult status these days. That’s what makes Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer so valuable. It reestablishes Sturges’ importance while offering an entertaining look at his exceptionally funny films.

As this hour makes clear, American popular culture rarely has had an advocate as articulate and inventive as Sturges. Beginning as a playwright (his Strictly Dishonorable was one of the biggest stage comedies of the ’20s), Sturges turned to screenwriting in the ’30s with a string of hits. In 1939 he sold his script of The Great McGinty to Paramount for $10, on the condition that the studio let him direct it. Paramount agreed, and Sturges rapidly became Hollywood’s first great writer-director.

The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek — all were characterized by fast, tense stories and funny, dense dialogue. Sturges set the movie-star faces of Barbara Stanwyck, Brian Donlevy, and Joel McCrea next to the rougher mugs of his stock company, including William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, and Eugene Pallette. In the process, he created a film world in which anyone might say anything, and anything could happen.

Produced and directed by Kenneth Bowser, Preston Sturges shows us well-selected scenes from the director’s ’40s hits, and then chronicles his descent into debt and despair after a series of flops. What comes across is the idea that Sturges was a great artist and a terrible businessman, a combination that foretells doom in Hollywood moviemaking.

Preston Sturges is choppily paced, and actor Fritz Weaver, as narrator, must recite trite lines such as ”Sturges was finally living the life he’d always dreamed of.” But for its tragic real-life story and its scenes from Sturges’ tumultuous films, this documentary is both painful and deeply satisfying.

American Masters: Martin Scorsese Directs
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