August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Preston Sturges’ classic farces (Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, etc.) are in the pantheon, no matter what the AFI 100 doesn’t say. But what about the films he scripted before clambering out of the writer’s cubicle? It’s tough to spot his contribution to some of the four new-to-tape additions to Universal Studios Home Video’s 12-title Preston Sturges Centennial Collection. But in others, that wry absurdism comes through loud and clear.

Imitation of Life (1934) Script doctor Sturges didn’t get a credit, and we’ll be damned if we can figure out what he did. It’s a dated but fascinating melodrama following the friendship of white Claudette Colbert and black Louise Beavers through the years. The script sticks to heartfelt clichés — it’s John Stahl’s direction that pokes nasty little holes in the soothing view of race relations. B

Easy Living (1937) A fur coat lands on secretary Jean Arthur’s head, and blissful mania ensues. With razor-sharp repartee and full-out pratfalls, it’s a ”Preston Sturges movie” in every sense. But director Mitchell Leisen gives it an additional Park Avenue panache that Sturges would have missed, and — irony of ironies — the sidesplitting Automat melee was Leisen’s on-set invention. A

If I Were King (1938) Imagine a Sturges farce with all the trimmings — playful turns of fate, demented supporting roles, double-edged dialogue. Now set it in 15th-century Paris. Ronald Colman is a rogue who crosses swords and wits with King Louis XI (a delightful Basil Rathbone). High hokum for sure, but Sturges’ lines and Frank Lloyd’s direction both sparkle. B+

Never Say Die (1939) The opening titles are vintage Sturges: ”Nestling peacefully beneath the snow-clad Alps lies the quaintly picturesque health spa of Bad Gaswasser.” Too bad it’s downhill from there. Bob Hope, playing it broad and simple, stars as a rich twit who thinks he has one month to live. By the next year, Sturges was directing his own scripts; Never Say Die makes it clear why he wanted to. C-

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