Preston Sturges enjoys no small amount of esteem within the cinephile sect, as well as the broader spectrum of movie buffs – anyone who’s drawn to (rather than afraid of) black and white films – but it still feels like he’s a little underrated. I think it’s because we don’t quite know what to do with him. His formative years, followed by a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends stopover in Hollywood, followed by a disappointment-derived exile, are altogether rich enough to fill several biographical volumes. Perhaps relating to the daunting complexity of the rough diamond Sturges – unquestionably the most urbane of industry misfits – it’s tempting to pin his contribution to a handful of manageable attributes. He had a way with dialogue: overlapping, barbed, sophisticated yet streetwise. He had his stock company. He was able, gracefully, to juggle sentimentality and worldly cynicism, to the point that they seem a natural fit for one another. He simply must be the screenwriter responsible for the greatest number of great movie lines that are snuck in – muttered, accidentally discharged like a stray bullet.
Two Sturges scripts competed for an Academy Award at the 1945 ceremony – Lamar Trotti’s screenplay for the Darryl F. Zanuck pet epic Wilson defeated them both. One was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and the other was Hail the Conquering Hero. Both films have longish, melodious titles, and star character actor Eddie Bracken. Hail the Conquering Hero is front-loaded with the kind of Sturges business that made him (and keeps him) famous. The opening scene is one of his great nightclub settings – a locale he would revisit several times, enhanced by his skill as an observer of routine and work behind spectacle and entertainment. Within a few moments, an ingenious, tightly-wound plot is in motion.
What’s easy to forget about this, and other Sturges films, is how committed he is to delineating the full complexity borne by a premise that initially seems “high concept.” I’ll bet you can’t remember, off-hand, how many travels the title character Sullivan’s Travels actually took. How exactly does the knotty deception in The Lady Eve get resolved? How did McGinty get to be governor, and how did he louse it up? You have ten seconds.
The writer-director’s films fill out like a house built roof first, foundation last. His trademarks – the deft direction of ornate chaos (which often downshifts to intimate one-on-one conversations with impossible gracefulness), the mile-a-minute dialogue, the symphony of voices, roaring at one moment, muttering the next – provide cover for Sturges while he busies himself with a single-minded commitment to erecting a sturdy frame, directly from the blueprint of a given film’s logline: in this case, through a series of misunderstandings, medically-unfit hometown boy is mistaken for a war hero. The result, essentially, is a 78-minute screwball comedy, leavened by almost totally concealed introspection, as well as an unwavering respect for the time one needs to work out a thorny problem in an adversarial environment, that acquires great structural integrity as it fills out to 101 minutes. The only other director who could so brilliantly (and seemingly effortlessly) underwrite frivolity with determination and purpose? Ernst Lubitsch.