WEIRDLAND: Happy Anniversary, Preston Sturges!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Preston Sturges!

"A pretty girl is better than a plain one / A leg is better than an arm / A bedroom is better than a living room / An arrival is better that a departure / A birth is better than a death / A chase is better than a chat / A dog is better than a landscape / A kitten is better than a dog / A baby is better than a kitten / A kiss is better than a baby / A pratfall is better than anything." -Preston Sturges (on his "golden rule" for successful comedy)

In the course of his career, Preston Sturges employed the simplest cinematic syntax to convey the hypothetical stories, achronological timelines, and meta-linguistic reflections that we have analyzed thus far. While some of the most prominent Hollywood filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s were adopting deep-focus, tracking shots, montage sequences, masks and other striking visual solutions, Sturges’s lack of cinematic virtuosity was so blatant as to appear almost in conflict with his complex narrative style. This absence of easily recognizable cinematic marks has often been interpreted as a deficiency in terms of aesthetics that prevented Sturges from making it into Andrew Sarris’s “first line” of auteurs because—as Sarris himself wrote—he “may have been contributed more to the American language than to the American cinema.”

The modest, unobtrusive visual style of Sturges’s movies, in fact, is perfectly functional in relation to a narrative structure and comic style that are mostly based on “external focalization”—the case in which (to use a literary terminology introduced by GĂ©rard Genette) the events seem to happen before the spectator’s eyes, without the intrusion of an internalfocalizer (a character’s viewpoint) or an external narrator’s viewpoint (zero focalization). Sturges’s comic style relies entirely on an unpreventable chain of self-triggered events that unfold “naturally” before our eyes and rely on fast-paced, witty dialogue, fully appreciable only through a high degree of technical transparency. In Sturges’s films, gags and events unfold before our eyes. And even if sometimes an internal focalizer might emerge (a character whose point of view is used as a representational filter—for example, Jean commenting on Pike’s behavior through her mirror in The Lady Eve), or if the dormant implicit narrator unexpectedly appears (as in the silent music sequences from Sullivan’s Travels previously analyzed, or the “narratage” technique that will shortly be discussed), external focalization remains the main narrative strategy used by Sturges to make us laugh.

It is for this reason that Sturges’s cinema is characterized by an extraordinary frequency of long takes and one-shot sequences that usually punctuate the most verbose and motionless sequences: the long discussion between Sullivan and the producers, at the beginning of Sullivan’s Travels, is introduced by a brief shot in the screening room, and followed by a four-minute take in the producer’s office; moreover, the scene from The Lady Eve in which Jean tries to seduce Charles in her cabin features a three-minute static close-up. In general, Sturges reserves long takes for discussions between couples, like the four-minute single-shot sequence between Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea having dinner in The Palm Beach Story, or the second daydreaming scene in Unfaithfully Yours (a threeminute sequence including a two-minute long take).

In all these examples, the long take appears every time Sturges wants his audiences to sit back and concentrate on what his characters have to say (which is usually a relevant piece of narrative information). Examples of this characteristic include the first meeting between Woodrow and the Marines in Hail the Conquering Hero (a five-minute take that includes a tracking shot onto Woodrow’s face, to intensify his monologue about the Marines) and the hysterical existential reflections of Harold in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock—the Sturges movie that featured the highest number of long takes.

Barbara Stanwyck and director Preston Sturges on the set of The Lady Eve, 1941

When Sturges’s venture into independent cinema (the California Picture Company, co-founded with Howard Hughes in 1944) failed miserably after only a couple of movies, Sturges ran back to the studios, signing contracts with Fox and MGM, and even trying to negotiate a return to Paramount. It was too late, as the system had rapidly changed: The end of the war, the loss of profits, the beginning of serious competition from television and, soon after, the Paramount Decision (1948) of the Supreme Court forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains had forced Hollywood to restructure its modes of production and to re-focus on more alluring aspects.

That this change affected Sturges’s creative freedom is quite clear, if we compare the 1933 advertising campaign for The Power and the Glory with the 1949 one for The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend—the former pinpointing the “radical innovation” of Sturges’s “story telling technique,” the latter focusing on the essential value of Betty Grable’s legs. Sturges tried to adapt his creativity, by structuring his script for The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend entirely around the character of Betty Grable, with a storyline and a series of gags centered on her body and her musical numbers.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in "The Palm Beach Story" (1942)

Sturges’s work reflects in many different ways this attitude, by presenting reservations towards most of the moral, sociological and economic values effectively portrayed in Classical Hollywood Cinema, and by underlining the contradictions of that all–American way of life that many other directors were sanctifying. His cynicism towards the myths and beliefs of Western culture gave birth to explicit parodies of the American West (The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend), as well as of the British and French cultures (Les Carnets du Major Thompson), and his satirical approach emphasized the contradictions of the capitalist system (Diamond Jim [1935], The Power and the Glory, Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story [1942]), wartime propaganda (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero), the institution of marriage (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Palm Beach Story —originally titled Is Marriage Necessary?), and even the tales of the Bible (The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek).

Far from singing the praises of the American common man, Sturges’s characters strive for survival in a world that forces them to embrace values such as the pursuit of money, success, career and self-esteem. When they are not mistaken for heroes (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero), they either end up miserably defeated (The Power and the Glory, The Great McGinty), or they are left with the bitter taste of a highly questionable “happy” ending (Christmas in July, Sullivan’s Travels [1941], The Palm Beach Story). Sturges, however, doesn't propose solid alternatives, let alone “universal truths.” He simply exposes the contradictions and the absurdity that lie beneath the cultural, social and economic values commonly accepted by most people. -"The Cinema of Preston Sturges (A Critical Study)" by Alessandro Pirolini

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