A Guide To The Films Of Preston Sturges

A Guide To The Films Of Preston Sturges indexOver the past several months I’ve been reviewing all of Preston Sturges films, including everything he directed, all of the films where he received a screenplay credit, and adaptations of his stage plays and remakes of his movies, and even those where imdb lists his contribution as “uncredited”. Full reviews of each are linked to throughout the page, but this is also a short guide to these very funny, very smart, and very charming movies from one of the best comedy writers of the 20th Century.

Based On A Stage Play By Sturges

Strictly Dishonourable (1931) – This sees Harold and his fiancé Isobel drop by a speakeasy, and soon Isobel is swept off her feet by an Italian opera singer much to society’s disdain. It’s a fun enough affair, if obviously based on a play as it’s set in only a couple of locations, but while the dialogue is reasonably strong it sags in the middle and only recovers in the final ten minutes. Click here for the full review

Child Of Manhattan (1933) – With a screenplay from Gertrude Purcell, this 1933 film stars Nancy Caroll and John Boles and is billed by IMDB as a romantic drama, but it’s just as much a comedy as Sturges’ most well known work until around the 45 minute mark when it suddenly becomes rather upsetting and bleak. The romantic element is quite sweet, the dramatic aspect gives us a quite fascinating view of romance, love and marriage at that time, all of which makes for quite a captivating piece.  Click here for the full review.

Films Co-Written By Sturges

The Big Pond (1930) – The first film Sturges received a credit for, though it’s only for “Dialogue” rather than script or story, when chewing gum mogul George Billing (George Barbier) holidays in Venice his daughter Barbara (Claudette Colbert) falls for the very French Pierre (Maurice Chevalier) and George’s appalled, but comes up with a plan to ruin their lives by persuading Pierre to relocate to America and work in his factory, believing that he’ll hate America and isn’t the sort to do a hard day’s work in his life. Chevalier went on to become a much loved actor and singer and you can see why on the basis of this, he’s a charming so and so and then some, and Claudette Colbert is equally as good, not taking any nonsense from her parents or fiancé(s), though it’s a shame she’s not in it a little more. Barbier deserves a lot of credit for making this so enjoyable as well, while Lyon makes for a suitable sort of villain, and while I wish there was a couple more songs otherwise this is an impressive early musical and an auspicious start for Sturges. Click here for the full review.

Fast and Loose (1930) – Very mild rom-com where a posh brother and sister fall for a chorus girl and a mechanic, and the parents aren’t impressed at all, except that it turns out both are salt of the earth types and it’s the posh kids who are selfish and self-obsessed, though it completely ignores the fact that the mechanic is a sexist shit. Bar some outdated opinions regarding women there’s nothing really wrong with it and some scenes have a certain charm, but the dialogue is often bland and it only raised a couple of smiles. Click here for the full review.

They Just Had To Get Married (1932) – An adaptation of the play “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Cyril Harcourt, this is unavailable to watch online or buy, so alas I’m unable to review it.

The Power And The Glory (1933) – Supposedly the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, if only due to the unusual structure, the first movie Sturges solely scripted is the rather average story of the president of a railroad, which hasn’t aged too well and though it has some fun sequences (how Tom and Henry met, Tom’s early romancing of Sally) it borders on melodrama at times. Supposedly Tom shouldn’t be judged by normal standards as he was so frickin’ amazing, but the film doesn’t offer up any real evidence as to this, and though the script is just good enough to keep your interest, it’s a close run thing. Click here for the full review.

The Invisible Man (1933) – aka The Invisible Bastard, as after coming up with a serum to turn himself invisible there’s a side effect Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) didn’t expect – he’s a right old fucking mad man and then some. At first as he tries to perfect a serum to turn him visible again he’s only surly and pushy, but then when kicked out of the room he’s working in he turns psychotic, killing and murdering and causing horrendous train accidents and often singing gleefully post violence. This is an absolute delight, an extremely tight, lean number without an ounce of flab, and watching Rains fuck about while invisible is never less than extremely entertaining, the effects are impressive for their day, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome once the inevitably tragic ending occurs. Click here for the full review.

We Live Again (1934) – Adaptation of the Tolstoy novel Resurrection, unsurprisingly it’s set in Russia though only about a third of the cast bother with the accent, the rest sound either English or American. Katusha (Anna Sten) starts the film as a maid for two rich posh spinsters but she’s thrown out when she’s impregnated by their soldier nephew Dimitri (Fredric March), but then the baby dies and misery follows, it’s implied she’s fallen in to prostitution and is imprisoned for a murder she didn’t commit. There’s much discussion about class, society, politics and the nature of justice, but it’s let down by some of the performances, March is okay but Sten is often melodramatic, while many of the supporting cast feel rather am-dram and as a whole this is a film which lacks subtlety, which is a shame as the script is often of interest. Click here for the full review.

Imitation Of Life (1934) – A strange mix of rom-com, buddy pic and serious drama as after Delilah (Louise Beavers) is employed by Bea (Claudette Colbert) as her maid the two bond and open a pancake restaurant together. It touches on the difficulties Delilah has to deal with as a black woman, while Delilah’s daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) can pass for white and is ashamed of the way her mother looks, but the rom-com element is a large part of it as when Bea falls for the fish expert Stephen Archer (Warren William) her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) ends up wanting to stick her tongue down his throat as well. It’s an odd combination, sometimes light and frothy, sometimes more serious and didactic, the points it makes are sensitively dealt with but as a whole like it should have dealt with the racial themes in more depth (though it appears it didn’t partially because of the Hays Code and the obnoxious shits rejecting elements of the script), though the ending at least is quite powerful. Click here for the full review.

Twentieth Century (1934) – John Barrymore’s a bastard of a director who marries and then falls out with his leading lady, and then a good while later when they’re on a train together tries to get her to work with him again. Barrymore’s hammy and fun at times but a lot of the movie is contrived, there’s way too much shouty-ness, and it was a film I just didn’t click with. Click here for the full review.

Thirty Day Princess (1934) – The King Of Taronia sends his daughter Princess Catterina (Sylvia Sidney) over to America so the country can receive fifty million dollars in a convoluted financial deal, but when Catterina falls ill with the mumps they need to find a doppelganger who they can pass off as the real Princess, which they manage to do when they find actress Nancy Lane. Cary Grant’s journalist is suspicious of the whole shebang but then falls for Nancy, in this warm hearted and sweet romcom, it’s lacking Sturges’ usual bouts of pratfalls and slapstick daftness in general which might be because apparently the director cut a fair bit of his script out, but the dialogue is still pretty sharp and I was quite charmed by it. Click here for the full review.

Diamond Jim (1935) – Biopic of railroad man Jim Brady (Edward Arnold) a jocular man who makes a hell of a lot of money wheeling and dealing, and has a long standing friendship with entertainer Lillian Russell who he loves but who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. It’s a sweet natured film, Brady is a fun character to spend time with, and while not up there with his best contains some fun dialogue. Click here for the full review.

The Good Fairy (1935) – When orphan Luisa (Margaret Sullivan) gets given a job as a cinema usherette and makes friends with a snarky waiter (Reginald Owen) he invites her to a posh party the following night so that she can see how the other half live. Unfortunately the horribly rapey Konrad (Frank Morgan) takes a fancy to her and won’t take no for an answer, at least until she tells him she’s married and picks a stranger out of the phone book as her supposed other half, and farce ensues. It’s a very likeable comedy which has a strong performance from Margaret Sullivan, it’s definitely a shame that a few of the scenes see her in a very uncomfortable situation with Konrad which she only escapes from out of pure luck, but the script is strong elsewhere, and Luisa and eventual love interest Dr Sporum (Herbert Marshall) have such fun together that I enjoyed it a great deal overall. Click here for the full review.

College Swing aka Swing, Teacher, Swing (1938) – A musical from Raoul Walsh that Sturges did a bit of uncredited work on, this is mostly an excuse to throw some sketches and songs together with the vague storyline about a young woman cheating on an exam and so becoming the new owner of a university who hires a number of normally quite rubbish teachers. Bob Hope, George Burns, Betty Grable and Gracie Allen are among the stars in this patchy work, which sometimes is really funny and sometimes is rather frustratingly dull. Click here for the full review.

Solely Written By Sturges

Easy Living (1937) – Mitchell Leisen directed this flimsy but fun flick which sees banker Mr Ball (Edward Arnold) argue with his wife and throw her expensive fur coat off of the roof, and when it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) her life is changed forever more. That’s mainly because hotelier Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) believes she’s having an affair with Mr Ball and so lets her stay in the Imperial Suite, and quite by chance she unknowingly begins romancing Ball’s son John Jr (Ray Milland) who’s decided to try and make his own way in the world away from his father. It’s a farcical situation as Mary is increasingly given all manner of things for free, and though it almost ends in disaster for all, it of course has a happy ending. It’s perhaps occasionally a little broad, but both Arnold and Arthur make for great leads, the script is full of memorable dialogue, and there’s some great slapstick too, making this a very likeable piece. Click here for the full review.

Hotel Haywire (1937) – Slightly convoluted farce where after a prank backfires, the wife of dentist Mr Parkhouse thinks he’s cheating on her, and a dodgy psychic ends up exploiting her by getting her to pay two of his clients to follow her husband around. Meanwhile their daughter is due to marry but the potential father in law thinks his son is a no good waste of space, though this is a plot which is largely on the back burner until the very end. It has its moments but is one of the weakest films scripted by Sturges, at an hour and six minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome but there’s still a few scenes that drag, and while there’s a fair amount which will make you smile I only found myself laughing out loud the once. Click here for the full review.

If I Were King (1938) – When the vagabond poet François Villon is involved in a robbery of the King’s stores he ends up discovering that the King Louis XI’s Chief Constable is a traitor, and after events spiral out of control he’s given the job as his replacement and asked to lead the armies while dispensing justice, but he only has one week to save the world / France. Basil Rathbone’s theatrical performance as King Louis XI oddly reminds me of Albert Steptoe in some ways, due to his physicality and the way he cackles a lot, while Coleman is how I imagine Sturges himself to be, all witty and flirtatious, in a movie which is very entertaining and right up there with the best of Sturges pre-directorial career films. Click here for the full review.

Port Of Seven Seas (1938) – Marius (John Beal) can’t resist the call of the sea and so leaves both girlfriend Madelon (Maureen O’Sullivan) and father Cesar (Wallace Beery) without even telling them face to face, and both are rather upset. Events are complicated when Cesar’s friend Panisse (Frank Morgan) proposes, and boy is he creepy as he keeps on calling Madelon a “little girl”, and Madelon accepts as she’s pregnant with Marius’s son and fears being ruined. Of course Marinus eventually returns and wants Madelon back, but will she ditch her old husband and forgive the man who treated her so poorly? For the first hour it’s an often quite funny affair as Cesar and Panisse bicker, but threatens to lurch in to melodrama in the final twenty minutes, yet the ending is actually a rather sweet and touching one. You can tell from the few locations it’s filmed in it was based on a stage play but it’s a strong adaptation, and the script is filled with some very witty moments along with some thoughtful observations on love and relationships. Click here for the full review.

Never Say Die (1939) – Bob Hope’s a hypochondriac and the target of black widow Mrs Marko (Gale Sondergaard), but when a medical test is accidentally mixed up with a dog’s he thinks he’s only got 30 days to live and so agrees to marry Mickey (Martha Raye) so that she doesn’t have to marry the evil Prince Smirnov. Lots of slapstick, a bit of bear kissing and some bedsharing with a loudmouth Texan man follow, in this incredibly charming and lovably daft affair, it moves at an impressive pace, has lots of fun set pieces, and for me is right up there with Sturges’ best. Click here for the full review.

Remember The Night (1940) – District attorney John Sargent feels sorry for Barbara Stanwyck’s dodgy thief Lee Leander and so organises it so that she doesn’t have to spend Christmas in jail, and she ends up with John and his family instead. This may not be Sturges’ funniest script but this Christmas set charmer certainly tugs at the old heart strings, especially when Lee reacts warmly to John’s family’s hospitality, and it’s an extremely sweet natured and very appealing affair. Click here for the full review.

Written And Directed By Sturges

The Great McGinty (1940) – Sturges is of course best known for producing a variety of highly praised and fairly varied comedies in the thirties and forties, but his directorial debut, which he also wrote, is quite different from the majority of his work. It is a film which contains a lot of political satire but it also borders on melodrama at times, and the ending is a rare example where the director offers up a quite pessimistic view of the way of the world. Some of the satire’s a little on the nose too, but mostly this is enjoyable material, if not the best he had to offer. Click here for the full review.

Christmas in July (1940) – Jimmy (Dick Powell) is tricked by three work colleagues in to thinking he’s won a competition to come up with a slogan for a coffee company, even though said slogan “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is clearly a shit one which people only pretend to understand / agree with. Due to a poorly run company the winning cheque is issued, and Jimmy goes on a shopping spree, but of course soon it’s discovered that he didn’t win, and chaos ensues. A tight 67 minutes, this is an amiable enough effort though it’s one of his flimsiest films, the first half takes too long to get going, and it only becomes really enjoyable in the second part. I wasn’t that taken with Dick Powell’s surly lead either, though Ellen Drew as the romantic interest is decent at least. Click here for the full review.

The Lady Eve (1941) – An Oscar nominated affair where Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) is a con artist who works a cruise ship with her father, hustling gentlemen and winning lots of money from them, until she meets Charles (Peter Fonda) and falls in love. When he finds out the truth about her he’s fucked off no end and wants nothing more to do with her, so Jean pretends to be Lady Eve, a posh British type, and ends up marrying him, before telling him about all of her past loves and he’s outraged and leaves her again. There’s a happy ending of course, but it’s quite a bizarre piece, one that’s fun enough for the first hour but then becomes really bloody great in the final thirty minutes. Click here for the full review.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – Two thirds a screwball comedy where a film director heads out in to the world with only ten cents to see what it’s like to experience being poor, and one third an oh fuck, this is bleak as he’s mugged, everyone think he’s dead, and he suffers greatly. This wasn’t what I was expecting at all but it is a fascinating work, carefully never romanticising poverty, while Veronica Lake makes for a great female foil to Joel McCrea’s surly lead. Click here for the full review.

Safeguarding Military Information (1941) – Okay, I’m being an over the top completist by featuring this, but this serious public information film does have one funny scene as Eddie Bracken is a soldier once again, who goofily flirts with his girlfriend over the phone, accidentally giving away military secrets as she’s jealous of him and claims another girl who likes him “Is built like a bicycle”. Sadly for him and his fellow men a dodgy German spy is sat next to him, and soon the ship he’s serving on is torpedoed in a very sudden brutal ending to the segment. There’s also a melodramatic wife screaming when a train crashes to her loose mouth which made me laugh, but otherwise this is serious fare, yet quite interestingly directed in places and so something the Sturges completist will want to see.

The Palm Beach Story (1942) – A fast talking rom-com where Gerry (Claudette Colbert) wants to divorce her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) because they’re so poor, and she thinks he’ll find success if he doesn’t have to pay for her upkeep. When she heads off to Palm Beach to get divorced she meets millionaire J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) and his crazy sister Maud (Mary Astor), who’s easily the best character in the piece, and hijinks ensue. It starts off well, and the sequence on the train with the gun toting millionaires is fantastic, but it sags around the half way point and though it picks up towards the end despite being very likeable it’s not a movie I love, quite possibly as Joel McCrea is so bloody drab in it. Click here for the full review.

The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek (1943) – Trudy (Betty Hutton) goes dancing with some soldiers who are heading off to war the next day, but then after drinking a glass of lemonade can’t remember anything until the morning, where she realises she’s married and pregnant, with no idea who the father is. So, um, yeah, this is a very weird set up where someone is date raped but it’s kind of ignored and the rest of the movie’s played for laughs as her friend Norval (Eddie Bracken), who has been in love with his entire life, promises to marry her so she can live a respectable life. Doing so is complicated and convoluted but eventually there’s a happy ending, even if it’s a film which is built on a very dodgy premise indeed. I’ve no idea what Sturges was thinking, but, um, ignoring the elephant in the room it’s otherwise an enjoyable affair, it lags a bit in the middle but is otherwise often quite funny. Click here for the full review.

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944) – Woodrow (Eddie Bracken) returns home after being kicked out of the marines before even seeing any action as he’s got hay fever, though some friendly soldiers organise it so that he can return home to his dead old mama without seeming like a disappointment. The whole thing spirals out of control though as the entire town gathers to welcome him, and soon they want him to run for mayor, he’s desperate to tell the truth but the others won’t let him. Seeing Bracken being increasingly nervous and frustrated was a highlight, and Demarest is superb in this, as is Walburn as the major, but they stretch the concept a little too thinly and it probably could have done with being 20 minutes shorter. Click here for the full review.

The Great Moment (1944) – More a drama with some comic moments than a comedy, despite what those bastards at imdb say, this tells the story of William Morton (Joel McCrea) the man who discovered the use of ether for general anaesthesia. What sounds like a fairly dry tale is actually quite interesting as dentists used to be greatly mocked by those in the medical profession, William Demarest as the first patient it’s tested on is great value and very funny, and there’s a good few amusing moments involving terrified dental patients or Morton passing out while fucking about with chemicals. It does become a little melodramatic in the final seconds of the movie, but otherwise avoids such a thing, and though a definite lesser work it’s still enjoyable enough. Click here for the full review.

The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock (1947) – Sturges persuaded Harold Lloyd to come out of retirement to star as the titular character who after being fired from his job drinks alcohol for the first time, makes a crazy bet and parties hard, waking up with no memory of the previous day or the circus he’s now bought. I really liked the way it opens with a fun clip from 1925’s The Freshman and then continues the story decades later, and Diddlebock’s squeal and all round bolshiness when drunk made me laugh. It is a little uneven, and I can’t help but feel that poor old Jackie The Lion probably had a miserable time of it, but overall it’s a film I enjoyed watching and Lloyd is really great in it, it’s a shame it flopped and so he never acted again. Click here for the full review.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) – Considered to be the last, great Sturges film, it’s a very funny but very twisted piece as composer Sir Alfred (Rex Harrison, magnificent) suspects that his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell, adorable) has been cheating on him, and so we bear witness to three possible scenarios where he either becomes murderous, charitable or all kinds of pissy and up for a game of Russian Roulette. He finally decides he does want to kill her but the reality of such a thing ends up with him prat falling all over the place, and luckily he finally discovers that she didn’t’ cheat on him after all. The scenes of him committing murder sees him laughing like a maniac, while the Russian Roulette game backfires in a horrendous manner, and it contains scenes of really black humour that took me quite by surprise given that it was shot in the 40’s, and because of all of the above it’s my favourite film of his so far. Click here for the full review.

The Beautiful Blonde From Bashford Bend (1949) – Wow, what a mess, and it is all kinds of problematic too. There’s some really dodgy racism when it comes to Conchita and the way the townsfolk treat her when they think she’s an native American Indian, and though it was nice to see El Brendel again (whose 1930 film Just Imagine I’m a big fan of) he’s treated quite poorly too. Then there’s the Basserman Brothers who are clearly learning disabled but also the subject of much mockery, and it’s all very dodgy indeed. There were some cute moments, I liked the friendship between Freddie and Conchita, and the way the former bickers with Blackie (The Batman tv series’ Cesar Romero) is reminiscent of director Sturges best work, but it’s not enough to save this from being at the very best a misjudged curiosity. Click here for the full review.

The Diary Of Major Thompson aka The French, They Are A Funny Race (1955) – An unusual film for Sturges to end his career as a director on, there’s not really much of a narrative to it other than the domestic squabbles between Major Thompson and his wife, and it is more a selection of sketches based on Thompson’s views on the French that he hopes to publish in book form. Some of them are quite funny, and some of them are a bit weak, but I found it oddly likeable most of the time though there are definitely some sections which drag a bit. Click here for the full review.

Remakes Of Sturges Films / Plays

I’ll Be Yours (1947) – Based on the same play as Sturges 1935 film The Good Fairy, with Sturges script being mentioned in the credits, Louise Ginglebusher (Deanna Durbin) is new to the city and broke too, and a succession of men are either kind to her or forcefully try to seduce her. It’s by no means a bad movie but given how similar it is to the 1935 version I can’t help but feel that there isn’t any point in it existing, and anyone who has seen the original shouldn’t bother with this. Louise is a slightly savvier and less naïve character than the first take on the play and Durbin is pretty great in the film, but the waiter character in the original was a lot more fun than the version we see here, and male lead Tom Drake is utterly bland and almost completely lacking in charm. The dialogue is fine in places but the majority of the time it’s only gently amusing, the film starts off well but once Drake becomes a major player the film starts to drag and the second half is annoyingly dull. Click here for the full review.

Strictly Dishonorable (1951) – The second adaptation of the stage play, this sees Janet Leigh fall for Ezio Pinza’s Count Gus, and unlike the majority of remakes it actually has a reason to exist as it takes the original tale and expands upon it a great deal. The original featured only a few characters and slightly claustrophobic piece set mostly in two locations, whereas this expands the cast and the places they interact in, and I found it to be rather charming, and would even go as far as to say that I prefer it to the 1931 film. Click here for the full review.

The Birds And The Bees (1956) – A remake of The Lady Eve but the only major differences are two songs and a slightly different ending, but otherwise it’s very, very similar and as remakes go there’s really no reason for this to exist. It’s not a travesty because the original was so much fun, but Gaynor lacks Stanwyck’s charm and moxie, George Gobel is very limp and even quite unlikeable in places and when it comes to the slapstick and physical comedy he’s no match for Fonda. Also on the casting front George’s valet Marty is no Mugsy, that’s for sure, and the only improvement is David Niven’s Colonel who makes for a fun sort of villain, but otherwise anyone who chooses to watch this over The Lady Eve is quite frankly insane and should be locked away for the rest of their lives, or for a day or two anyway.  Click here for the full review.

Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) – Jerry Lewis stars in this remake of The Miracle Of Morgan Creek which should have been called “A Man And Three Babies” if it wanted to accurately describe the story. It’s one of those times where the idea of it being a remake is something of a stretch too, it takes a very minor element of Sturges film but goes off in its own direction where a woman finds she’s pregnant and regrets it, but here she dumps the kids on Jerry Lewis and fucks off and he has to bring them up even though he’s not the father. It’s occasionally a musical with a number of short songs, and unfortunately has the odd dodgy racist gag (Lewis pretending to be Japanese and a Native American being the worst moments) but most of the time this is good natured fare which has some pretty funny bits of physical comedy and all round silliness in it. Click here for the full review.

Unfaithfully Yours (1984) – Remake of the 1948 classic which takes the majority of the things which was great about it and discards them, and contains only the very basic plot and a couple of scenes. It’s okay I suppose, not hideous by any means, but it suffers a great deal in comparison and Dudley Moore’s lead is shouty and annoying and exhausting. Click here for the full review.

Books By Or On Sturges

Book Review: Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges – A mixture of a partially finished autobiography, letters and notes edited together after his death by his wife Sandy Sturges, this is in a fascinating insight in to his life, concentrating on his early years for the majority of it and I wish more of it covered his films, but he led a quite amazing life prior to becoming a director and so this is a must read to anyone even vaguely interested in the man. Click here for the full review.

Documentaries On Sturges

Preston Sturges – The Rise and Fall Of An American Dreamer – A clips heavy documentary that could have done with a few more talking heads and a little less footage of his films, nevertheless this is of value as it contains a great selection of behind the scenes footage, and a lot of what those who are interviewed have to say is very interesting. Click here for the full review.

Alex Finch.
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