Preston Sturges (August 29, 1898 – August 6, 1959), originally Edmund Preston Biden, was a celebrated screenwriter and director born in Chicago.
Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for one of Sturges' actors to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene. A love scene between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve was enlivened by a horse, who repeatedly poked his nose into Fonda's head.
He is often credited as the first writer to direct his own script, but this is untrue. Many major directors such as Frank Capra and Howard Hawks preceded Sturges in making the leap from writing to directing. However, Sturges may have been the first to be promoted as such by the studios for publicity. Famously, he supposedly sold his screenplay for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures for $1, in exchange for the director's job.
His parents were Mary Estelle Dempsey and travelling salesman Edmund Biden. When Sturges was three, his eccentric mother left America for Paris to pursue a singing career. There she annulled her marriage with Preston's father. Returning to America, Dempsey met her third husband, the wealthy stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who then adopted Preston in 1902. According to biographers, Solomon Sturges was "diametrically opposite to Mary and her bohemianism." His mother, ultimately known as Mary Desti through her fourth marriage, was famous for her friendship with Isadora Duncan.
As a young man, Preston Sturges bounced back and forth between Europe and the States. In 1916 he worked as a runner for New York stock brokers, a position available through Solomon Sturges. The next year Preston enlisted in the Air Service and graduated as a lieutenant from Camp Dick in Texas. While at camp Preston published "Three Hundred Words of Humor," his first work, in the camp newspaper. Returning from camp, Sturges picked up a managing position at the Desti Emporium in New York, a store owned by his mother's fourth husband. He spent eight years (1919-1927) there, until he married the first of his four wives, Estelle De Wolfe.
From Broadway to Hollywood
In 1928, Sturges' first produced play, The Guinea Pig, opened in Massachusetts. A success, it moved to Broadway the following year, a turning point in Sturges' career. 1929 also saw Sturges' second play, the smash Strictly Dishonorable. This attracted interest from Hollywood, and Sturges had written his first screenplays for Paramount by the end of the year.
Several Sturges stage plays were produced from 1930-1932, but none were hits. By the end of the year, he was working more in Hollywood as a writer-for-hire, operating from short contract to short contract, for studios like Universal, MGM and Columbia. He also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane.
For the remainder of the 1930s, Sturges operated under the strict auspices of the studio system, working on a string of scripts, some of which were shelved. This experience built his resolve to take control of his own projects, which he finally accomplished in 1939 by trading his screenplay for The Great McGinty (written six years earlier) in exchange for the chance to direct it.
He won the first Academy Award ever given for Writing Original Screenplay for the McGinty script. Perhaps more impressively, Sturges received two screenwriting Oscar nominations in the same year, for 1944's Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
Sturges liked to reuse many of the same character actors, such as William Demarest, Byron Foulger, Victor Potel, Robert Grieg, Jimmy Conlin, Charles R. Moore, Robert Warwick, or Franklin Pangborn, giving him what amounted to a regular troupe even within the studio system.
Though he enjoyed a 30-year Hollywood career, the greatest of Sturges' comedies were filmed in a furious 5-year burst of activity. One of them, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, was literally being written by Sturges at night even as the production was being filmed in the daytime; the cast and crew were rarely more than 10 pages ahead of Sturges the screenwriter. Half a century later, that movie was one of four Sturges' films to be chosen among the American Film Institute's 100 funniest, along with The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story. Their combination of sentiment and cynicism has kept them fresh for today's audiences.
Independence and decline
Sturges was a tempermental talent who fully recognized his own worth. He had also invested in entrepreneurial projects such as an engineering company and The Players, a popular restaurant and nightclub, and thus Sturges did not have the same financial worries as most studio system employees. Despite the financial and critical success of his films, he continued to clash with Paramount brass over scripts and budgets.
Millionaire Howard Hughes, who'd struck up a friendship with Sturges, offered to bankroll him as an independent filmmaker. In early 1944, Sturges and Hughes formed a partnership called California Pictures. The deal represented a major pay cut for Sturges, but it established him as a writer-producer-director, the only one in Hollywood and one of only three in the world (along with England's Noel Coward and France's Rene Clair). The status led to widespread admiration and envy among his Hollywood peers.
However, this career peak also marked the beginning of Sturges' professional decline. While the startup California Pictures was being created and structured, it was three years until Sturges' next release. That film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, went over budget and far over schedule, and was poorly received. Hughes, who had promised not to interfere in the film's production, stepped in. But his reedited version, retitled Mad Wednesday, was no more successful. The deal between the two iconoclasts had fallen apart after just one picture. As Sturges later recalled, "When Mr. Hughes made suggestions with which I disagreed, as he had a perfect right to do, I rejected them. When I rejected the last one, he remembered he had an option to take control of the company and he took over. So I left."
Sturges was left professionally adrift. Accepting an offer from Darryl Zanuck, he landed at Fox where he wrote, directed, and produced two films. The first of these, Unfaithfully Yours (1948), was not well received upon release by either reviewers or the public, though its critical reputation has since improved. However, his second Fox film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), was the first serious flop in star Betty Grable's career, and Sturges was again on his own.
He built a theater at his Players restaurant, but the project did not pan out. Over the next several years, Sturges continued to write, but many of the projects were underfunded or stillborn, and those that emerged did not approach the same success as his earlier triumphs.
Sturges himself made three brief film cameos, in two of his own films and in the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday. Two decades earlier, Sturges had written one of Hope's earliest film successes, Never Say Die.
Sturges was married four times. His wives were: Estelle deWolfe Mudge, married 1923, divorced 1927; Eleanor Close (a daughter of Marjorie Merriweather (Post) Close Hutton Davies May), eloped 1930, annulled 1932; Louise Sargent Tevis, married 1938, divorced 1947; Anne Nagle (Sandy), married 1951 - 1959.
Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel while writing his autobiography, and was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His book "Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words" was published in 1990 by Simon & Schuster. (ISBN 0-671-67929-5)
Examples of Sturges dialogue