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Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges edited and with an introduction by Brian Henderson (University of California: $35; 848 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Charles Champlin

Preston Sturges, who died in 1959 at age 61, is among film enthusiasts a cult figure only slightly less exalted than Orson Welles.

Like Welles, he had an exotic, culture-drenched childhood, much of it spent in Europe, where his free-spirited mother palled around with Isadora Duncan and her lover Paris Singer. Sturges boarded with a French family and was sent to elegant schools in France and Switzerland. He learned to fly but saw no action in World War I and ran his mother's cosmetics firm (he also invented a kissproof lipstick) before he turned to writing.

He wrote a smashingly successful Broadway play, "Strictly Dishonorable," later filmed twice, and did dialogue for films as early as 1930. Three Broadway flops in succession sent him to Hollywood to repair his fortunes. He wrote "Diamond Jim" and other substantial films but wanted to direct as well, and finally did.

Ultimately, he wrote and directed no more than a dozen films, and his reputation rests on only eight of those, made at Paramount in a period of furious creativity between 1939-44. Five of the actual scripts are photographically reproduced in this hefty, pricey volume annotated by Brian Henderson.

The five here are "The Great McGinty," "Christmas in July," "The Lady Eve" and "Sullivan's Travels," which were the first four of the Paramount films, and "Hail the Conquering Hero," which was the last.

Like the scripts of Billy Wilder, Sturges' make unusually delightful reading, free of most of the usual cumbersome shot indications, suggested voice inflections and other guidances that directors traditionally ignore.

At that, his scripts were, as most are, selling tools, designed to seduce studio executives into doing the film and--an even harder sell at first--into letting Sturges direct. In these pages you hear a highly individual voice, cheerful and personal, as against the standard omniscient tone that gives a functional stylistic sameness to most scripts, whatever their period, plot or persuasion.

In the script of "Hail the Conquering Hero" (originally titled "The Little Marine"), Sturges interrupts one heavily populated conversation with a note: "I am tired of cutting back and forth. The rest of this will be written as a master scene." He thus saved himself the drudgery of writing "CUT TO:" more than 40 times.

For the film student, the scripts are demonstrations of comedy construction at its most expert and of the writing of vernacular dialogue at its most effective. Sturges' early immersion in high culture seems to have turned him off it (Welles' reacted quite differently). He stayed rather defiantly middlebrow, with a sharp but never cruel gift of humor.

In "The Lady Eve," Eve, eventually played by Barbara Stanwyck, tries to tell a funny story amid an outbreak of hostilities at the dinner table. The entangling of her story and the conversation at large carries on for several pages, a characteristic Sturges use of the ascending running gag.

The critic Manny Farber compared Sturges' control of humor to Mark Twain's, and the comparison is not hyperbolic. Sturges had the same eye and ear for foibles and pomposities, the same power to identify civic ills by lightly satirizing them.

Which is the best of Sturges' films is a lively debate, but certainly the most autobiographical, and the hardest edged, is "Sullivan's Travels," in which a Hollywood director ("So Long, Sarong," "Hey, Hey in the Hayloft" and "Ants in Your Plants of 1939" among his credits) wants to go off and make a film about the real Depression America, to be called "For Whom the Night Falls."

"These are troublous times," he explains to the appalled studio executives. "You want to grind ten thousand feet of hard luck," one of them says sourly, "and all I'm asking is what do you know about hard luck?" Sullivan agrees he knows very little, and goes off into the land incognito to find out, with mixed consequences.

Sturges' own creative streak ended dramatically as it began. He joined Howard Hughes and collaborated with Harold Lloyd on "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," but lost control of the film to Hughes, who cut his own version and released it as "Mad Wednesday." Sturges made a couple more American films and withdrew to France, where he made his last film, "The French They Are a Funny Race," in 1955. It was as awkward as the title.

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