In Preston Sturges' great comedies, there was usually a hurricane glibness and wit. The movies raced along with a mad abandon that always proved to be under perfect control--full of deadly eloquence and deadpan sendups, wry little twists and cacophonous uproars, satire that lanced through the fatty tissue of wartime America like a sparkling scalpel.
Five Sturges classics will be presented this week at UCLA's Melnitz Theater, (213) 825-2345; the New Beverly, (213) 938-4038; and Vagabond (2509 Wilshire): 1940's "The Great McGinty" (tonight at UCLA; Wed-Thurs. at the Vagabond); 1940's "Christmas in July" (tonight, UCLA; Mon-Tues., New Beverly); 1942's "The Palm Beach Story" and 1941's "The Lady Eve" (both Wed., UCLA), and 1944's "Hail the Conquering Hero" (Mon-Tues., New Beverly; Monday, Aug. 17, UCLA). "Remember the Night," written but not directed by Sturges, shows at UCLA tonight.
In Sturges' heyday--and even afterwards--he was a master of the fast, slightly cynical Hollywood romantic comedy. He created Breugheleseque little worlds populated with an outrageously amusing gallery of secondary characters--a stock company that included roughneck, blustering Bill Demarest; Raymond Walburn of the witheringly scornful glance; sly, shifty little Porter Hall; the eternally prissy Franklin Pangborn; the owlishly fey Eric Blore, and Jimmy Conlin, who looked like a tipsy, wheedling old tout.
Hitting his peak in the early '40s, Sturges refined and subsumed most of the best comedy styles of the '30s: the breeziness and speed of Capra, the spontaneity and heart of Leo McCarey, the suave, saucy balance of Lubitsch, and the nimbly cool intellect of Howard Hawks.
Sturges didn't have Lubitsch's elegance but he didn't need it. He was a satirist of brash \o7 arrivistes \f7 and on-the-move Americans, of racy sex, politics, warfare, money, success. And where other directors sentimentalized or celebrated them, Sturges peeled back, exposed and magnified. But never maliciously, never meanly. He was a generous spirit--a real soft touch--and this shows even in the darkest of his comedies.
This week's quintet are all top-notch. "Christmas in July" is a little masterpiece of compression; in 67 minutes, it gently lays waste to those pipe-dream fantasies of instant success that the movies and TV--and state lotteries--fatten on. "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story" are gloriously giddy romantic comedies: the first, with seductive cardsharp Barbara Stanwyck and shy, snake-loving Henry Fonda; and the second, with its dizzyingly twinned quadrangle of Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee.
"The Great McGinty" and "Hail the Conquering Hero" are two hilarious and fearless vivisections of American politics and hero-worship. In "Hero"--my nomination for Sturges' greatest movie--a hapless, small-town 4-F World War II draft rejectee (Eddie Bracken) is suddenly propelled into war-hero status by six Marines determined to give his mother a thrill. Their scheme escalates uncontrollably into a nightmare of patriotism and celebrity gone amok.
Nowadays, ironically, Sturges is so admired that each new movie that contains even a mild hint of satire, bite or witty dialogue is hailed as "like another Preston Sturges." But there never was another Preston Sturges. And these films--audacious, funny, wildly entertaining--show why.
Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura are, with Masahiro Shinoda, the best of a more iconoclastic generation of Japanese film makers that emerged in the '60s. Two strong films from their earliest periods play Thursday at the Nuart. Oshima's "Cruel Story of Youth" (1960) is a violent juvenile delinquent movie that has some of the wide-screen poetry and passion of Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause." And Imamura's "Pigs and Battleships" (1961) is a ferocious social satire that makes sport of all the corruptions of an American-occupied Japanese port city, Yokosuka.
Information: (213) 478-6379.
Cinematographers rarely get their due and one of Hollywood's best, Gordon Willis, seems to get his even more rarely. In the '70s and '80s, when Willis produced a remarkable body of work that included "Klute," both "Godfathers" and many of Woody Allen's movies, it was common to hear that his style was too mannered, that he was keeping everybody--actors and audience included--too much in the dark. But the current retrospective at USC's Norris Theater starting Saturday, 5:30 p.m., proves that Willis is an intransigent stylist in the Gregg Toland-John Alton mold. In it, we see his beginnings in three 1970 films: Aram Avakian's version of the John Barth novel "End of the Road"; Hal Ashby's delightful culture-clash comedy "The Landlord," and Irvin Kershner's underrated gem of modern \o7 angst, \f7 "Loving."