"American Masters" opens its fifth season tonight with "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" (10 p.m. on Channel 28; 8 p.m. on Channel 50), a succinct and illuminating one-hour survey of one of the most talented and influential but ill-fated writer-directors in the history of Hollywood.
Produced and directed by Kenneth Bowser and written by film historian and former Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, this documentary is gratifyingly worthy of its complex subject.
Exceptionally pertinent reminiscences and wonderful film clips back up McCarthy's description of Sturges as "the first screenwriter to establish himself as a director, who introduced irony to screen comedy. . . . He was a low-brow aristocrat and melancholy wise guy. In being a brilliant American dreamer, he reaped the rewards and paid the price."
After nearly a decade in Hollywood, Sturges persuaded Paramount to let him direct "The Great McGinty" (1940)--the film that "would change Hollywood forever" because at that time it was unheard of for a screenwriter to direct his own scripts. (In order to achieve this breakthrough, the well-paid Sturges charged the studio only $1 for his screenplay, a delightfully cynical political satire.)
Born in 1898, the dashing Sturges had an extraordinarily bohemian upbringing, thanks to his free-thinking mother, who was a great friend of Isadora Duncan. But as has so often been the case, the kind of childhood that might otherwise produce a misfit can be perfect for Hollywood. Indeed, Sturges did flounder--although he did invent a kiss-proof lipstick!--until chance inspired him to try his hand at being a playwright.
Achieving instant success, Sturges soon was lured to Hollywood, where among other films he wrote "The Power and the Glory" (1933), a clear prototype for "Citizen Kane."
Clips from, among others, "McGinty," "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" have been chosen in part for their autobiographical content. There are affectionate and revealing recollections of the stars of the last-mentioned comedy, Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken, as well as from Cesar Romero, his Paramount secretary Edwin Gillette and his widow Sandy.
Especially insightful are the remarks of Frances Ramsden, whom Sturges cast opposite Harold Lloyd in "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" and who became his lover for five years, and those of silent star Priscilla Bonner, who, with her husband, became Sturges' closest friends upon his arrival in Hollywood in 1930.
The war years were the glory years for Sturges, who in picture after picture pulled off the always challenging feat of making wit and sophistication pay off at the box office.
It was Sturges' misfortune that his most offbeat project, "The Great Moment," a comedy-drama about the inventor of anesthesia (of all things) would coincide with the ascendancy of the unsympathetic Buddy De Sylva at Paramount. Howard Hughes would next sabotage "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," Sturges would momentarily recoup with a record-setting--$7,800 a week--three-picture deal at Fox, which would yield the terrific, pitch-dark but uncommercial "Unfaithfully Yours." After that, it was a very swift fall.