Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The John Hughes/Preston Sturges Connection

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The following article is a guest post by Yacov Freedman. He works in TV production and online marketing, writes the MoviesOnTCM Twitter feed, and is pursuing a Masters in film studies from Emory University. His Twitter comments upon John Hughes’ passing led me to ask him to contribute an article to Movie Morlocks. I will contribute a post later today, on Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

John Hughes passed away, suddenly, unexpectedly, on August 6th. As it turns out, he was the second famous filmmaker to fade out on that date. Fifty years earlier, on August 6th, 1959, Preston Sturges made his exit, just as suddenly and unexpectedly. Both men were in Manhattan when it happened, and both succumbed to heart attacks. Hughes was 59 years old; Sturges was 60.

Coincidences aside, linking their deaths raises some fascinating comparisons about their lives. Most notably, Sturges and Hughes had oddly similar careers: they both started out as highly-sought screenwriters who then parlayed their success into directing. As directors, they possessed rare talents for combining sophisticated dialogue with broad comedy, such as slapstick, chase scenes, and musical interludes. They were also fiercely loyal to their actors – Sturges with his Stock Company, and Hughes with his Brat Pack.

mcgintyAnd, unfortunately, their careers were all too short. Preston Sturges and John Hughes both seemed to flare up for brief, intensely prolific periods of creativity, then die down just as quickly. Sturges’ heyday was the early 1940’s, during which he wrote and directed eight features in five years – a remarkable run which included The Great McGintyThe Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. These were films that simultaneously defined and transcended the Screwball Comedy genre; the stories often revolved around marriage and romance (or “sex,” as he so honestly put it), but they also touched upon politics, patriotism, pregnancy, crime, art, and showbiz itself. Those subjects weren’t exclusive to Sturges, but nobody else in Hollywood was tackling all of them. His approach to storytelling was also unique: he never outright moralized, and structured his madcap plots without once including a true villain. Sturges always imbued even his most eccentric characters with some sort of internal logic.

Whatever he was doing, he did it well, and Sturges became an absolute sensation. He won awards, appeared in other people’s movies, and made as many enemies as admirers. Moreover, his films were so dissimilar, so outrageously unpredictable, and so undeniably funny that critics couldn’t believe they all stemmed from just one man. But not only did Sturges work alone, he greatly resented any form of studio interference. In 1944, he left Paramount, his employer for more than a decade, in a bid for more autonomy – and that’s when his success began to unravel. Collaborations with Howard Hughes and Darryl Zanuck went over schedule, over budget, and worse yet, proved unprofitable. By 1950, his money had run out, and nobody in Hollywood would hire him, even as a screenwriter.

Forty years post-Sturges, John Hughes had an equally amazing string of hits in a sixteencandles2blazingly short amount of time. Within seven years, he wrote fifteen films, and directed eight of them, many of which became landmarks of teenage cinema. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were anthems of 80’s adolescence, filled with questions about individualism, authority, and of course, sex. They also managed to be both touching and, at times, hilarious, and their stars – along with Hughes himself – became pop-culture icons.

And then, seemingly without warning, he left it all behind. He stopped directing in the early 90’s, and though he continued to write and produce, even that waned. During his final decade, he lent his name to only a handful of projects, and sold a couple of screenplays under a pseudonym. He lived in the rural Midwest and refused interviews, gaining a reputation as a recluse. Like Sturges, he became completely cut off from Hollywood, but with a crucial difference: Hughes’ exile was mysteriously self-imposed.

The day after John Hughes’ death, Alison Byrne Fields wrote a now-famous blog entry about her correspondence with the filmmaker. As a teenager in the 1980’s, she became his unlikely pen pal, and his letters to her were as thoughtful and sincere as his movies. Alison and John lost touch, but reconnected in a 1997 phone conversation, which she vividly recalled:

John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that “they” (Hollywood) had “killed” his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Hughes was thinking about his sons even while he was still working in Hollywood. After Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he abandoned his loyal teenage audience and began making films about adults – specifically, adults with families. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) concerns two men, one of whom wants to reunite with his family, and one of whom tragically has none. (John Candy, as the one without a family, delivers the film’s most telling observation, “The finest line a man can walk is between success at home and success at work.”) She’s Having a Baby (1988) and Uncle Buck (1989) both feature a self-centered man-child who finally matures after being thrust into fatherhood.

Curly SueThen came Curly Sue. Nobody suspected it at the time, but this 1991 dramedy about an adorable little girl would be Hughes’ final outing as a director. Often ignored by Hughes acolytes, Curly Sue is a frustrating film because it’s his most atypical. There’s no pop music on the soundtrack, the dialogue is strangely old-fashioned (aside from a gag involving cellphones, it could have been set in any decade), and there’s not a teenager in sight. In fact, on the surface, it resembles a Preston Sturges plot: a team of father-daughter con artists (like in The Lady Eve) escape homelessness (a la Sullivan’s Travels) thanks to the generosity of a surprise benefactor (The Palm Beach Story) and a crooked politician (The Great McGinty).

The difference is that Curly Sue is too sentimental and blatantly ethical to ever be confused with Sturges. The title character may be a fast-talking card shark (again, reminiscent of The Lady Eve), but she’s never allowed the slightest hint of menace. She and her father are grifters who refuse to steal, a contradiction so bizarre that even they don’t seem to get it. The film also lacks the experimental streak that runs through Hughes’ earlier work. No longer do characters break the fourth wall and swear with abandon. When Curly Sue uses even mildly naughty language, she gets scolded for it.

In truth, Curly Sue fits perfectly with the second half of Hughes’ career, because it isn’t really about the girl. It’s about two adults – the father, played by Jim Belushi, and the surprise benefactor, played by Kelly Lynch – who find personal fulfillment by choosing to be parents. This choice was obviously a very personal statement from Hughes, but it makes Curly Sue into a depressingly safe film. Likewise, his subsequent productions (the Home Alone series, a Dennis the Menace feature, remakes of 101 Dalmatians and Miracle on 34th Street) were clean, happy, and inoffensive. Perfect for a family audience.

Perhaps that’s the biggest distinction between John Hughes and Preston Sturges. Whereas Hughes grew conservative and restrained, Sturges became riskier and more Miracleinventive with every new film. Consider his final two hits, both released in 1944: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the story of a woman who can’t remember which soldier got her pregnant at a wild party, and Hail the Conquering Hero is about a rejected marine who pretends to be a war hero upon returning to his hometown. Both these films were made during World War II (!), when the Production Code bristled at the mere suggestion of wartime impropriety. (As critic James Agee famously wrote about The Miracle of Morgans’ Creek, “The Hays Office has been raped in its sleep.”) But Sturges believed in his scripts, and he fought for them – and, incredibly, he won. If he wasn’t trying something new, he was just plain bored.

For Sturges, Hollywood was the least boring place in the world. He met his third and fourth wives there, owned a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and spent a fortune as easily as he made it. Sullivan’s Travels (1942), Sturges’ brassy and brilliant film about film, follows a title character who cannot escape Hollywood, despite his best efforts. Eventually, Sullivan recognizes this as a gift, something that Sturges has known all along. Sturges considered it a privilege to be able to make movies, and though he was born in Chicago, he felt Hollywood was where he belonged. Until Hollywood, in a plot twist even he didn’t see coming, cast him out.

John Hughes, in contrast, set all of his films in or around Chicago, always maintaining a strict distance between the land of make-believe and the world of real life. He never belonged to Hollywood, and the more he removed himself from it, the more his vision and his artistry seemed to suffer. But the final victory belonged to him. When he finally left Hollywood behind, he left on his own terms.

Sources:

Harvey, James, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987.

Bowser, Kenneth, American Masters: Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, PBS, 1989.

Christie, Thomas A., John Hughes and Eighties Cinema, Crescent Moon Publishing, 2009.

Shary, Timothy, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen, Wallflower and Columbia University Press, 2005.

6 Responses Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The John Hughes/Preston Sturges Connection
Posted By Patricia : August 25, 2009 4:16 pm

Interesting read. I never thought of Sturges’ or Hughes’ careers as “all too short”. As Spencer Tracy says in “Pat and Mike” – “what’s there is cherce!”

Posted By Patricia : August 25, 2009 4:16 pm

Interesting read. I never thought of Sturges’ or Hughes’ careers as “all too short”. As Spencer Tracy says in “Pat and Mike” – “what’s there is cherce!”

Posted By Cantara Christopher : August 27, 2009 8:48 pm

Yes, write something about The Sin of Harold Diddlebock aka Mad Wednesday. It’s always been one of my favorite Preston Sturges films, along with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story

Posted By Cantara Christopher : August 27, 2009 8:48 pm

Yes, write something about The Sin of Harold Diddlebock aka Mad Wednesday. It’s always been one of my favorite Preston Sturges films, along with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Palm Beach Story

Posted By Martin : October 15, 2009 4:38 pm

Sturges Paramount “greats” are just that…G.R.E.A.T.
I could watch many of them every day…The Palm Beach Story…Sullivan’s Travels…Miracle of MOrgan’s Creek…Hail The Conquering Her. But the one that always gets me wasn’t even made at Paramount. It was Unfaithfully Yours, made at 20th.
Most of his “gang” are in the picture and it is my all time Sturges favorite. The key is his ear for current “lingo.”
And Rex Harrison was absolutely perfect as Sir Alfred DeCarter…who in many respects was supposed to be Sturges going through his painful divorce.
Sturges, Wilder, Lubitsch, McCarey, Capra.

Posted By Martin : October 15, 2009 4:38 pm

Sturges Paramount “greats” are just that…G.R.E.A.T.
I could watch many of them every day…The Palm Beach Story…Sullivan’s Travels…Miracle of MOrgan’s Creek…Hail The Conquering Her. But the one that always gets me wasn’t even made at Paramount. It was Unfaithfully Yours, made at 20th.
Most of his “gang” are in the picture and it is my all time Sturges favorite. The key is his ear for current “lingo.”
And Rex Harrison was absolutely perfect as Sir Alfred DeCarter…who in many respects was supposed to be Sturges going through his painful divorce.
Sturges, Wilder, Lubitsch, McCarey, Capra.

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