Posted by David Kalat on May 19, 2012
Last week we took a look at Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story, and in so doing I took a swipe at Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Well, this week I cycle back to give Sullivan’s Travels a second look. I still think it’s weak tea compared to Sturges’ more madcap films like Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July, or Palm Beach Story, but it’s got an autobiographical element that deserves some mention.
I said last week that Sturges lived a genuinely preposterous life, such that his own biography was nuttier than any of his films. By the time he started writing comedy he had been: an American ex-pat raised in France; heir to a perfume business; a composer and songwriter; a (stunt) pilot for the WWI American Air Service; an inventor; a kept man. . . I think I’ve lost track of all the things he did.
This list of peripatetic activities is important because unlike most other great comedians, Sturges did not live for comedy—at least not at first. He found himself writing comedy in his middle age, after having failed at a long list of other careers. He got his break with some plays, of which Strictly Dishonorable was the breakout.
Before we talk about the effect that Strictly Dishonorable had on Sturges, though, we need to say a few words about the film itself. I’d say a few words about the play, because it was the play’s success that had Sturges in a tizzy, but I’ve only ever seen the movie. When I get my time machine, I’m going to go back and see the play, but until then, I have to content myself with the movie version. Either way, it’s a gentler farce than Sturges would later become known for. More Lubitsch than Sturges, it’s an inversion of a cliche plot–this time we get a small-town girl torn between two lovers, one of whom is a European roue phony, but the twist is that the rome phony is the good guy, the all-American boy is a jerk, and the girl is the one with sex on her mind.
For half the running time, we watch as Count Gus (yup, Count Gus) maneuvers himself into place to seduce this girl away from her pretentious, abusive, jackass boyfriend–and then, when he’s ready to make his move, realizes that a) she’s the one seducing him, and b) she’s a virgin.
The gimmick of the thing is that it’s the girl with the dishonorable intentions, and when Gus backs out of taking her virginity (“you are a baby!”) she is furious. His refusal to have a one-night stand with her very nearly wrecks their nascent relationship and ruins all hope of romance!
There’s a lot to like about Strictly Dishonorable–it’s as impressive as early screen comedy gets. I’m sorry for the crummy clip–the only copy I have has burned in French subtitles. Keep watching the TCM schedule–it’ll come around again sometime (the 1951 remake with Janet Leigh is on in a few days) and you need to catch up with it when it does.
The success of the play made Sturges into a “name,” and catapulted him into Hollywood, where his brilliant comic mind thrived–and this success gave him heart palpitations and soul-searching heartaches.
Why? Well, because it was funny—and amusing people by making them laugh has never been treated by critics as being as worthy an artistic pursuit as making them brood over drama. Sturges bought into that prejudice, and fretted that unless he proved himself with something dramatic, he would be dismissed by the critics.
In the entire history of the Oscars, the number of comedies that have won Best Picture can be counted on one hand; The Golden Globes split out comedies as an entire separate category, and then build up to the grand finale—Best Picture, not the comedy one, at the end. The implication being that making people laugh is an also-ran kind of achievement.
Charlie Chaplin never worried about this. He flirted with drama—but even Woman of Paris is basically a subtle, muted comedy that only pretends to be a drama. Ernst Lubitsch got his start in drama, making Cecil B. DeMille-ish epics, but he shifted gears into comedy and never turned back—and even when he wanted to take on subjects as grotesque and intense as Nazism, he did it through comedies. I could keep going, but you get the point—most comedy-makers are comfortable in their skin and know the power of laughter needs no apologies.
Sturges would get there, eventually, and by the time of Sullivan’s Travels he had. But having worked through that fear and doubt in his younger career gave him the necessary fuel to breathe some personal insight into Sullivan’s Travels. When I first saw the film, I had assumed he was lampooning Frank Capra. Only after learning more about Sturges did I realize he was pulling his own leg—the delusional pretensions that Joel McCrae gets into his head are very much like the ones that haunted Sturges in the aftermath of Strictly Dishonorable.
It’s easy enough to see why you might think this is about Frank Capra—he’s explicitly name checked, for one thing. And the calamities that befall McCrae as he sets out on his adventure seem culled from Capra movies. But the inflection of these things is off—these are manifestly not how Capra would be doing this stuff.
Capra orchestrated everything, characters and situations alike, in a coherent pattern designed to produce a specific moral reaction in the viewer. Here is what’s right, here is what’s wrong, here are the goodies, here are the baddies—Capra lays it all out without shades of gray. But as we discussed last week, Sturges seems to build his films in such a way that all the pieces pull in different directions, for incoherent morals.
What is Palm Beach Story about? Is it about the triumph of romance or the futility of it? What’s the moral of Christmas in July? Are we supposed to celebrate the improbable rise of a dreamer at the hands of capricious Fate, or are we supposed to shudder in horror? Does Hail the Conquering Hero advocate deception, or not? Is the Great McGinty a heroic figure or a monster? And as the comments thread last week hinted, the sexual politics of Miracle at Morgans Creek don’t actually seem to have anything to do with what the characters on screen constantly say they do.
Gerald Mast chalked this schizophrenia up to Sturges’ failing as an artist—as far as Mast was concerned, Sturges insistence on get-out-jail-free endings was a cop-out born of his refusal to fully engage the politics of the ideas he toyed with. Which is one of the reasons I read Mast mostly to get my blood boiling (my copy of The Comic Mind is all dinged up from how many times I’ve thrown it across the room). By contrast, James Harvey “gets” Sturges and understands the power of ironic ambiguity (my copy of Romantic Comedies in Hollywood is all weathered and worn from how many times I’ve re-read it in joy).
Sturges’ version of Capra is aware of its own hypocrisy.
And by hypocrisy—this is what I mean: Capra’s grand moralistic statements are never really about us vs. them. He’s always taking some abstracted stance about them vs. them—for example, in Mr. Deeds, where the battle between Mr. Deeds’ noble soul and the evil political handlers is played out with the idea that if only “they,” the masses, could experience a real politician instead of one all slicked up by machines (another set of “them”), then the country would get back on track. But it’s a vaguely fascist depiction of the American electorate—they are sheep, not people. Real people are messy and contradictory, and don’t do as they’re told. So there’s a hidden hypocrisy buried in Capra’s films, an unacknowledged assumption that Good and Evil make sense as discrete concepts and they don’t overlap.
Sturges sometimes seems like a cynic because he doesn’t buy into that. Sturges’ film sometimes make grand moralistic statements, but they simultaneously undermine them by populating the screen with messily real people who don’t do as they’re told.
Consider the bit where McCrae rewards a tramp’s humane generosity with an out of nowhere gift—one good turn deserves another, so to speak. Capra would leave it off here, leaving a warm, happy feeling in the audience. Or rather, leaving a superficial and self-satisfied moral superiority in the viewer. Sturges doesn’t leave it there, though. He can’t help but stage this “milk of human kindness” in a diner in Las Vegas of all places–and McCrae’s idea of rewarding the man with a $100 bonus comes with a very wise wisecrack about how this is likely to ruin the very man it’s meant to reward. Some good deeds do go punished. Doing the right thing doesn’t always help.
Joel McCrae’s epiphany that making comedies is at least as worthy as making serious dramas isn’t a moral the movie completely commits to. And why should it?
Sturges didn’t have a moment of epiphany like this–he tried his hand at drama and was simply better at comedy. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
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