There are few filmmakers that have enjoyed the kind of run that Preston Sturges had during World War II when he made seven stellar movies in four years, including The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Mogran’s Creek, and Sullivan’s Travels. He was never the same after that, and maybe it’s greedy of us to expect much more from one man. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Douglas McGrath examines Sturges’ brilliant streak:
Whatever combination of alchemy, talent, and luck had existed to make those years so fruitful, the next 16 would be a series of humiliating setbacks. His public fell off and the critics found valleys where once they’d seen only peaks. His confidence was shaken. And a style like his cannot survive self-doubt: the success of the work is tied to his ability to sustain a tone, so much trickier than merely sustaining a plot.
And sustaining a tone was difficult for him even at the top of his game. It must be said that even the seven wonders of the Sturges canon have their problems, and the problems can always be traced to an instability of tone. Not one of these movies is a perfect picture, the way The Shop Around the Corner is perfect, or The Wizard of Oz or Zelig or The Godfather is perfect. Each of those films clears its throat and sings its song, and there is never a moment when you tilt your head and wonder, What was that?
But there is always that moment in a Sturges movie. It comes when the champagne of his dialogue is flattened by the pneumonia of his slapstick.
Sometimes his slapstick doesn’t work because of poor execution or a lack of convincing motivation (Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake and then the butlers falling into the pool in Sullivan’s Travels). Sometimes the heavy-handed way he frames and shoots these sequences, often at odds with his otherwise flowing and graceful photography, kills the fun. Other times, our laughter dies from a sense that the slapstick isn’t true: there are times when someone falls too fast, as if the film is sped up (Henry Fonda going over the couch in The Lady Eve). His slapstick lacks the loopy inevitability of Lucy’s getting drunk on Vitameatavegamin or the hypnotizingly hilarious boxing match in City Lights.
A fact worth repeating: he made seven films in four years. Perhaps the race to get them done explains the sometimes jarring tonal shifts. One wonders, had he spent a little more time on each film, if they might have achieved a more balanced and integrated tone. And yet, who knows if it wasn’t the speed with which the films were made that infused them with their appealing pep and lack of pretension? God knows, I’d rather see The Lady Eve twice than Vincente Minnelli’s labored The Pirate once.