Essays: Screenwriters and Preston Sturges |
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Screenwriters and Preston Sturges

In the greenhouse of film scholarship, the controversy goes on: is the writer or the director more the author of a film? The trouble with the discussion is that someone is always trying to make it a general rule, and, as in anything, there are no absolutes. It’s as absurd to conclude that a director is always the guy, as it is to parrot Shakespeare and insist that “the play’s the thing.” Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, to take a couple of modern examples, are both fairly dominating writers, and I’d be the first to agree that from Marty through The Hospital, Chayefsky is as much the key figure as Simon is on pictures like The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite or Barefoot in the Park. The directors of these movies are basically in the service of the screenwriter, and their personalities, if they have any to express, are kept firmly in check. On the other hand, I would say a picture like The Heartbreak Kid, which Simon also wrote, reflects much more vividly the temperament of Elaine May, its director. In other words, it bears a closer resemblance in quality and outlook, in ambience and overtone, to Miss May’s A New Leaf (which she also wrote) than to any of the other Simon-scripted pictures I’ve seen. That it’s also quite a bit better than any of those others is another issue and one I don’t want to get into now, though I will say that it confirms my opinion that a director who dominates is more vital to a good movie than a writer who does.

But we are moving into deep and somewhat murky waters. The recognition of a director’s signature is sometimes a difficult thing to define, unless we all have the same familiarity with the films under discussion. However, it should be clear to everyone the moment they step into a movie house that The Searchers, Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wagon Master, The Wings of Eagles, My Darling Clementine and Young Mr. Lincoln all have the same visual style, the same unmistakable personality behind them. And, while they were all written by different people and shot by various cameramen, they were also all directed by John Ford. Miss Pauline Kael tried valiantly to argue that Herman J. Mankiewicz was mainly responsible for the thrust of Citizen Kane. However, about six hours in a projection room would have been a convincing defense. A look at Kane beside The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello, for example, or beside Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, would be enough to convince anyone but the most myopic that Orson Welles was the unquestioned author of Kane, as well as the others, though they are variously based on material by Booth Tarkington, Shakespeare and Whit Masterson. Verdi composed an opera called Otello, but surely we are not meant to split the credit for his musical achievement with Shakespeare (who didn’t invent the story anyway), any more than Beethoven should have to take a backseat to Schiller because he was moved by that man’s poetry to write the choral part of the Ninth Symphony. Only in movies is the inspiration one artist takes from another considered as some odious form of plagiarism or, worse, say the critics, lack of originality. Shakespeare and Beethoven and just about anyone worth talking about stole (if that’s the word for it) like thieves, but their work transcends, by now, that sort of academic nit-picking.

I’m afraid it’s largely a twentieth-century critical fashion to value originality as the main criterion of a work of art. And yet, Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is no new thing under the sun,” and around 1785 a certain Mme. Bertin, milliner to Marie Antoinette, is supposed to have said, “There is nothing new except what is forgotten.” She must have been thinking of movie history – in a kind of advanced state of foresight – because most of what is acclaimed as new in pictures has been done years ago and indeed has been forgotten or perhaps never known, by the ones giving out kudos. Griffith did scenes in the CinemaScope shape forty years before The Robe and, if you thought the quick cutting that a lot of directors fell in love with in the Sixties was something novel, take a look at Intolerance sometime. That goes for split screen, sound, color and most of the other “technical” advances we’re supposed to have made. Most of these are, at best, adornments, at worst, self-indulgent decadence. Allan Dwan, who started making movies a couple of years after Griffith, told me once, when we were discussing some of the so-called modern techniques: “Oh, yeah, we fooled with that stuff – but we stopped all that when we grew up.”

Pardon the tangent – back to Directors vs. Writers. Those directors who dominate their writers in the final product often direct the writer as they would an actor or a cameraman – they tell him what they want and how they want it. The writing is done to order. No wonder it’s always been such an unsatisfying job for most of the major writers who’ve been out here. Mailer hated it (The Deer Park), Nathanael West loathed it (The Day of the Locust), Fitzgerald tried to understand it but couldn’t quite (The Last Tycoon); only Faulkner seemed to have the right attitude – he’d comeout and helpa friend (Howard Hawks), take the money, and run back to Yoknapatawpha.

But they weren’t screenwriters, who are a special breed. All the really valuable and inventive ones only had one desire: to become writer-directors, either because (a) they thought they could direct the pictures as well or better than the bums doing it, or (b), and more significant, they knew it was the only way to control the work and make it completely their own statement. Dudley Nichols (Ford’s collaborator for several years), Robert Riskin (Capra’s for even longer), Nunnally Johnson, Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – all exceptional screenwriters – made the transition with unexceptional results. Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller, Frank Tashlin, Richard Brooks, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston, Blake Edwards – all of whom began as writers – found their best expression when they became “hyphenates,” as they are disgustingly called in Hollywood. Each of them – to varying degrees – also found a visual style that was expressive of his particular verbal talents – several of them, as a matter of fact, far more interesting in that light than as writers.

Probably the most explosive – and, sadly, the most short-lived – of these was a marvelous man named Preston Sturges, who led the way in the early Forties and made it possible with his success for all those other writers to follow his example. Having written several fresh, unusually vigorous scripts which quite overpowered their directors – The Power and the Glory, The Good Fairy, Diamond Jim, Easy Living, Remember the Night – Sturges infive short years (1940-1944) wrote and directed eight of the funniest, most joyfully inventive and at the same time profoundly human comedies (in at least two instances they are more properly called comedy-dramas) ever produced in America, or anywhere else for that matter: in order of release, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero. I think the speed and sparkle of their wit, the wisecracking, typically American exuberance of their dialogue, have never been equaled. Sturges was at heart a writer, and the distinguishing quality of all his films lies in the stories and the speech of his characters rather than in any particularly expressive visual style. He has, in fact, been criticized through the years for this lack, but I believe it’s a misplaced judgment. The pictures are directed and shot the way those scripts should have been. As director, he remained in the service of the writer – himself – but he was infinitely more capable than the directors who had handled his scripts before he moved up.

He was obviously most adept at eliciting the proper spirit from his actors, and his films abound with mad, wildly extravagant performances – none of them out of key or excessive – from a group of character actors, in the main, who never before or since were so challenged or rewarded by their material. Talk about John Ford’s stock company – Sturges used almost the same actors in every picture – and what a precious cast of irreplaceable eccentrics they were: William Demarest, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, Porter Hall, Alan Bridge, among many others. Eddie Bracken was the perfect Sturges “hero” twice, Joel McCrea (in another mood) three times (McCrea told me he never enjoyed any other director as much as Sturges). And then there was Rudy Vallee, whose own favorite film is The Palm Beach Story despite the fact that in the movie Sturges mercilessly exploited and lampooned the Vallee image: while Vallee is sweetly serenading Claudette Colbert from outside her window (“Goodnight, Sweetheart, though I’m not beside you…”), she goes happily off to bed with McCrea.

He gave these people dialogue of the finest quality imaginable – it was as rich in slang and jargon as it was filled with unorthodox, poetic (but never pretentious) turns of phrase that managed to bring considerable complexity to his characters. His skill was such that in the repressed Forties, he was able to sneak the most audacious material past the censors without raising so much as an eyebrow. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, after all, is about a girl tricked into marriage by an on-leave soldier for a night’s drunken lay, and about what happens when she finds herself pregnant and can’t even remember the experience, much less the father’s name. The Palm Beach Story is a sexual quadrille of much more suggestive and amusing dimension than Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, for all its liberation. He was able to switch moods and plots in the middle of his films – as he did in The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels or The Great Moment – with themost amazing dexterity and sense of balance. His scripts must seem more modern today than when they were produced.

After 1944, when he left Paramount for “independence” with Howard Hughes, Harold Lloyd, then Fox and finally Europe, his work quickly, inexplicably and shockingly deteriorated. There is no doubt an explanation – some say he was simply burned out – and I would love to have heard Sturges’ own reasoning. Unfortunately, he died shortly after making his last and worst film, The French They Are A Funny Race (1957), keeping himself afloat for a year or two as a bit player in the films of a couple of directors who took pity on what was once a great and flourishing talent.

I guess my favorite Sturges is Sullivan’s Travels, probably because it is at once his most personal and, together with The Great Moment, the one which most daringly flashes from comedy to drama and back again – a feat I admire in movies more probably than any other. A film director (Joel McCrea), noted for making light comedies, decides that he wants to make a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. So he goes out into the world with a dime in his pocket to discover what it’s all about – being poor and homeless and on the run. After a series of incredible comic adventures, he finds himself in serious trouble on a Southern chain gang where the only recreation for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they are allowed to see at the nearby Negro church. There he sees a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only laugh, the only pleasure they’ve had the whole week. After he is saved, through a bit of Sturgesean contrivance that always manages to reprieve his hapless heroes at the last moment (something that when done by a German like Murnau in The Last Laugh or Brecht in The Three-penny Opera, iscalled irony by our critics, but that when done by an American is called compromise) he is surrounded again by his happy producers and his overjoyed girl friend (they all thought he was dead) flying back to Hollywood. The moguls tell him they are now really ready to back him in his serious film (they were reluctant before but now think of all the great publicity!), and he tells them, a little embarrassed, that all he wants to do is make comedies. Consternation. McCrea explains, with not a little humility, what was, finally, Sturges’ own testament: a good laugh may not be much, he says, “but it’s all some people have in this crazy caravan. Boy!”

March 1973