Book Review: Film Director Preston Sturges — The Reluctant Auteur

By Peter Keough

This incisive, compelling, and spirited analysis of the screwball maestro’s life and oeuvre illuminates the art of an overlooked genius.

Crooked, But Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges by Stuart Klawans. Columbia University Press. 376 pages. $28.

One advantage to writing a book about Preston Sturges is that you have lots of great quotes to choose from for a title. Stuart Klawans picked one from The Lady Eve (1941) for Crooked, but Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges, his incisive, compelling, and spirited analysis of the screwball maestro’s life and oeuvre. He also uses one for every chapter heading (for The Lady Eve, his favorite film by the director, he goes with “I’m Not a Poet, I’m an Ophiologist”). As he acknowledges in the book’s introduction, “The good news when you write about Sturges: your book is full of marvelous lines. The bad news: they’re all his.” The modesty is unwarranted — that line is worthy of his subject.

But Sturges’s “universally admired” penchant for dialogue, Klawans contends, can be a distraction from his full accomplishment as “the first person in Hollywood’s sound era to direct movies, great ones, from scripts he’d written himself.” Orson Welles comes in second as his debut Citizen Kane (1941) was released in the year following Sturges’s first feature, The Great McGinty (1940). And like Welles, Klawans contends, Sturges’s accomplishment was not limited to words. His vision was fully cinematic; he was, to use a word Sturges disparaged almost to the end, an artist.

To make his case Klawans analyzes 10 of Sturges’s films, some of which are among the greatest romantic comedies of all time. With thorough but blithely applied research he traces their development and their connections to Sturges’s life, arguing that his subject is not just a master of madcap comedy, but also a filmmaker who confronted profound themes. These include, according to Klawans,

Cynicism about social and political arrangements, yearning for and disillusionment with romantic love, defiance of prudery, enthusiasm for self-invention (especially by women who have little other choice), and horror at the thought of living out a perpetual, unvarying cycle.

Take The Great McGinty, which is discussed in the chapter “Ya Can’t Get Away from Arithmetic,” the title coming from a line barked out by a corrupt ward healer about payments for repeat voting (residents of The Villages take note). Following the circular structure that would become a mainstay of his style, the film begins in a South American dive where a burly barkeep, Dan McGinty (if that’s his real name), tells the story of his life.

He starts out as a tramp on a breadline and through the intercession of “The Boss” (Akim Tamiroff), a genially bullying mob kingpin, rises through the corrupt political ranks to become governor. But a bogus marriage of convenience (or inconvenience — the first of many in Sturges’s canon) turns into true love and ill-considered idealism, resulting in his downfall. This cockeyed version of the American dream with a low-rent Gatsby would recur in several of Sturges’s films — sometimes in female form.

McGinty and The Boss themselves return for the frenetic opening frame tale of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) as the grifting governor and his arm-twisting aide are called in to bend the rules for a worthy cause. Set in a sleepy snake-pit of a small town, the film follows the misadventures of one of Sturges’s many flawed, feisty, and indomitable female protagonists, teenager Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton). As the name suggests, Sturges indulges here in his penchant for outlandish nomenclature. For some viewers, a little of this goes a long way, but as for me, when the tongue-tied Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) applies for a marriage certificate under the assumed name of Private Ignatz Ratzkiwatzki and identifies his place of residence as “Camp Sm-Smum,” I laughed so hard it frightened my cat.

Wiiliam Demarest, left, and Eddie Bracken in mid-fracas in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, with Diana Lynn (left) and Betty Hutton as Demarest’s daughters, Emmy and Trudy Kockenlocker.

The reason for this imposture, a crime that snowballs into others including attempted bank robbery, is to protect the honor of Trudy, who had returned from a dance for departing GIs amnesiac, possibly married, and, as it turns out, pregnant. But the titular “miracle” saves them, a Yuletide surprise (James Agee calls it “Bethlemayhem” in his review) and a twist that Sturges could only have intended sardonically. As Klawans observes, “True to its allusions to the Nativity, the film is a redemption narrative, in which a handful of people are freed from the deformations that have been worked into them by living in a tightly packed version of America.”

Judging from this assessment, could Sturges have been a progressive in the mode of his “funhouse double” (as Klawans calls him) Orson Welles? Was he perhaps even one of Hollywood’s pioneering feminists? As Klawans writes, he “invent[ed] some of the smartest, strongest-willed, most cheerfully dishonest heroines in screen history.” And was he indeed an artist?

Director Preston Sturges

In fact, though, he was at best apolitical and at heart an anti-New Deal, conservative elitist. Furthermore, in his private life he was a notorious womanizer and a wife-beater. And, of course, he recoiled from any suggestion that he was an artist. But in his last Hollywood film. Unfaithfully Yours (1948) he confronted the latter two truths about himself — it is his most autobiographically faithful. [Spoilers forthcoming] In it an orchestra conductor played by Rex Harrison does not beat his wife, whom he suspects of adultery, though he comes close to it.

Instead he fantasizes about murdering her while conducting the overture to Rossini’s Semiramide. When that proves unsatisfying (though Harrison wields a razor with convincing glee as he slashes her throat) he fantasizes about humiliating her and buying her off with a $100,000 check to the tune of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. That doesn’t do the trick so he daydreams about playing Russian roulette (the music he is conducting is Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini) with her suspected paramour, again to no avail.

After the concert he returns home and decides to enact, for real, the clever Hitchcockian scheme conjured up in the first fantasy. It does not go well and degenerates into repeated pratfalls and encounters with perverse physical objects until, at last, his murderous misogyny self-destructs.

So did the fortunes of the movie. In a bitter twist, just before it was to come out, an actress with whom Harrison was adulterously involved committed suicide. The studio waited several months to release the film to avoid a scandal, but it flopped anyway. Nonetheless Klawans sees it as one of Sturges’s best (I agree) and compares it to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). “All this,” he writes of the two films, “to lay bare the anxieties and fantasies, the desire for control and rage at lack of control, of an artist behind the camera who needs to confess his feelings about women.”

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).


  1. Gerald Peary on February 6, 2023 at 8:58 pm

    Nice review, Peter, but what happened to a mention for Sullivan’s Travels, my favorite of Sturges’s films?

    • Peter Keough on February 6, 2023 at 11:23 pm

      Almost included but didn’t make the cut.

      • Peter Keough on February 6, 2023 at 11:33 pm

        read the book!

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