Down and out with Preston Sturges

His films have nothing on his life: from feted director to cheery has-been. And you should meet the rest of the family...
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The Independent Culture

It sounds like a Preston Sturges movie. A washed-up screenwriter, tired of being rebuffed and humiliated by "the money men and attorneys", tries to kill himself by jumping off the Hollywood sign, but bungles the job and only succeeds in knocking himself out. When he comes to, he has mysteriously assumed another man's identity.

Everybody is sure that he's Lyndon Thackeray, a spectacularly successful director of low-brow films. He's feted, flattered and gets to live a pampered life, but with five ex-wives to pay alimony to and lots of lousy movies to his credit, he ends up even more miserable than before. Pretty soon, he wants to commit suicide all over again. This is the pitch for Preston Sturges's new project, Life 2.

Sturges is the son of Preston Sturges (1898-1959) - the man behind such gilt-edged classics as Sullivan's Travels, Miracle At Morgan Creek and The Lady Eve - and the way Sturges Jnr tells it, sharing a name with a Hollywood legend is both a curse and a blessing.

"He's safely deceased so he can be pigeon-holed," Sturges says of his father. "He's no longer around to object to being narrowly cast. I, however, am living and don't fit into any category as neatly. People have figured out who they think Preston Sturges is. I'm not that guy."

Sturges, now 47, is relatively inexperienced as a screenwriter. Like his father, who spent several years as a young man trying to run a kiss-proof lipstick business, he has had a colourful early career. He was once a sailor on a nuclear submarine; he used to sell Christmas trees; he was a blues musician. "Only late in life did I realise that writing was what I should have been doing all along."

If it hadn't been for the LA traffic cops, Preston Jnr might never have discovered his true vocation. He was in traffic school when the idea came to him. "I stood up to confess my traffic sins. Somebody recognised my name and they asked me if I write. 'Yes!' I said. They said, 'Well, I'd love to see something.' I said, 'I'm not quite finished yet' (because I hadn't started). I wrote a screenplay and it came within a whisker of selling. The person in traffic school was a producer."

Sturges and his younger brother Tom were still toddlers when their father died of a heart attack in August 1959. They grew up unaware of who Preston Sturges really was. "I knew there was something going on because we had an Oscar in the house, but the significance and importance of what he did, I didn't know," says Tom. He's sceptical about Preston Jnr's aspirations. "I've told him, 'however great you are, you won't surpass daddy in your lifetime'."

During his hey-day at Paramount in the late Thirties, Preston Sturges was indeed Hollywood's golden boy, the first of the great writer-producer-directors. On paper, he was one of the richest men in America. He was good-looking, stylish, extravagant, and with none of the penny-pinching habits of a later breed of studio tycoon. Little more than a decade later, the money had all gone. "He should have handled his business better, frankly," Tom reflects. "Bob Hope bought the San Fernando Valley during that period and my dad was making more money than he was."

Money didn't much interest Sturges. "One should never have enough of it, or enough of a lack of it, to allow of its playing a principal role," he wrote in his journal shortly before he died. Rather than invest his fortune in real estate, he gaily frittered it away on his engineering company, his yachts, cars and his beloved restaurant, Players. This swanky eatery on Sunset Boulevard stayed open 24 hours a day, had a staff of more than 150 (including a handful of top French chefs), and allowed customers to order whatever they wanted.

"The menu, which was new every day, was presented as a list of suggestions. If there was something you would like to eat which was not on the menu, the chefs would fix it," remembers Sturges' widow, Sandy.

The great man was always on hand to meet and greet customers, but however much he invested, Players stubbornly refused to turn a profit. ("How can somebody with so much talent waste so much time in that Greasy Spoon?" Barbara Stanwyck once asked him.) What started as a hobby became a millstone.

Then the tax man called. Sturges was cleaned out. "I had had so very much luck for so very long that I had managed to forget that it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way," he reflected with his usual, graceful stoicism.

The idea that you can oscillate between wealth and poverty, success and failure, is central to Sturges' life and work. He started out in Hollywood as if he could do no wrong, and ended up a has-been nobody wanted to hire. His movies abound in characters who catapult between extremes. Think of Claudette Colbert, unable to pay her rent one minute but feted by high society the next in The Palm Beach Story, or of Joel McCrea's wealthy film director transformed into a bum in Sullivan's Travels, or of Sturges' screenplay for Easy Living, in which a penniless woman's fortunes are transformed when a fur coat flung out of a window lands on her head. You might be pregnant with sextuplets, masquerading as a war hero, rich and miserable, or stuck on a chain gang, but if you're the protagonist in one of his movies, you'll always find something to laugh at.

It was this irrepressible optimism which attracted Sandy Sturges when she met him in 1950. His career was in the doldrums. He was building a theatre at the back of Players in an ill-fated bid to attract new customers. She first saw him dressed in dusty old clothes, carrying an enormous hunk of lumber through a parking lot. "He said, 'Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Preston Sturges...' you know that slight, infinitesimal pause people give when they expect you to say 'ohhh!' That didn't happen. I had never heard of him. I thought he worked there as a builder. I seldom went to the movies because I went to a Catholic girls school and practically every movie was considered a danger to our faith."

Her family and all the local priests were "beside themselves" that she could consider running off with a man 30 years older than her, but that was precisely what she did. "He was great fun to be married to. His problems got him down, but not for any length of time. He had that Irish gaiety in his spirit," she remembers.

It can't be said that Sturges has ever been forgotten. "Everybody knew his name," says Sandy. "He was often cited in reviews of other people's films." Nevertheless, by the Seventies, his work was slipping out of circulation. Tom remembers seeing a mangled print of The Power And The Glory in 1980. The original negative had been burned in a studio fire. The best version left was a movie 10 minutes shorter than it should have been. "And sections of it were in another language. It was a mess."

This was the movie which made Sturges' name. He didn't direct it but was paid a fortune for the screenplay by Jesse Lasky at Fox, who described it as "word perfect". The Power And The Glory (1933) is based on the life of the ruthless financier C W Post, the grandfather of heiress Eleanor Hutton (to whom Sturges was briefly married). Its subject matter and elliptical, non-chronological storytelling style were a major influence on Herman J Mankiewicz when he came to write Citizen Kane eight years later. Distraught at seeing the film in such shabby condition, Tom set about persuading the studios to strike new prints of all his other films and oversaw the publication of his screenplays. Twenty years on, he has now even managed to put The Power And The Glory back together again.

While Tom does his best to keep his father's movies in the public eye, his brother is working away at creating a fresh wave of Preston Sturges screenplays. Nobody has bought Life 2 yet, but Sturges Jnr is far from discouraged. Whatever else, he suggests, his father is the perfect role model. "Of course I'm influenced by my father. His work is magnificent. I study it for the sheer joy of it. To be mentioned in the same paragraph as my father is a pleasure." He has two children of his own. Somehow, it doesn't come as a surprise to learn that one is called Preston.

The restored version of 'The Power And The Glory' receives its world premiere tonight as part of the Preston Sturges season at the NFT