For a few years, he was the sharpest, funniest man in Hollywood

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

There is no easy way of understanding what happened to Preston Sturges. But just watch out - it could happen to you. I don't know whether he was exactly a genius, or even if that matters. It's also apparent that much of the time he was a disaster. But a disaster with prescience, the unluckiest kind. It was the summer of 1959, and he was back in New York after fruitless exile in Paris. He was staying at the Algonquin Hotel, where the geniuses used to stay. And while he had several deals that he was confident would develop, he was finishing off his autobiography. After all, at 60, a man never knows.

He was considering whether he had acquired wisdom, or was as impulsive still as he had been at 16. Whereupon, "These ruminations, and the beer and coleslaw that I had washed down while dictating them, are giving me a bad case of indigestion. Over the years, though, I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well-versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don't croak."

Twenty minutes later ...

That the life of Preston Sturges has never been turned into a movie is clinching proof of the wretched inattention of the medium and the business to which he had given his best years. He was born Edmond Biden, a child of wealth. His mother was an empress in cosmetics, and as her plaything, Ed passed his youth half the year in Chicago and half in Europe. He had private schooling before becoming manager of the cosmetics firm in Deauville. His youthful triumph was the invention of a kiss-proof lipstick. (This could make a very pretty scene that explodes into a montage of embraces, in which he accumulates four marriages plus several affairs. All with terrific panache perched on the edge of heartbreak.)

Gradually, he turns into a playwright and a screenwriter, though he never loses a taste for mechanical invention and the restaurant business. Plays - like Strictly Dishonorable (1929) - are Broadway hits. In the movies, he does better still with The Power and the Glory (1933), Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940). So Paramount takes a chance on him as a writer-director.

Then, between 1940 and 1944, he makes eight movies, seven of which are classics of American satire: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. The eighth is a concession to ongoing world events, a training film called Safeguarding Military Information.

Next month, the BFI is reviving Sullivan's Travels, and my only quarrel with them is that they have picked just one of the seven. Sullivan is the story of a dumb-smart Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) who decides he needs to know more about real life before taking on a socially conscious epic, called "Brother, Where Art Thou"? Despite the taunting company of Veronica Lake, he ends up on a chain gang and he has to admit that real life is far more than he wants. The satire is very sharp; the action in Sturges is always poised on the edge of madness; the supporting characters are bizarre; and the people are amongst the most fatuous good guys and adorable scoundrels you ever met. The Lady Eve (in which Barbara Stanwyck takes Henry Fonda) is my favourite - but that may only be because I've seen it more recently than Palm Beach Story. In other words, Sturges was for those few years without parallel - try one film and the rest are beer on a hot day.

And then? Not quite nothing, but failure. Here's a passage from the autobiography: "I spent the next three years horsing around with independent ventures and stock companies and various other efforts, all to the accompaniment of gentle laughter from the Collector of Internal Revenue." (If you want the secret to Sturges, consider that "gentle".) He got involved with Howard Hughes on a picture called Vendetta. Sturges wanted to produce so that the great Max Ophuls would direct; Hughes wanted the picture to celebrate his very latest discovery, Faith Domergue. You haven't heard of her?

There were a few other films, one was made in his beloved France. But the charm and the run of luck were gone. Maybe his desperation needed war as a cover. Maybe he grew weary, too interested in what success and its wealth could buy. So he ran out of money and consoled himself in his memoir: "There's no advantage to being without education ... This pleases no one but your biographer. Education means remembering what you have been told. Remembering what you haven't been told, directly out of the human heritage, is called genius."

I don't think anyone ever made funnier films in America, or had so exhilarating a sense of how, if the engine of farce picks up a beat or two, it can turn into madness. Sturges was an inventor, and a sardonic observer of the human race. So try Sullivan's Travels when it comes, and find a way of seeing the others.

Who plays Preston Sturges? Kevin Spacey?

'Sullivan's Travels' is out on 12 May

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