- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

There’s a lot to be said for the idea of a DVD set devoted to the movies made by Preston Sturges when he finally became a writer-director at Paramount in the early 1940s. For starters, such a collection is overdue. If completely realized, it might also place several of the greatest comedies in Hollywood history in one handy package and supplement them with evocative trailers, mementos and appreciations.

Although welcome and convenient, the seven-disc compilation called “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection,” available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, isn’t quite a dream package. There’s a conspicuous missing title: “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” still a solo offering from Paramount Home Entertainment. Its absence would leave any Sturges anthology from the Paramount years looking like a busted flush.

During a four-year period that began in December 1939, Mr. Sturges shot eight features in the following order: “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” and “Hail the Conquering Hero.” All but “The Great Moment,” a biographical melodrama set in the 1840s, are unmistakably and distinctively comic, although “Sullivan’s Travels” incorporates a number of ominous episodes about captivity on a chain gang, precipitating a drastic change in tone and emphasis halfway through the picture. Despite this discordant note, the enduring odd duck is “Great Moment,” also the only unmitigated flop of the Paramount cycle.

Any collection that lacks “Miracle” and includes “Moment” is bound to seem a bit defective. This set also shortchanges the subject matter by foregoing any commentary, written or verbal. The opportunity to put the Sturges-Paramount partnership in perspective is left to other sources. Admirers will find five volumes indispensable: the biography “Between Flops” by James Curtis; the autobiographical anthology “Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges”; and the three volumes of Sturges screenplays published by the University of California Press in the 1980s.

At the very least it’s helpful to know that the Paramount series began with a trio of hits, culminating in “The Lady Eve.” Arguably the wittiest of all Hollywood romantic farces, it glorified fortune hunter Barbara Stanwyck in the process of twice seducing Henry Fonda, a wealthy sap who needs all her cleverness and dedication to rectify misunderstandings.

The studio expected the farcical-harrowing split personality of “Sullivan’s Travels” to catch the public off-guard, and it did. “Palm Beach Story” was expected to be a reassuring smash and fell short of hopes. By the time Mr. Sturges again entrusted Paramount with back-to-back moneymakers — the still unsurpassed comedies about homefront America, “Miracle” and “Conquering Hero,” with Eddie Bracken as peerless 4-F heroes — filmmaker and company were estranged. He departed at the end of 1943. Paramount released these leftover triumphs in February and September 1944.

Few cinematic estrangements have ever looked as unwise or premature. Only 45 at the time of the separation, Mr. Sturges never did recover his stride at other studios. “Unfaithfully Yours,” made at 20th Century-Fox in the late 1940s, is his only subsequent comedy that comes close to matching the inventiveness and expertise of the Paramount classics, but it remains a somewhat belabored and hung-over caprice. Universal never did produce a Sturges-directed feature, although he had signed to make his directing debut there in the middle 1930s after supplying a number of successful screenplays.

In fact, Mr. Sturges, who died of a heart attack in 1959, spent a good deal of his first Hollywood decade trying to engineer a directing breakthrough. He got the urge while frequenting the set of his first prestige script, “The Power and the Glory,” in 1933. The earliest scripts for both “The Great McGinty” and “Christmas in July” dated back to the early 1930s. One of his deals at Universal fell through when the studio’s founder, Carl Laemmle, decided to sell the business.

Paramount had known about Preston Sturges from the advent of talkies. They hired him to rewrite films for Maurice Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins when he was still in New York, basking in the success of his play “Strictly Dishonorable,” a romantic comedy hit of the 1929-30 season. When he left for Hollywood two years later, three flops had tarnished his reputation; according to Broadway’s arithmetic, he was a flash in the pan.

As a resident Hollywood writer, Mr. Sturges was hired by Universal to attempt another rewrite of “The Invisible Man.” He calculated that it was the ninth, and it also ended up on the discard pile. Observing that Hollywood preferred to employ writers in teams, “like piano movers,” Mr. Sturges defied the practice and worked solo, whether contriving originals or assigned to works in progress. As a rule, he’d start from scratch even when rewriting. It also suited his temperament to write scripts as a freelancer, on speculation, a playwright’s preference that earned him both respect and distrust from Hollywood executives.

His remarkable productive surge of 1940-43 at Paramount derived from a backlog of pent-up ambition, which might have improved the industry at least five years earlier. In addition to retrieving material that had been hanging fire, the early Sturges features seem to reflect the Depression years in many respects, notably the screwball romance conventions of the decade. Although made in the early 1940s, “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story” might as well be classmates of “My Man Godfrey,” “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing Up Baby” or the pre-eminent Sturges screenplay of that period, “Easy Living” in 1937.

The emphatically contemporary element in the Paramount comedies was prompt-ed by World War II, both a hilarious and sobering social backdrop for the small-town uproars in “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero.” You can’t help wondering if the rift with Paramount cost the movies another inimitable comedy about the homefront, particularly as the war drew to a close. I like to imagine an imponderable third classic that sustained the Sturges-Bracken partnership. Something worthy of the actor’s frustrated Norval Jones when rationalizing his civilian plight in “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”: “They also serve who only … well, whatever it is they do.”

TITLE: “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection”

CONTENT: Seven Sturges movies released by Paramount between 1940 and 1944: “The Great McGinty,” “Christmas in July,” “The Lady Eve,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Great Moment,” “Hail the Conquering Hero”

DVD EDITION: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.universalstudios.com

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