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Did you hear the one about the successful Hollywood screenwriter who sold a script for one measly dollar, with the proviso that he be allowed to direct it, and won an Oscar in the process? Preston Sturges was the name. From 1940 through 1944 he cranked out eight films, six of which remain as funny and effective and more-or-less fresh as the day they were made. Four of them are on the American Film Institute's list of America's 100 Funniest Movies, with the other two unfathomably missing in action.
The career of Sturges thereafter disintegrated, and his name is relatively forgotten. But these movies are as funny as movies can be. Universal has now given us seven of the eight — four of which have never before been on DVD — in their Preston Sturges: Filmmaker Collection .
Sturges (1898-1959) was one of the more colorful characters of the first half of the 20th century. His mother, who after four marriages was known as Mary Desti, was a famous bohemian. Young Sturges, born Edmund Biden, grew up in what you might describe as an Auntie Mame atmosphere, drifting through pre-World War I-Europe with mother and Isadora Duncan (in the Vera Charles role). By 16, Sturges was running the New York branch of his mother's Paris salon. (When Isadora was strangled in 1927 — her long, long crimson scarf got twisted in the axle of the sportscar she was riding in — it was a scarf from Maison Desti.)
Preston drifted here and there through the '20s, finally landing on Broadway. Strictly Dishonorable, a risqué comedy set in a speakeasy, was a surprise hit in 1929. Unable to replicate his success on Broadway, the play's notoriety was enough to send Sturges west to contract work at the movie studios. After working on 20 or so screenplays, often without credit, Sturges sold "The Great McGinty" (1940) to Paramount for a dollar and finally got the chance to direct. "McGinty," a cynical satire on big-city politics, was followed by "Christmas in July," a cynical satire on advertising. (Sturges, at one point in his career, had invented a lipstick that was kiss-proof.) Next came "The Lady Eve," with con-woman Barbara Stanwyck stalking naïve brewery-heir Henry Fonda, followed by "Sullivan's Travels." This is the one about the Hollywood director who rebels at the thought of doing another mindless comedy and sets out as a hobo to see the world, winding up as a prisoner on a chain gang. (This is the origin of that famous clip of coarsened criminals surrendering in glee to a Mickey Mouse cartoon.) All four of these were released in a two-year span, mind you. Next came "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, which is just about as funny as any movie you'd want to see. Sturges even managed to get a hysterical performance out of Rudy Vallee, which is saying something.
After a brief respite, Sturges returned in 1944 with two brilliant wartime comedies. "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" tells of a patriotic jitterbug who does her bit entertaining the troops, ending up with a phony marriage license and quintuplets. (This film was released on DVD in September 2005, and is not included in the new Sturges box set.) The "Morgan's" companion was "Hail the Conquering Hero," in which Eddie Bracken — the hapless prospective papa of "Morgan's Creek" — played a born-to-be-Marine mustered out of boot camp due to chronic hay fever. The seven-disc set concludes with "The Great Moment," an unlikely-for-Sturges biographical drama about the inventor of anesthesia which just goes to prove that, as the song goes, everybody's got the right to be wrong.
The Sturges set contains some of Hollywood's funniest movies, with stellar comic performances, and more pratfalls than there are in heaven. After sitting and watching these movies, I expect many will join me in suggesting that they give a retroactive Oscar for funniest seat-of-his-pants character man to William Demarest.
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Frank Capra was miles away from Preston Sturges in any number of ways. Capra's comedies were warm in a manner that Sturges seems to have consciously counteracted. Capra also had a long and celebrated career, while Sturges rose like a phoenix and quickly crash-landed. But a good comedy is a good comedy, and both men — at their best — were responsible for some of the finest we have.
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection [Sony Home Entertainment], as the new box set is called, includes the 1934 Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert Oscar-winner "It Happened One Night"; the 1936 "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur; the 1939 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Arthur teamed with James Stewart; and the 1938 Oscar-winner "You Can't Take It with You," with Arthur, Stewart, Lionel Barrymore and others. All four are, needless to say, legendary and highly watchable. The fifth film in the set is the understandably little-known "American Madness," a 1932 film starring Walter Huston as a bank president with a failing institution that in some ways looks forward to "It's a Wonderful Life." The set also includes a bonus disc including interviews, archival footage, and the documentary "Frank Capra's American Dream" (hosted by Ron Howard).
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Theatregoers visiting the Walter Kerr nowadays will find the Criterion Collection's Grey Gardens/The Beales of Grey Gardens of obvious interest. The fascinating tale of the eccentric Beales is no musical comedy, but the real thing. Even so, one might well wonder who gives the better performance, Edie Beale in the film or Christine Ebersole in the flesh. The 1976 documentary — by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke — has been given the full Criterion treatment, enhancing what was always a fascinating piece of celluloid.
Familiarity with Grey Gardens the musical — and the performances of Ms. Ebersole and her companion, Mary Louise Wilson — only enhances viewing of the original film. Criterion has added to the mix "The Beales of Grey Gardens," a new (2006) documentary utilizing unused footage from the original interviews. Fans of Broadway's Grey Gardens will no doubt want to rush out and watch Criterion's two-DCD set — and then go back, once more, to the Kerr.
And while we're talking about the Criterion Collection, let us mention another recent release. "The Fallen Idol" is a 1948 psychological thriller from Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, who would rejoin the following year for the more celebrated (and superior) "Third Man." Even so, "Fallen Idol" gives us a chance to see Ralph Richardson in his prime. Richardson was generally classed with Gielgud and Olivier as the finest English actors of their day. "The Fallen Idol," moreso than many of his numerous other films, gives us a pretty good idea why.
(Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)