Written and Directed by Preston Sturges

Max Goldberg December 13, 2006

It would not seem to bode well for the stewardship of studio classics that Preston Sturges’s indomitable comedies have been so slow to DVD. Sturges’s filmography is manageable in number and of unusually consistent quality, so why did a set like “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection” take all this time? Regardless, it’s here, and it’s an embarrassment of riches: seven of the eight movies comprising his unprecedented run as a writer-director for Paramount (the eighth,“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” is available as a separate DVD). As colorful a character as Hollywood has ever indulged, Sturges’s own confounding life was freewheeling enough to pass as one of his madcap plots. He doggedly sought success before arriving in California, churning out hits and misses for Broadway, marrying (four times in all), and inventing kiss-free lipstick. Then, ten years as one of Hollywood’s premier screenwriters, penning a key screwball comedy (“Easy Living”), as well as a script (“The Power and the Glory”) which anticipated “Citizen Kane” closely enough for Orson Welles to bristle at its mentioning. Sturges famously agreed to write “The Great McGinty” for a dollar on the condition that he be allowed to direct it. Thus, at 42, he entered his unfathomably industrious prime: eight films written and directed between 1940 and 1944, each an unwieldy blast of brilliance. Watching these films, Sturges frequently seems to jump ship three-quarters through, on to the next movie before finishing the one at hand. One memorable press photo shows him on the set of 1941’s“The Lady Eve” … on a pogo-stick.

Sturges simply moved too fast for any of these films to rest as unqualified masterpieces — his inconsistencies vexed contemporaneous critics, none more than James Agee — but they demonstrate genius at every turn. The first two, “The Great McGinty” and “Christmas in July,” send up politics and consumerism while introducing Sturges’s bustling stock company: a collection of lovable losers and eccentric loudmouths, ever evocative of Americana. With its star power and screwball structure, “The Lady Eve” probably bears the most studio polish of the set, and “Sullivan’s Travels” is easily the most ambitious here: both were previously available in Criterion copy. “The Palm Beach Story” is one of Sturges’s purest comedies and shows his clever hand for genre mechanics. In essence, he amplifies the best parts of the screwball comedy, disregarding causality and shooting for the moon with gags, misunderstandings, and marriage after marriage (decades before Stanley Cavell wrote his famous essay about “The Comedy of Remarriage,” Sturges was already consciously playing with the idea). Then, one fascinating failure (