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DVD SAVANT

Preston Sturges
The Filmmaker Collection


Universal

The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment, Hail the Conquering Hero

Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges

B&W
1:37 flat full frame
Street Date November 21 , 2006
59.98 the boxed set
Not Available separately

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Preston Sturges has always been appreciated by the film student / museum screening crowd. His screwball comedies meld genuine literary qualities with slapstick pratfalls, and get away with it. The only arguments one hears are over which of his films are the funniest. That usually ends up being a personal choice that depends on where and how one saw them. Savant remembers the Sturges films from UCLA screenings in the early 1970s, often introduced by Associate Professor Bob Epstein. They were a highlight of the entire film school experience.

Although critics have accounted for the Preston Sturges phenomenon with a number of theories -- the rise of the writer-director, the relative freedom of the war years -- trying to pigeonhole this man is a frustrating experience. He may have become a Hollywood bigshot but he never abandoned the mantle of New York elitism. There's really never been anyone like Sturges, exactly ... for years the wit flowed out of this man like magic. And then it all stopped, seemingly for no good reason at all.

More biographical details for Preston Sturges are available on the generous DVD extras for Sullivan's Travels and Unfaithfully Yours.

With Universal's Preston Sturges The Filmmaker Collection, Fox and Criterion's Unfaithfully Yours and Paramount's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the cream of Preston Sturges is now out on DVD.



The Great McGinty
1940 / 82 min.
Starring Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, Allyn Joslyn, William Demarest, Louis Jean Heydt
Cinematography William C. Mellor
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Film Editor Hugh Bennett
Original Music Frederick Hollander
Produced by Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva

The Great McGinty was Preston Sturges' bid to do what few 1930s screenwriters had accomplished -- graduate to writer-director status. It was apparently a hard bargain, as to earn the privilege Sturges had to sell his script for this first film for practically nothing ... a script which then earned an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The Great McGinty is a refreshing taste of healthy cynicism for a Hollywood oversentimentalized by the likes of Frank Capra and patronized by pictures like Boys Town. Hollywood had a weakness for twisting reality into a pretzel to force home 'uplifting' messages unfit for greeting cards. Sturges accepts the fact of corruption and vice in the world without pretending that it can all be banished by a hearty handshake or a pious smile.

Known mostly as an unrepentant bad guy in big-budget Paramount pictures, Brian Donlevy shines as Daniel McGinty, a smart thug who races up the ladder of civic corruption. Starting as a bum, he gets attention by voting dozens of times in a rigged election. Akim Tamiroff's "The Boss" takes a shine to McGinty and offers him a job collecting protection money. From there McGinty becomes the mob's 'reform mayor,' helping the Boss to rake in millions. The 'satire' simply acknowledges how power really works. The Boss is an immigrant with strong values learned through hard experience -- never let anything get in your way. Sturges flirts with censorship right from the start. McGinty collects money from Madame Juliette La Jolla, a fortune teller (Esther Howard). Juliette seems to earn an inordinate income from her crummy crystal ball; at the end of the interview she asks McGinty if he wants to come upstairs to get his fortune read!

Sturges' quasi-literate scenes between The Boss and McGinty are priceless; they frequently end in a fistfight. Donlevy's crooked city official 'suggests' an acceptable bribe amount to a developer by pointing at a picture of thousands of baseball fans and asking the developer to guess how many people are in it. To run for mayor, McGinty enters a marriage of convenience with his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus, The Light that Failed). When McGinty becomes Governor, he makes the mistake of falling in love with her and trying to reform. The movie isn't 100% clear whether McGinty's downfall comes because the system works, or because he tried to go straight. If The Great McGinty hasn't dated, it's because it takes very little imagination to envision the popular Daniel McGinty running for President, and winning.

The comedy is a consistent tickle because Sturges keeps it rooted in his characters. McGinty softens under the influence of love, which recasts the story in Samson and Delilah terms. Sturges uses a clever framing flashback device to tell the tale, and to assure the censors that the film acknowledges that Crime Does Not Pay: Both McGinty and The Boss have had to flee to South America after being exposed as crooks.

Every few minutes, Sturges throws in what a 1940s audience would call a curve ball. Catherine urges McGinty to remember his own terrible experience in a child sweatshop, to get up the the needed gumption to reform the child labor laws. Just when we think the film is going to get pious about its subject, McGinty confesses that his 'sweatshop' days were actually spent working in a candy factory, where the people treated him swell and he ate all the candy he could steal! McGinty is a crook because he enjoys being a crook. He always did. It's a wonderful slap in the face to Warners' environmental excuse for delinquency and crime.

The so-called Sturges stock company was tighter than John Ford's, and when you get down to it, a lot more talented. Some of his major players are assembled in this very first film, with William Demarest leading the pack as a corrupt machine politician. Jimmy Conlin, Frank Moran and Robert Warwick are here, along with Allyn Joslyn, Louis Jean Heydt, Libby Taylor and Harry Rosenthal as an amusingly ineffectual gunsel.

As with all the titles in the set, the disc looks stunning, with a sharp, clear B&W picture. The film has chapter stops but no indexed chapters.



Christmas in July
1940 / 67 min.
Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr, William Demarest, Ernest Truex, Franklin Pangborn
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Film Editor Ellsworth Hoagland
Written by Preston Sturges from his play A Cup of Coffee
Produced by Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva

Christmas in July is even more modestly budgeted than The Great McGinty. This time the humor is anchored in the economic realities of the end of The Depression, when an average salary wasn't enough for most young people to get married on, and opportunities for promotion were rare. Like a prequel to a 50s sitcom ( think The Honeymooners) the show envisions Dick Powell and Ellen Drew as frustrated young lovers only able to find a bit of privacy by sneaking up to the tenement roof.

Dick's Jimmy MacDonald character is an honest employee hoping to make it in advertising by winning a contest for a coffee slogan with a lucrative prize: $25,000. Before you can say "Lucy Ricardo," Jimmy's prankster work buddies trick him into thinking he's won. Both Jimmy and his girlfriend Betty are swept off their feet by the celebrity of winning; even the office fuddy duddy that disdained Jimmy's ambition now recognizes him as an advertising genius. Jimmy and Betty go on a whirlwind shopping spree and become the toast of the neighborhood when they hand out gifts to all their friends.

All of this happiness is an illusion, an American Dream of pie in the sky that we know will come crashing down. We want to celebrate Jimmy and Betty's optimism, and Sturges makes their personal situation stand in for the hopes and dreams of the nation. When the coffee hits the fan, the bosses and businessmen are suddenly revealed for the stuffed shirts and empty drudges that they are, and we fear Jimmy will never be able to return to work again.

The real Sturges insanity is happening over at the coffee company, where William Demarest is the holdout on a hung jury trying to pick a winner out of thousands of entries - the scenes play like a backroom version of Twelve Angry Men. Jimmy's entry reads like a complete loser:

"If you don't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee. It's the bunk."

Nobody seems to understand this slogan, which Jimmy explains is a play on words. "Bunk" is a bed, but "The Bunk" means 'nonsense,' 'bull' or 'baloney.' Of course everyone but Jimmy believes that coffee inhibits sleep ... Jimmy thinks that coffee makes one sleepy. But his slogan actually says the opposite: The double negative is the culprit. Meanwhile, the bubble bursts over at Jimmy's company, where he's already been given a promotion and a new office. Betty tries to convince his boss that Jimmy is still the same creative guy, that he deserves to keep his chance at success. Sturges handles it all beautifully.

Demarest is again the second-tier star, with hearty input from Raymond Walburn as the discontented chief of "Maxford House Coffee - Great to the Last Gulp." Franklin Pangborn is the flustered host of the Maxford Coffee Hour. Rod Cameron is one of the sorry pranksters. Ernest Truex, Torben Meyer, Julius Tannen and Jimmy Conlin stand out among a typically big cast. Dick Powell and Ellen Drew are painfully sweet and honest, and we want to protect them throughout the film's brief 67 minutes.

When an irate department store owner demands that Jimmy's entire neighborhood be arrested, cop Frank Moran gets in a good topical retort: "Who do you think you are, Hitler?" A good thought to keep in mind when watching movies about young Americans around 1940 ... is that practically every able-bodied male between 18 and 35 would soon be in uniform, far away from their loved ones, with all of their personal hopes and dreams on hold for the duration.



The Lady Eve
1941 / 97 min.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Written by Preston Sturges from a story by Monckton Hoffe
Produced by Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva

With The Lady Eve Sturges graduates to a top-notch cast and a grade-A production budget, neither of which cramp his style one iota. This enlarged pun on the Garden of Eden myth put Barbara Stanwyck's professional swindler and her cardsharp father (Charles Coburn) into a screwball comedy situation on a cruise ship.

Henry Fonda's shy snake scientist Charles Pike ("Snakes are my life!") is also a millionaire heir to a beer fortune, and Stanwyck's Jean Harrington sarcastically watches as the eligible females on board try in vain to get Pike's attention. Her approach is more direct -- she just trips him into an ignominious pratfall. Jean seduces Charles so her father can fleece him at cards, but she suffers the unwanted side effect of falling in love with him -- he's so unbelievably innocent. The best part of the farce is aboard the ship, leading up to the moment when Jean defies her father. The cruise ends with the lovers broken up, but over the wrong misunderstanding.

The Lady Eve is a little less original than Sturges' other films, resembling in part both Bringing Up Baby (the hassled, confused romantic hero) and The Awful Truth (to win back Charles, Jean pretends to be a society lady at a party). But the subtle, sexy interaction between Stanwyk and Fonda is fascinating, a special treat. One extended two-shot sees them both slowly become excited just by being close to each other, and it's a hoot.

William Demarest again shines as Fonda's tough-guy caretaker. Robert Greig, Melville Cooper and Jimmy Conlin are joined by Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore and Martha O'Driscoll.

The Lady Eve was released as a Criterion special edition five years ago. It's still available, if you don't mind spending almost as much money as what this Universal collection goes for after the usual discount. Savant compared transfers and this new Universal release looks just as good.



Sullivan's Travels
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 90m.
Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig, Eric Blore
Cinematography John Seitz
Art Direction Hans Dreier &Earl Hedrick
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Charles Bradshaw & Leo Shuken
Produced by Preston Sturges & Paul Jones
Written and Directed by Preston Sturges

Criterion's disc of Sullivan's Travels is reviewed separately at this URL.

Universal's transfer of Sullivan's Travels is also as good as the earlier Criterion release (from 2001).



The Palm Beach Story
1942 / 88 min.
Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, Robert Warwick, Arthur Stuart Hull, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Victor Potel, William Demarest, Robert Dudley
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Victor Young
Produced by Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva

The Palm Beach Story is a great place to start one's examination of the Preston Sturges magic. It's wholly original and totally screwball -- not even a hint of social relevance is allowed in the door. The comic conflict between poor and rich is on such a silly basis that nobody could take it seriously. Of all the films in this set, this is probably the bounciest, the one most likely to divert almost anyone from their troubles.

Beautiful Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) and her inventor husband Tom (Joel McCrea) are buried in money woes. Tom's crazy invention is a giant net of steel cables suspended from skyscrapers, to allow airplanes to land right up in the sky over cities. Gerry's realistic about their chances of making it and decides to leave Tom to find a rich fool in Palm Beach to 'befriend' -- as she tells it, a woman with long legs can get an awful lot by doing very little. The show starts with an absolutely surreal encounter with a delightful, deaf old coot known as "The Wienie King" (Robert Dudley) and then to a sequence of madcap insanity on a club car owned by the private "Ale and Quail Club", a group of endearing, drunken hunters. They adopt Gerry and give her a place to sleep, but then go nuts firing off their guns in the moving train. The conductors rescue Gerry and ditch the club car onto a siding.

The lunacy continues as Gerry meets the exact fool she's looking for, a ridiculous tightwad millionaire named John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). Hearing that Gerry has lost her luggage, Hackensacker first buys her a cheap meal and then takes her on a lavish shopping trip, giving us a detailed look at the prices for an ritzy trousseu circa 1941. He invites her on a yacht cruise to Palm Beach, which leads to complete anarchy. Leading the pack of millionaires is Hackensacker's extravagant sister the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who has a pet name for everyone and is constantly followed by an obsequious little gigolo named Toto (a marvelous Sig Arno) that she cruelly mistreats: "Nitz, Toto." Hackensacker falls hard for Gerry just as her husband Tom shows up; she gets Tom to pretend to be a character named Captain McGlue. The Princess doesn't take No for an answer, and makes a major play for Tom.

Describing all of this nonsense by no means does any of it justice -- it's just hilarious. Vallee's moneybags character constantly offers limp opinions: "That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." Joel McCrea plays the annoyed straight man to all of his wife's 'practical' evasions and charades. Vallee ends up serenading Colbert with Goodnight, Sweetheart, one of his insipid crooner standards from the 1920s. And Sturges finds an absurd ending (don't ask) that allows Tom and Gerry Jeffers to stay man and wife and allows Hackensacker and Centimillia to marry them as well.

The 88 minutes blaze by. For many viewers, the sequence with the Ale and Quail club is among the funniest in movie history; snooty reviewers link it with what they perceive as Sturges' unfortunate fondness for slapstick. A dozen of Sturges' regulars blasts away with their shotguns in the club car: Robert Warwick, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Roscoe Ates, Dewey Robinson, Chester Conklin and Sheldon Jett. Arthur Hoyt, Frank Moran, Al Bridge and Fred 'Snowflake' Toones are the train employees who have to put up with the drunks. And don't forget Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager and Esther Howard as the wife of The Wienie King. Favorite Wienie King line: "I make sausages. Stay away from 'em, you'll live longer."

William Demarest 'hosts' the original trailer, which concentrates on the Ale & Quail silliness.



The Great Moment
1944 / 81 min.
Starring Joel McCrea, Betty Field, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Louis Jean Heydt, Julius Tannen, Edwin Maxwell, Porter Hall, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Victor Young
Written by from the book The Truimph over Pain by René Fülöp-Miller
Produced by Preston Sturges

Often considered Preston Sturges' major misstep, The Great Moment was reportedly re-cut by the studio. Sturges filmed it before The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero but it was released after both of them. Sturges' idea was to tilt his slapstick shenanigans in yet another direction, choosing a truly strange subject for a comedy: The invention of anaesthesia. Adapted from a book called Triumph over Pain, The Great Moment stars Joel McCrea as a pioneering dentist who invents a workable anaesthetic but cannot ward off the scorn and hostility of the medical establishment. The next attempt to use this unpromising topic would be a 1958 Boris Karloff horror film, Corridors of Blood.

The story is essentially a serious drama with slapstick passages, mostly involving William Demarest as McCrea's assistant and willing Guinea Pig. In the final Paramount cut (the only one to survive) the comedy and drama only mix fitfully, so one had better care about Joel McCrea's problem. One moment Demarest is jumping out a window, and the next, McCrea's hand is impaled on a message spike.

This movie would make a good comparison feature with King Vidor's The Fountainhead, which claims that genius inventors have no responsibility to serve the public. The dentist Dr. Morton (McCrea) only wants to provide for his family and keep his anaesthesia discovery from being stolen by others, but a conspiracy of greedy doctors prevents him from establishing a patent. Monied interests use a media campaign to picture Morton as a villain 'withholding' his discovery from the public. Morton eventually relents and allows his formula to fall into the public domain, where, of course, large companies will conspire to once again make it private property. Morton dies penniless and unknown.

Paramount's re-cut uses a curious Citizen Kane discontinuity, a complex flashback structure that Sturges is said to have invented in his early script The Power and the Glory. We know Morton's fate from the first scene and the various episodes only make his suffering more acute. The comedy is there, as when doctors debate various bogus anaesthesia methodologies: "The Wells method? The Half-ass-phixiated method!" President Pierce (Porter Hall) callously says that soldiers wounded in the Mexican-American War might benefit from Morton's anaesthetic, and the government might even pay for it: "After all, the government pays for the guns, don't it?" And of course there's William Demarest's clowning as Morton's hapless assistant.

But the rest of the movie plays more like one of those subversive tales of miracle inventions suppressed to insure corporate profits (see The Formula, or David Mamet's The Water Engine). Dr. Morton's petition for a patent is stalled. The doctors refuse to use it unless he tells them exactly what the formula is. If Morton divulges this before obtaining his patent, he in effect gives away all of his rights. Bigoted doctors are eager to quash the discovery of a lowly dentist, and two of Morton's own colleagues falsely claim his discovery as their own. The opening title says that Morton's bid for greatness was "ruined by a servant girl," which misleads us into thinking that he's going to compromise himself with a scandal. Instead, Morton comes upon a sweet young girl strapped to a table as doctors prepare to cut into her while she's awake -- the only choice before his anaesthetic came along. In a weirdly-staged moment of altruistic selflessness, Morton relents, thus bringing the story full circle.

Harry Carey is the doctor who first tries Morton's mixture, called Letheon. Grady Sutton and Esther Howard are unlucky patients for the early experiments of Wells. The movie starts with a fantasy title sequence showing Dr. Morton receiving the glory and accolades that never came for his discovery. The weird moment is structurally identical to a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the one in which David Bowie's Alien leaves for his home planet in triumph. Both scenes "never happen."

The Great Moment appears to have been the problem picture that soured Paramount and Sturges on each other and eventually led to him leaving the studio. Paramount demanded a multi-year contract with an option to drop every year. Sturges wanted the same deal, only with him having the option to leave. Sturges 'ankled' the lot and his career never really recovered ... jobs with Howard Hughes and Darryl Zanuck weren't happy experiences. He lost his momentum along with the marvelous support of his Paramount stock company.



Hail the Conquering Hero
1944 / 101 min.
Starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Elizabeth Patterson, Georgia Caine, Al Bridge, Freddie Steele, Bill Edwards, Harry Hayden, Jimmy Conlin
Cinematography John Seitz
Art Direction Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Werner Heymann
Produced byPreston Sturges, Buddy G. DeSylva

Hail the Conquering Hero brings Preston Sturges back to the top of his form for the last time at Paramount. Eddie Bracken was basically a nerd straight man in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and here he gets into a fix that would slay any Frank Capra hero. The time is WW2 and the subject is the nature of heroism. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) joined the Marines but due to allergies has been discharged without ever seeing action. Humiliated, he's never told his mother the truth and has yet to go home, until a group of tough Marines (including William Demarest and Freddie Steele) convince Woodrow to put his uniform back on and return home as if he's been wounded and discharged.

The nightmare begins when the entire town turns out to honor Woodrow. They nominate him to run for mayor. A statue of Woodrow is proposed and a song is dedicated to him, the whole shebang. Not even Woodrow's girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) understands why he's so horrified by all the attention. She doesn't even get a chance to tell him that she's engaged to another man.

The movie develops into a sensitive picture about the war experience. It approves of the town's feelings regarding Woodrow, but remains wary of all the blind adoration expended upon a hero without visible portfolio. As the pompous Mayor says, heroes will soon be no big deal: In a few years you won't be able swing a cat without hitting a couple of them. Woodrow is not a fool, and eventually comes clean to his friends and neighbors.

Poor Jimmy back in Christmas in July was a similar guy looking for a chance to distinguish himself. It was society's fault that his status as a failure or a success depended on the outcome of a silly contest. The Marines play the same card in this film, only it's with patriotism. Woodrow chose to enlist and shipped out to fight for his country, and it isn't his fault that he was rejected. And his only crime is trying to save his mother unnecessary humiliation. Why should his hometown consider him a flop instead of a hero? The movie even mentions the town's 'business as usual' attitude to the war, acknowledging that the country still functions for selfish profiteering, even in wartime. This kind of semi-subversive angle is what makes Sturges interesting, and may be another reason why Paramount considered him a risky asset. After all, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was borderline blasphemy.

The Marines are an amusing lot, especially William Demarest's constantly conniving Sergeant. Freddie Steele's mother-obsessed orphan Marine Bugsy is a borderline psycho, explained by shrapnel wounds to the head. Bugsy is unofficially adopted by Woodrow's mother (Georgia Caine). According to James Agee, the character was particularly popular with audiences.

Bill Edwards is the guy that Libby has become engaged to in Woodrow's absence. The town of Oak Ridge might as well be called Sturges Junction, as it's populated by the loveable likes of Jimmy Conlin, Chester Conklin, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Warwick, Torburn Meyer, Frank Moran and Dewey Robinson. Raymond Walburn delivers several patches of dialogue that go on for minutes without a cut, as does Bracken in the opening bar scene.


The Preston Sturges The Filmmaker Collection has one title per disc, reversing Universal's policy from last year, when the studio jammed as many as eight features onto only two discs. All the transfers are solid. There are no text extras, just a few notes on each film. Viewers curious about the great filmmaker will want to consult the critical literature on him, or maybe just check out the excellent docus on the three Criterion discs.

I've heard some grumbles from owners of the pricey Criterion releases; those discs are still in print and their excellent extras are recommended. Somehow, I don't see the pain in 'getting stuck' with an extra copy of something like Sullivan's Travels, especially when the discounted price of the set is so low.

The discs have no chapter indexes, just chapter stops. Five out of seven titles have original trailers. The set comes in an interesting, fat package that suggests that there might be a book or something inside, but no dice. Just the same, it's great to have these fine films in hand.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great McGinty rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Trailer
Christmas in July rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Ersatz promo-trailer

The Lady Eve rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Trailer
Sullivan's Travels rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Trailer

The Palm Beach Story rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Trailer
The Great Moment rates:
Movie: Excellent -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement: Trailer

Hail the Conquering Hero rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
**** ½
Packaging: Large multi fold plastic & card folder
Reviewed: November 27, 2006




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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