Digital Feature

The Best Years of Preston Sturges

How the auteur of screwball found and lost his way

HUMANITIES, Spring 2024, Volume 45, Number 2
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A little more than a year before Peter Bogdanovich died, I called him to talk about Preston Sturges. 

This made a certain amount of sense. Not only was Bogdanovich our chief champion of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but I always felt that he had a profound artistic affinity with Sturges: They were both purveyors of whip-smart comedies whose lives and careers were marked by glorious highs and tragic lows.  

For a long time, Sturges, who was born in 1898 and died in 1959, knew nothing but success. His hot streak consisted of a string of farces, largely made between 1940 and 1944, known for their shrewd dialog, serpentine plotting, and clever characterizations, especially The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Bogdanovich, who was born in 1939 and passed away unexpectedly in January 2022, had his own run of triumphs in the early 1970s. Foremost among his hits was What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a self-conscious recreation of a Sturges-style screwball comedy that owes more than a little to The Lady Eve

Both men also experienced the deafening silence that comes when audiences stop laughing. After winning an unprecedented degree of artistic control in Hollywood, Sturges foundered with a series of pictures that, no matter how hard he tried, failed to connect with the public. Those films, combined with a host of misguided business decisions, led to unrealized ambitions and unwanted exile. By the same token, Bogdanovich shouldered not only professional failure but profound personal loss—namely, the death, in 1980, of the love of his life, the actress Dorothy Stratten. Both men preferred to laugh but came to know disappointment and woe. 

So when I called Peter to talk about Preston in November 2020, I knew he would have something to say. And he did. 

“The dialog is very crisp and smart,” Bogdanovich said, referring to Sturges’s way with words. “He was a very smart writer. He had a tempo that was very much his own. He had an intellectual quality that was unique, I thought.” 

Peter talked about Sturges’s well-known habit of speaking his scripts aloud to be transcribed rather than simply sitting down to write them out. “Sandy Sturges, his widow, told me that he would dictate all his scripts,” Bogdanovich continued. “He didn’t write them; he dictated them. I said, ‘Well, did he play all the parts?’ She said, ‘Yeah, he was wonderful.’ He was a good actor. That’s why they have this sort of freshness.” 

Then Peter turned to Sturges’s so-called “stock company”—the instantly identifiable corps of players—stars, supporting actors, bit-part players—with whom he worked repeatedly: Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Joel McCrea, Franklin Pangborn, and Rudy Vallee. One has the sneaking suspicion that some of these performers were chosen for the comical strangeness of their names—Chester Conklin, Byron Foulger, Arthur Hoyt, Emory Parnell—but that would be to sell short their incalculable contributions in filling out Sturges’s universe, one in which every passerby on a street might say or do something funny. 

“He had a bunch of really good actors, good comedy actors,” Bogdanovich went on. “It’s a huge help to have the same actors, because part of directing is communicating with the actors. So if you’ve got actors that you know and you know what they’re like and you’ve worked with them before, it’s just so much easier.” 

As I hung up the phone, I had the thought that talking to Bogdanovich about Sturges had been the next best thing to talking to Sturges himself. 


Of course, it is possible to talk to Preston Sturges, or at least to listen to him: All one has to do is spend time in the company of his astonishing body of work. Funny though they are, the people in his pictures do not speak in quips, witticisms, or one-liners—the punning style of the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields. Instead, they try to say what they mean and end up sounding like real people.  

Let us consider a remarkable scene in what might be Sturges’s most complete and cohesive film, The Palm Beach Story

Quai and Ail Club
Photo caption

The Palm Beach Story—featuring the rumbustious Quail and Ale Club—is classic Sturgesean mad-cap. 


In this antic comedy of a marriage breaking apart and coming back together, Claudette Colbert stars as Gerry Jeffers, the discontented wife of an imaginative but penurious inventor, Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea). Having lost patience with the scrimping and saving she has been asked to endure while Tom attempts to find financial support for his latest kooky project—a sort of floating airport meant to hover above a city—Gerry makes a mad dash for Palm Beach, a golden land that holds the promise not just of sand and surf but eligible bachelors. 

Of course, the well-coifed, well-mannered but perpetually destitute Gerry must find a way to get there. In a typically Sturgesean stroke of good fortune, she finagles a seat on a train thanks to the intervention of the Ale and Quail Club, a guild of beneficent but rowdy quail hunters whose members are all male, middle-aged, and soused. Gallantly, the club invites Gerry aboard, but their all-night hell-raising including the reckless firing of their rifles and the unleashing of their hounds—makes the voyage seem ill-advised. Compared with this chaos, isn’t life with the doting dreamer Tom preferable?  

Then Gerry encounters another passenger, J. D. Hackensacker III, played by Rudy Vallee, the popular Yale-educated crooner whose romantic yet stuffy manner Sturges seemed to delight in sending up. The ultra-rich Hackensacker is the picture of courtliness toward Gerry, whom he showers with gifts—the expense of which he records in an itsy-bitsy notebook: 12 pairs of stockings, $19.98, 8 handbags, $212.50, and so on. Gerry has a dual purpose in bagging Hackensacker. Seeking greater spousal support, she wishes to marry him. But she also wishes to persuade him to support the inventions of her soon-to-be-ex-husband whom Gerry eventually presents to Hackensacker not as her actual husband but as her brother, one Captain McGlue.  

First, though, Gerry must persuade Hackensacker, whom we and she suspect is something of a prude underneath his good manners, that she is a suitable bride. And so, in the best exchange in the film, Gerry allows Hackensacker to believe that she has been beaten and otherwise neglected by Tom, an obviously spurious charge that the gullible tycoon treats with utter solemnity.  

Hackensacker: I may not be exactly in the best of shape, but if I ever meet this Mr. Jeffers, I’ll thrash him within an inch of his life. 

Gerry: Then I hope you never meet him. 

Hackensacker: I suppose he’s large. 

Gerry: Well, he’s not small. 

Hackensacker: That’s one of the tragedies of this life, that the men most in need of a beating up are always enormous. 

The humor in this scene exists on at least three levels: first, the preposterousness of Gerry’s insinuation that mild-mannered Tom is a brute; second, the eagerness with which Hackensacker pursues the notion, in spite of Gerry’s mealy-mouthed equivocations about Tom’s alleged brutishness when pressed; and third, the fundamental truth of Hackensacker’s observation: that it is, indeed, unfortunate that the world’s bullies are too physically imposing to be bullied themselves.  

When I interviewed Tom Sturges—one of two sons Preston had with his fourth and final wife, Sandy—he brought up this exchange in The Palm Beach Story as a prime example of his father’s approach to writing dialog both funny and true.  

"A character speaking their truth is funnier than that same character trying to make a joke,” Tom Sturges told me. “Is it a joke? No. Is it a pun, a play on words? No. Never. It’s just the truth. Any time you go to a bar and somebody is mouthing off, you look over and he’s probably huge."

The Palm Beach Story takes numerous comic detours: the madness of the Ale and Quail Club; the ersatz marriage counseling provided by a man looking to rent Tom and Gerry’s apartment, an elderly, hard-of-hearing fellow who made a fortune in sausage links, the Wienie King; and, down in Palm Beach, the extremely casual attitude toward the holy estate of matrimony evinced by Hackensacker’s sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). Most films would sink under the weight of all of this, but Sturges keeps the film afloat through sheer industriousness. We feel him working to keep the story one step ahead of audience expectations, but it seems like pleasurable work—we sense a delight in Sturges’s own inventiveness. Smartly, he saves the picture’s most preposterous twist—the one least likely to be tolerated even by an audience on his wavelength—for the final seconds. 

In his posthumously published autobiography, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, the filmmaker wrote of how to prepare an audience to accept a film that continuously raises the comic stakes. For example, The Lady Eve features a number of pratfalls taken by Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), a snake scientist who proves most inexpert in his dealings with the opposite sex, including reprobate con woman Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck). According to Sturges, he was warned to reduce the number of pratfalls or risk annoying moviegoers. He realized he was “skating right up to the edge of nonacceptance,” but nonetheless persisted. “There are certain things that will convulse an audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print,” Sturges wrote. “I had my fingers crossed when Henry Fonda went over the sofa. I held my left ear when he tore down the curtains and I held everything when the roast beef hit him. But it paid off.”  

That’s putting it mildly: The Lady Eve—Sturges’s third film as writer-director—was much-honored in its day, when it received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, and continues to be in ours. It is among the films included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. 


Sturges was fortunate to operate in an era of peak popularity for the screwball comedy, but the films he was competing against tended to be simpler, broader, and safer. Rival films were less willing to up the comic ante, test the endurance of an audience, or push the boundaries of the times. Even a masterpiece like Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) has essentially a one-note premise that is sounded repeatedly over its 102 minutes—watch as square professor Cary Grant is bedeviled by unhinged heiress Katharine Hepburn.  Pictures like Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth hedged their bets by sacrificing pure laughs for occasional moral or socioeconomic preachiness. 

To be sure, Sturges had plenty to say about the American scene, but none of his pictures could be reduced to a simple moral or even a single point. The filmmaker saw life in his times as an accumulation of confusion, disarray, and hullaballoo, and rather than bemoan the pandemonium, or try to make sense of it, he reveled in it. Nor did he judge his characters for getting mixed up in, or directly contributing to, the maelstrom. In The Palm Beach Story, no two characters are ever on the same wavelength, but each is empathetic in their own private motivations: the inspiration of Tom, the frustration of Gerry, the ascetic gallantry of Hackensacker, the well-heeled libidinousness of the Princess Centimillia, the wanton destructiveness of the Ale and Quail Club. 

"What distinguishes Sturges from his contemporaries is the frantic congestion of his comedies,” the great film critic Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. “The Breughel of American comedy directors, Sturges created a world of peripheral professionals—politicians, gangsters, executives, bartenders, cab-drivers, secretaries, bookies, card sharps, movie producers, doctors, dentists, bodyguards, butlers, inventors, millionaires, and derelicts."

How did Sturges develop the assurance to make comedies like this? His peripatetic, often parentless childhood offers some clues. As Tom Sturges sees it, his father was forced to recognize at an earlier age than most that whatever he wanted to achieve in life, he would have to achieve on his own. Born in Chicago to Edmund C. Biden and his wife, Mary, Edmund Preston Biden had an unsettled childhood in which he was jostled between parents and across continents. In Preston’s second year, Mary left her husband in furtherance of an artistic existence in Europe, which included her friendships with dancer Isadora Duncan and occultist Aleister Crowley as well as her own aspirations of becoming a singer. Preston did not have a childhood as much as a front-row seat to his mother’s adventures, and sometimes not even that. 

“It was hardly motherhood,” Tom Sturges said. “His mom, at one point, left him with a farmer for a year. She left him on the docks of New York when he was sixteen years old on the spur of the moment because she wasn’t going to be separated from Isadora Duncan. He was on his own so much. He did not have mentors. He did not have father figures, really, because he had nobody consistently in his life. My opinion is that he came to rely on his own wisdom and his own counsel.” 

In time, Mary married well-heeled, well-adjusted stockbroker Solomon Sturges, for whom Preston had affection and from whom he took his surname. In his autobiography, Sturges recalled the experiences his mother had given him—“I thought of the oceans I had crossed and recrossed, the countries I had lived in, the operas and concerts I had indignantly attended”—while he remembered the example his stepfather had given him: “I wanted to be tall because Father was tall and honorable because Father was honorable.” 

Yet, in her continental striving, Mary carried with her a sense of her own possibilities that surely left an impression on her son. After a stint in charge of his mother’s cosmetics business and another attempt at establishing himself as a songwriter, Sturges flung himself into playwrighting with the same self-confidence that led his mother to her wandering existence. As he recounted in his book, Sturges was in an unsatisfactory relationship with a young woman who confessed that her habit of joshing him was actually a way for her to “try out” scenes on him for a play she was allegedly writing. In a bit of tit for tat, Sturges wrote his own, real, play, The Guinea Pig. He presented the manuscript to his date sometime later.  

“But, darling, this dialogue is like champagne!” she stated, echoing the sentiment of so many future viewers of his films.  

Having stumbled into his own talent, Sturges threw himself into the theater. In 1929, the same year The Guinea Pig was produced, he had a second comedy on Broadway, Strictly Dishonorable. With a cast that included Tullio Carminati and Muriel Kirkland, the play was a huge hit, giving Sturges his first brush with enormous success.  

“The aura of sudden celebrity bestowed on me by Strictly Dishonorable attracted photographers, reporters, gossip columnists, professional panhandlers, producers, job offers, and a written demand from my biological father, Mr. Biden, for immediate repayment of the sums he had dispensed on my behalf when I was about a year old,” Sturges wrote in his autobiography. 

Hollywood is infamous for co-opting the talents of famous writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, but the industry was within its rights to seek the services of an effervescent popular artist such as Sturges. Throughout the 1930s, he churned out scripts, including the ambitious The Power and the Glory (1933); the delightful comedies The Good Fairy (1935) and Easy Living (1937); and the superb romantic comedy-drama Remember the Night (1940), the last of which is possibly the great unsung Christmas movie of all time: This original screenplay stars a pre-Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck as shoplifter Lee Leander, whose charm and moxie persuades the man assigned with prosecuting her, district attorney Jack Sargent (Fred MacMurray), to arrange for her to be bailed out for the duration of the holiday season. Improbably, Jack ferries Lee across state lines to accompany him on a Christmas visit with his mother. Although the prospect of a post-Christmas trial never leaves her mind, Lee relishes this glimpse of what life could be like without thievery, cheating, or courtrooms. The Sturges signature is evident in the unlikely setup and numerous complications, but the film also reveals the deep reserves of humanity Sturges sees within most people: the kindness of a prosecutor, the possibility of reformation in a thief.  

Sturges bullied his way into a directing assignment at Paramount. “In 1939, he’s probably making $4,000 a week as a writer,” Tom Sturges said. “He’s been asking to direct, and they always said, ‘No.’ He goes to them with a movie called Biography of a Bum, and he says, ‘This is a script I wrote on my own time.’ He obviously didn’t read his contract that they had him exclusively. But that was his pitch. He said, ‘It’s mine, but I’ll sell it to you for a dollar if you let me direct it.’ They come back and say, ‘You know, a dollar isn’t right. That sounds cheap and like we really don’t value you. How about $10?’”  

Whatever the actual sum of Paramount’s payment to Sturges, the resulting film—1940’s The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy—was considered a smashing success, winning Sturges an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Paramount then backed Sturges’s next seven comedies as writer-director: In addition to The Great McGinty, Sturges made for the studio Christmas in July, also in 1940; The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both in 1941; The Palm Beach Story, in 1942; and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, both in 1944. An eighth picture—a completely atypical, badly compromised drama about the dentist who originated the use of ether to combat pain in patients, The Great Moment (1944), is generally not counted in this round of success.  

“The run of seven pictures that he made between 1940 and ’44—there’s no run to compare that to,” Bogdanovich told me. “That’s just extraordinary. He wrote and directed them all. Seven masterpieces in four years. It’s unheard of.” 

Because Sturges’s touch was so deft—because he seemed to be expending all his energy in generating guffaws rather than making social observations—he was able to deal with topics that would have been otherwise unthinkable during the censorious era of the Production Code. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Betty Hutton stars as Trudy Kockenlocker, a pleasure-seeking young woman who, after drinking and making merry with soldiers soon to be shipped off to the front, awakens to dim recollections of having entered into a state of holy matrimony with a soldier.  

“Can you imagine getting hitched up in the middle of the night with a curtain ring to somebody that’s going away that you might never, ever see again, Emmy?” Trudy says to her sensible sister (Diana Lynn), noticing something on her ring finger. This would be a sufficiently scandalous setup for most comedies, but Sturges adds a further wrinkle: Trudy has become pregnant during her single night with her now-vanished beau. To provide cover for herself, Trudy recruits a worshipful nincompoop named Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) to agree to marry her in the name of her absent husband, but the ruse falls apart for reasons both predictable and entirely unexpected.  

In his autobiography, Sturges writes, somewhat unbelievably, that he conceived of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek as a cautionary tale to warn girls on the home front of the dangers of cavorting with men in military uniforms, of “confusing patriotism with promiscuity,” as he put it. Yet this finger-wagging interpretation is inconsistent with the joyful, life-affirming abandon of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. The film is not moralistic but moral: Sturges celebrates the pending arrival of Trudy’s offspring, which in the fullness of time is revealed to be not one child but six children—all male. Sturges—married four times, a father three times—refuses to see tragedy in the arrival of a gaggle of children. 


Yet, even during Sturges’s glory years, the seeds of his downfall were being planted. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a truly exceptional film, but its origin reflected its maker’s heedless self-confidence. At the time the film went into production, Paramount was in need of a project that could replace several movies that had dropped off the schedule, as Tom Sturges recounted. “My dad had only sketched about 40 pages of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” Tom Sturges said. “He knew where the story was going, but he didn’t know how he was going to get there. So he told Paramount, ‘It’s about a girl who falls in love with a soldier who’s going off to war.’ They said, ‘Fantastic! What a great idea!’ He was shooting three pages each day, and writing and rewriting ten or so each night, like driving on a bridge that you haven’t completed yet.” 

The line between self-confidence and overconfidence is a thin one, and it was crossed when Sturges broke from Paramount—the studio that had, after all, given him a director’s chair and proceeded to bankroll his greatest triumphs. The break happened after Sturges made, arguably, one too many demands of Paramount. 

“As part of his renegotiation with Paramount, he said, ‘For a month after the release of any one of my pictures, if I don’t like how it’s been marketed, I should have the option to walk away from my contract,’” Tom Sturges said.  

It was an odd, mercurial request. “They were paying him seven, eight grand a week” Tom Sturges continued. “I’m sure there were many people saying, ‘Hey, you’re on top of the world. Why would you get off the train?’ He had it in his mind, and this was the same strong-willed, persistent person: ‘Even though it sounds different, I’ve been different before, and I was right before.’” 

Unwilling to accept Sturges’s terms, Paramount suggested it would be best to part ways, Sturges wrote in his autobiography.  

For his part, Bogdanovich dated Sturges’s decline to this very moment, the consequential decision to leave Paramount. “He was comfortable at Paramount, and they encouraged him,” Bogdanovich said. “It was the coziness of home, and he left that home and it was not a good move.” 

Although he was well compensated—in his autobiography, Sturges writes that his salary at Twentieth Century Fox, where he later made the underrated Unfaithfully Yours (1948), was $12,500 a week—he did not hesitate in plunging his funds into side endeavors. He owned a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called The Players, where taxes went unpaid and many important details escaped the busy filmmaker’s oversight.  

“He didn’t know when to tamp it down a little bit,” Tom Sturges said. “He was a terrible businessman. He trusted everybody. He didn’t trust and verify; he just trusted. Bartenders were bringing their own bottles of booze. People were walking out with steaks. It was terrible.” 

Sins of Harold Diddlebock
Photo caption

Newcomer Frances Ramsden costarred with silent-film star Harold Lloyd in the 1947 partnership with Howard Hughes, The Sins of Harold Diddlebock.

—CALIFORNIA PICTURES / RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Then Sturges agreed to a partnership with Howard Hughes, the idiosyncratic mogul and occasional dabbler in moviemaking. Out of this venture came Sturges’s first post-Paramount production, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). The film was a well-intentioned attempt to resuscitate the career of silent-film legend Harold Lloyd, who was cast as the character he played in his 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman—now several decades older and talking.  

“Harold wanted to make a movie, and he adored what Preston Sturges was doing with comedy,” said Suzanne Lloyd, the performer’s granddaughter. “He thought the dialog would be great. Then Preston brought his girlfriend, Frances [Ramsden], into the project, and she really had never acted before in her life.” 

The film—like Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1948), both made during a brief stay at Twentieth Century Fox—possesses the same unflagging energy and drive as Sturges’s classic films. But where his earlier triumphs were breathless, these films heaved and strained. Even the artistically successful Unfaithfully Yours is marked by a dark mood. The film stars Rex Harrison as orchestra conductor Sir Alfred de Carter, whose mind swims with dangerous thoughts of how to respond to his certain conviction that his wife, played by Linda Darnell, is unfaithful. 

Unfaithfully Yours and The Palm Beach Story both deal with a central weakness in my father’s character: the central motivator for the male characters in both those films is my dad’s great weakness, and that was his jealousy,” Tom Sturges said. “On the twentieth anniversary of my dad’s death, I asked my mom, ‘What was the toughest thing about living with Daddy?’ And instantly, like it happened yesterday, she said, ‘Oh, his jealousy.’ She first knew him when they were hanging out at The Players, and if a waiter made her laugh, it would summon a black rage in him that would take days to get over.”  


After the failed dalliance with Hughes and the aborted comeback at Twentieth Century Fox, Sturges could not simply waltz back into Hollywood and start over. He dreamt up countless perfectly worthwhile projects for which he failed to drum up support, some of which were more than merely worthwhile (such as an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess with Katharine Hepburn). In 2019, an entire book was published that explored, in depth, Sturges’s prolific unrealized output: Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director

In a curious reenactment of his mother’s European travels, Sturges ultimately headed to France, where he directed his final film, unavailable in the United States since its little-noted premiere in 1955, The French, They Are a Funny Race. Made far from Sturges’s home turf, years after he had been a fashionable figure, and without a single member of his beloved stock company, the film has the flavor of a dispatch from the moon. Sturges had not lost his ability to direct actors and write funny situations, but so many years out of work had cost him his rhythm, context, and relevancy. His final marriage to Sandy and the birth of their sons, Preston Jr. and Tom, was undoubtedly a blessing, but he was denied the chance to regain his professional footing. He died, at age sixty, in 1959. 

Tom Sturges is sure that his father, had he lived, would have had made the most of any comeback. He wonders how his father would have been engaged by the passing parade of another half century or so. 

“He would have been energized by all the brilliant things other filmmakers were doing,” Tom Sturges said. “What if he had seen Some Like It Hot and made a movie in reply? Or The Godfather and made a movie in reply? Or Arthur and made a movie in reply?” 


At the end of my conversation with Bogdanovich, I asked him if he ever thought about Preston Sturges while he was making a movie. Silly question. 

“Yeah, he’s worth thinking about, I think,” Peter told me. “The Lady Eve is possibly the most perfect of the films in every way. And The Palm Beach Story is also brilliant—perfect.” 

“Perfection” is tricky to define in movies. Sturges’s glorious comedies achieve perfection through the complexity of their design and the grace of their execution, but they remain as frothy—possibly even frothier—as they were when they first came out. They are confections, not treatises. Must a movie be weighty, politically engaged, or spiritually profound in order to be considered flawless? Sturges himself provided the answer in Sullivan’s Travels, in which director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), gripped by the notion that his next movie must comment on the issues of the day, concludes that sometimes the highest calling is simply to tickle a funny bone. 

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says, speaking for his maker. “Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”