Absolute Clowning: Preston Sturges

By Ira Seidenstein

October 7, 2020

I’m halfway through seeing the three series of the TV show FARGO. As usual I’m an advocate of the clown Max Wall’s philosophy of life which he said was “One thing leads to another “. In reading about Fargo I saw that the writer Noah Hawley was commissioned by FX to “create a Coen Brothers” script. Noah was already a fan of the Coens, but, then analysed all of their films and scripts.

My book collection has been developed so that I can research particular topics that I’m interested in. The books are unread until one thing leads to another. From my shelves I started reading “The Coen Brothers” by Roland Bergan and he mentions Preston Sturges generally and specifically his movie “Sullivan’s Travels” of 1941. I’ve started watching it and it is filled with brilliant clowning. The title itself I guess references the book “Gulliver’s Travels”?

Sturges’ life and career is remarkable and extraordinary. From Wikipedia:

“Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for a Sturges character to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene.”

”The film critic Ephraim Katz wrote that Sturges films “…parodied with pungent wit various aspects of American life from politics and advertising to sex and hero worship. They were marked by their verbal wit, opportune comic timing, and eccentric, outrageously funny camo characterizations.”[10] Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, “Sturges repeatedly suggested that the lowliest boob could rise to the top with the right degree of luck, bluff, and fraud.”[11] Critic Andrew Dickos wrote that “the touchstone of Preston Sturges’ screenwriting lies in the respect paid to the play and density of verbal language” and “establishes the standard of eloquence as one of poetry, of a cacophony of Euro-American vernacularisms and utterances, peculiarly—and appropriately—spoken with scandalous indifference.”[12]

“In recent years, film scholars such as Alessandro Pirolini have also argued that Sturges’ cinema anticipated more experimental narratives by contemporary directors such as Joel and Ethan CoenRobert Zemeckis, and Woody Allen, along with prolific The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder: “Many of [Sturges’] movies and screenplays reveal a restless and impatient attempt to escape codified rules and narrative schemata, and to push the mechanisms and conventions of their genre to the extent of unveiling them to the spectator. See for example the disruption of standardized timelines in films such as The Power and the Glory and The Great McGinty or the way an apparently classical comedy such as Unfaithfully Yours (1948) shifts into the realm of multiple and hypothetical narratives.”[13]

Here are some of the comic actors Sturges preferred to employ: “Members of Sturges’ unofficial “stock company” included: George AndersonAl BridgeGeorgia CaineChester ConklinJimmy ConlinWilliam Demarest,[Notes 1] Robert DudleyByron FoulgerRobert GreigHarry HaydenEsther HowardArthur HoytJ. Farrell MacDonaldGeorge MelfordTorben MeyerCharles R. MooreFrank MoranJack NortonFranklin PangbornEmory ParnellVictor PotelDewey RobinsonHarry RosenthalJulius TannenMax Wagner and Robert Warwick. In addition, Sturges re-used other actors, such as Sig ArnoLuis AlberniEric BlorePorter Hall and Raymond Walburn, and even stars such as Joel McCrea and Rudy Vallee, who both made three films with Sturges, and Eddie Bracken, who did two.” I met Eddie Bracken in 1987 when he toured Australia as the lead actor in the Burlesque revival play “Sugar Babies”.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preston_Sturges

Here is Sturges’ film “Sullivan’s Travels”. By expanding the viewing screen you can move the distracting stars aside.

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Ira Seidenstein