To call 1940s screwball-comedy director Preston Sturges a serious filmmaker is to insult him. He knew all about serious movies—how every year at this time they tend to swell with social conscience, draining joy from the soul—and he mocked them ruthlessly. "I want this to be a picture of dignity," a pretentious director drones at the opening of Preston's Sullivan's Travels, "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity. But with a little sex in it." (That's an exact summary of a typical offering on the big screen this month—say, Blood Diamond, which is clogged with white liberal guilt and the injustices of global trade. But with a little Jennifer Connelly in it.) Sturges didn't have the heart for that kind of sincerity. Instead, surrounded by World War II and cinemas packed with treacle, his sympathies lay with the blustery Marine played by William Demarest in Hail the Conquering Hero, who declares, "That's what 'Semper Fidelis' means—'face the music.'" It doesn't mean any such thing, but why quibble over precision when bunk sounds so good?
Bunk always sounds good to a Sturges hero. To watch the brand new seven-DVD set Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, which includes four movies never before released for home viewing, is to be thoroughly persuaded of the restorative powers of hokum, flimflam and fraud. John L. Sullivan returns from his travels among the common man with the epiphany that Mickey Mouse cartoons do more good than "stark realism." Demarest's Marine convinces an entire town that its milquetoast son, a 4-F with hay fever, is a war hero—and when the citizens figure out the real story, he convinces them that it doesn't matter. ("Every one of those boys is telling the truth, except they changed the names a little to protect military information.") And in The Great McGinty, Sturges' first movie (he sold the screenplay to Paramount for a dollar on the condition that he could direct), the titular politician only loses his ill-gotten empire when he goes straight. In Preston's world, the road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.
Sturges' brief career—he was in and out of Hollywood in the course of one decade—could be described as the perfect con. He made a farce out of every piety in the movie business, and audiences loved him more with every trick. His closest onscreen counterpart is Jean Harrington, the charlatan ingénue played by Barbara Stanwyck in Sturges' masterpiece The Lady Eve. Jean seduces Henry Fonda's beer mogul twice over: once as herself, then as her "identical twin." He's never happier than when he's being scammed. Fool him once, shame on you; fool him twice...well, three cheers. The magic of Preston Sturges lies in that formulation—and in the truth that love, like the movies, is a deception, but one that comes with more than its share of delight. And, yes, with a little sex in it.
can be purchased at Borders Books & Music, 708 SW 3rd Avenue, 220-5911. The set is available for rental at Video Vérité, 3956 N Mississippi Ave., 445-9902.