Preston Sturges b Chicago Illinois August d August

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No one quite had such a way with dialogue as Preston Sturges. As a screenwriter, he constructed plots that were far-fetched and sometimes incoherent; as a director, his visuals were competent but uninspired. But as a dialogue writer, Sturges was unparalleled.

Preston Sturges had an eccentric upbringing; his mother divorced his father and married a Chicago socialite, only to leave him for a free-spirited life in Europe, following dancer Isadora Duncan. He lived in Europe off and on from 1901 to 1914. Sturges studied in a series of private schools in the United States and Europe and began writing plays in the late 1920s—some of which were acclaimed, others spectacular flops. He was hired as a writer by Universal in 1932.

Sturges worked as a screenwriter for numerous studios, and several of his scripts—such as The Good Fairy (1935), Easy Living (1937), and Remember the Night (1940)—were turned into successful movies. In 1940 Paramount agreed to let him direct his own scripts. The Paramount years were his most productive, with Sturges turning out a series of sparkling comedies in quick succession. Then Sturges's career fell off dramatically in the late 1940s when he left Paramount for a disastrous venture with Howard Hughes; he could not regain his footing during his short contract with Fox, and developed a reputation for being overpriced, arrogant, and unable to bring a film in on budget.

Sturges's dialogue is never "realistic"; no real person ever talked like his characters. He created a made-up, nonsense language for his vaguely European gigolo, Toto, in The Palm Beach Story (1942), but the rest of his people—from rich socialites, to Texas millionaires, to constables, to card sharks, to film producers—speak with equal disregard of verisimilitude. Sturges moved back and forth between long, eloquent phrasemaking to abrupt, staccato interchanges, and he mixed in noises such as hiccups or barking dogs. He imagined characters from every social sphere and cast actors with a wide range of voices, from mellifluous to gravelly.

The words flying out of these characters' mouths are improbable, unpredictable, and funny. For instance, in Easy Living, J. B. Ball throws his wife's fur coat off the roof. It lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) as she is riding on the top level of a New York bus. Surprised, angry, she turns around to the innocent passenger sitting behind her, asking, ''Say, what's the big idea, anyway?'' He calmly replies: "Kismet." In Sullivan's Travels (1941), studio head Mr. LeBrand recalls Sullivan's previous hit films: "So Long, Sarong,'' "Hey Hey in the Hayloft,'' and "Ants in Your Plants of 1939.'' LeBrand and his associate suggest that Sully's new project should be "Ants in Your Plants of 1941,'' and they offer him Bob Hope, Mary Martin, and, maybe, Bing Crosby. And in The Lady Eve (1941), when Jean hatches her plan to impersonate a British Lady and get her revenge on Charles, she remarks, ''I need him [Charles] like the ax needs the turkey.'' Hollywood romantic comedies needed Sturges's wit to the same degree.

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