By an oceanic margin the most distinguished screenwriting voice to emerge from the Golden Age fun factory, Preston Sturges is to be revered for the 10 films he penned and directed between 1940 and 1948, starting with The Great McGinty. Of course, the window for his effervescent genius was open too briefly; for starving Sturgistes, the previous decade he spent milling out screenplays, predominantly for Paramount, is welcome frontier. In the 16 scripts he got credit for, Sturges’s voice is loud and clear, best lightly steered by director Mitchell Leisen but recognizable on any hired gun’s watch.
Generally, the ’30s movies, being mostly adaptations, are less screwball-absurd than Sturges’s later work, but there is something more remarkable, a three-dimensional sense of empathy and humanism. Virtually alone among Hollywood filmmakers, Sturges believed in inherent goodness and emotional complexity, and his characters behave in unformulaic, grown-up ways. Cruelty, when it appears, is regarded as a chilling blight, and the connections of friendship and affection are vibrantly strong. Faves like Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) and William Wyler’s The Good Fairy (1935) play almost like whole-hog Sturges projects; he even imbued the chestnut play about François Villon’s shenanigans, If I Were King (1938), with a buoyancy befitting a child’s game of dress-up. Sturges’s keynote script, The Power and the Glory (1933), shown in a long-overdue restoration, was his first original work for film, and its unarguable influence on Citizen Kane is only verified by Diamond Jim (1935), another bootstrap-billionaire tale desultorily directed (by A. Edward Sutherland) but nevertheless witty and melancholy and almost Rohmer-esque in its emotional dignity. The masterwork here is Leisen’s criminally overlooked Remember the Night (1940), a Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck road comedy that is as smart-mouthed as it is stunningly compassionate.
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