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Preston Sturges - The Filmmaker Collection DVD

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Preston Sturges – The Filmmaker Collection (DVD-2006)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Reviewed by Daniel Severin

 

For a four-year period in the early 1940s, Preston Sturges was the most powerful film director in Hollywood. Not only was Sturges the first screenwriter allowed to direct his own scripts, but he also produced an amazing number of hilarious motion pictures. Seven of these are included in Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, an essential box set of classic screwball comedies.


Sturges is an important cinematic innovator whose work has been unjustly overlooked. He used the best elements from silent comedies in his films and could tackle serious issues without seeming heavy-handed, unlike his colleague and rival Frank Capra. But what probably distinguishes Sturges’s films the most from those of other directors was the Sturges stock company, a number of character actors whose supporting performances made the movies great. It becomes almost a game for fans to look for Franklin Pangborn or William Demarest in a Sturges film.


In 1940, the year before John Huston and Orson Welles became writer-directors, Preston Sturges wrote and directed two classic satires at
Paramount. Never before on DVD, The Great McGinty and Christmas in July were unprecedented social commentaries that made people laugh.


The Great McGinty shows what happens when a corrupt politician tries to be honest: he gets thrown in jail! Brian Donlevy plays McGinty, a drifter who after voting 37 times in one day works his way up the ladder to become governor. Greed and corruption have never been funnier!


Christmas in July skewers the world of contest entering. By day, Dick Powell works as an ad copywriter, but at night he enters contests and imagines life when he will have it all. His coffee slogan is mistakenly chosen as the winner, leading to humor, generosity, and repossession of property. The neighborhood brawl, in which a young man beats a cop with a fish, is one of many highlights.


Next in the set is one of the funniest films ever made, The Lady Eve. This 1941 comedy of mistaken identity stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as a cardsharp and a brewer’s son who fall in love on a ship, only to learn the truth about each other. In The Lady Eve, Fonda falls for Stanwyck twice, trips over a sofa, and falls out of a train.


Sullivan’s Travels is considered Sturges’s masterpiece. The film induces non-stop laughter and tears and draws from every cinematic innovation in the history of the medium without being obvious or contrived. Posing the immortal question, “What’s the matter with Capra?” Joel McCrea as film director John L. Sullivan sets out on a cross-country quest to get to know everyday people and what they find funny. Along for the ride is
Veronica Lake, disguised as a boy. Sullivan’s Travels is a comic gem involving bigamy, jail, and a homeless shelter.


Another gem in the set is 1942’s The Palm Beach Story. Aspiring inventor Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea) only needs $100,000 to produce the most amazing airport ever built: an elaborate system of runways suspended above a city like a tennis racket. Tom’s wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert) has had enough of these nutty ideas, but while on the way to get a
Palm Beach divorce she meets a millionaire who might invest, if she marries him. As the Ale and Quail Club, members of the Sturges Stock Company organize a posse on a Pullman train and nearly steal the film.


Preston Sturges’s films made a lot of money for
Paramount, but they were also expensive. The Filmmaker Collection contains his sole misfire, The Great Moment. Joel McCrea plays the inventor of anesthesia in this slapstick-heavy biopic. The studio reedited the film without Sturges, and The Great Moment isn’t great, due to this interference. The film is enjoyable, however, on multiple viewings, with great performances from William Demarest and Esther Howard.


The last film in the Sturges set is a timeless examination of American patriotism, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) is a humorous companion film to Sturges’s more famous The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which was released the same year. Hail the Conquering Hero completes the cycle of Sturges’s early 1940s obsessions. Eddie Bracken plays a soldier who was discharged from the military because of his poor health, only he couldn’t bear the humiliation, so he lied about his war record. A rollicking parade has been arranged to greet him in his home town, to honor the returning war hero. Like the great McGinty, Bracken’s character is swept up in a whirlwind of popularity and finds himself running for office. But who wants to vote for a liar?


Preston Sturges is the thinking person’s comedy director. With Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection, most of his best movies are available in a shiny package. Be sure to watch the theatrical trailers to see how these great films were originally promoted-- this is a hoot in and of itself. The transfer quality is good, and though the set lacks extras, Universal Home Video has wisely made the films available on DVD.

 

2007 Daniel Severin/Celluloid Dreams

 

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