Tuesday, January 16, 2007

PRESTON STURGES: THE FILMMAKER'S COLLECTION (Paramount 1940-44) Universal Home Video

Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker’s Collection (1940-44) brings together six of the writer/director’s greatest comedies; The Great McGuinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail The Conquering Hero (1944) and one colossal misfire - The Great Moment (1944). Sturges was a man who reportedly despised his cultured/moneyed background – thanks to a doting mother who exposed him to all sorts of theater and art in his youth. He became a Paramount Studio screenwriter in the late 1930s. But his transcendence from mere writer and gag man to director extraordinaire was something of a mold-breaking event in Hollywood, where writers were largely regarded (then and, sadly now) as disposable commodities.

The collection begins in earnest with the film that made Sturges’ transition possible; The Great McGuinty (1940). Sturges sold Paramount the rights for a dollar on the signed agreement that he could direct the film. It stars Brian Donlevy as Dan McGuinty, a hobo on the breadline who is discovered by ‘The Boss’ (Akim Tamiroff); a conman and political puppet master. Through his connections, the Boss transforms McGuinty into an alderman, then mayor, and finally governor of the state – along the way wallowing in graft and kickbacks from useless public works projects that McGuinty endorses and the Boss builds. Unfortunately for The Boss, McGuinty’s mind is changed for the better by the love of a good woman, Catherine (Muriel Angelus). She initially marries him as cover, but then genuinely falls in love with him – and he with her. Their sucessful union leads to his downfall. For when McGuinty goes against the political machinery that put him in power he is ironically deposed as a fraud, even though he only has the public’s best interests at heart.

Next up is Christmas In July (1940) a featherweight – and, at a scant 68 min. running time – anemic little ditty about Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) who thinks he can win prize money with a terrible slogan he’s written for a coffee manufacturer’s contest. Learning of his aspirations, a few of Jimmy’s work colleagues decide to play a practical joke by writing a telegram informing him that he has, in fact, won the contest. Flush with optimism, Jimmy and his girlfriend, Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) high-tail it to the coffee plant to collect his winnings. The company president, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), unaware that his publicity department has not yet chosen a winner, issues Jimmy a check.

Making big plans to spread the wealth around his impoverished neighborhood and mother, Jimmy and Betty embark on a shopping spree of epic proportion. In light of his win, Jimmy’s boss promotes him to an executive position. But then comes the truth; Maxford learns that Jimmy is not the winner. He stops payment on the check and everyone comes looking for Jimmy and their money. Though the film has its share of irony and undoubted following, this reviewer found it a rather turgid excursion.

Moving on; is The Lady Eve (1941), a positively acidic comedy that pits a rather bookish explorer, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) against ravenous gold digger, Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwick). Jean is on a cruise with her gambling father, the colonel (Charles Coburn). She anticipates luring Pike to his financial doom, then thinks better of her plan and decides to marry him for ever-lasting returns. One problem; Pike learns of Jean’s plan and dumps her. So, she transforms herself into Eve – a lady of leisure and culture who looks exactly like Pike’s former lover. He falls for Eve – literally and several times to riotous effect. They marry and she proceeds to concoct a life of debauchery so that he will leave her for…who else? – Jean. Peppered in witty dialogue and populated by character actors that had already become main staples in the Sturges’ stable of reoccurring bit parts: Eugene Pallette and William Demarest among the flock – The Lady Eve is adroit and sophisticated slap-happy great fun.

Sturges goes all out in his next endeavor, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – a madcap adventure with social commentary to boot. Amiable Joel McCrea is John L. Lloyd Sullivan; a movie director who’s tired of churning out frothy musicals and light-hearted comedies. He wants to direct a movie of social significance…but with a little sex. There’s just one problem. Sullivan knows absolutely nothing about the struggle of mankind.

In earnest, and with the complicity of an amiable Miss (Veronica Lake), Sullivan dons the tattered garb of a hobo and rides the rails in search of his reality. What he discovers is a fate almost worse than death as his good will lands him in prison on a wrongful charge of murder. A sort of road show ‘I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang’ but with a feel good ending, Sullivan’s Travels represents Sturges comedic prowess at its most socially conflicted and emotionally satisfying.

Sturges leaves social commentary behind in his next classic comedy, The Palm Beach Story (1942) a claptrap screwball lark about Geraldine (Claudette Colbert) and Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea). Seems Tom’s failing architectural career and Geraldine’s desire for the good things in life have left the couple high and dry. Though they desperately love one another, Geraldine decides to divorce Tom, believing that apart they’ll be more successful in life. She quickly finds herself a sugar daddy – the stuffy millionaire, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). John’s sister, Centimillia (Mary Astor) is an oversexed vixen who’s really not all bad at heart. But when Tom shows up to reclaim his wife, sparks fly as Centi’ puts the moves on the man she believes to be Geraldine’s brother. Unhinged and delightfully adroit and frank about what men and women really want and expect from marriage, The Palm Beach Story is a marvelous comedy that has not aged.

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944) continues in the vein of madcap comedy. The film stars Eddie Bracken as Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith: a would-be war hero who unfortunately was turned down for the draft because of persistent hay fever. Unable to tell his mother the truth, Truesmith hides out in a factory job until a troupe of marines headed by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest, in probably his greatest role) decide to concoct a grandiose lie about Truesmith’s battlefield valor to help him save face and return home. Heppelfinger thinks it’s as simple as fudging the truth a little. But when the whole town catches the fever, they decide to make Truesmith mayor, forcing him to reconsider where his loyalty and self respect lay.

The last film in this collection is also one of Sturges’ most disappointing; The Great Moment (1944), a leaden and almost charm free melodramatic comedy or sorts in which Joel McCrea is miscast as W.T.G. Morton – the man who invented anesthesia. Told in one long flashback, the film struggles to find moments of lightheartedness amidst the philanthropy and drama.

After revealing his secret of pain-free operating Morton is given a congressional reward. Then tragedy strikes; a patent on Morton’s inhaler is infringed and President Pierce refuses to sign the legislation that might prove Morton’s claim. History was, and is, a poor choice for the Sturges touch and this film completely lacks in that fine balancing act between the light/absurd and wholly believable that otherwise made his filmic legacy such a resounding success. Upon its release, The Great Moment came to earth with a great thud and effectively ended Sturges tenure at Paramount Studios. It was the end of an era and the Hollywood comedy would never again be quite the same.

Universal Home Video has done a reasonable job in providing all of these movies in respectable transfers under one collection for the first time. Previously Criterion had released their own separate copies of both Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve. While Criterion’s version of the former is infinitely preferred over Universal’s re-release (for both its superior picture quality and the inclusion of the BBC documentary; Preston Sturges – Rise and Fall of An American Dreamer), Universal’s transfer on The Lady Eve is superior in all respects to the Criterion release.

Overall, the B&W image throughout these releases is quite good. The gray scale on all of the films is well balanced and film grain looks accurate. The best transfers in the bunch are The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and Hail The Conquering Hero. On all of the aforementioned titles, we get relatively smooth looking visuals with solid contrast and a minimal amount of age related artifacts. ‘Palm Beach’ and ‘Hero’ have some minor edge enhancement, but nothing that will terribly distract.

Christmas In July is a much softer transfer than expected. Fine details fade into the background, particularly night scenes and contrast levels are also less punchy. Finally, The Great Moment exhibits some rather heavy grain and many more age related artifacts. In all cases the audio is mono and nicely balanced at an adequate listening level.

There are no extras, but more to the point and dismay of this reviewer – no chapter stop menu…though there are chapter stops that one can advance to by pressing ‘play’ and then using the arrow keys to advance at 10 minute intervals.

FILM RATINGS (out of 5 - 5 being the best)The Great McGuinty 4
Christmas In July 3
The Lady Eve 5
Sullivan's Travels 5
Hail The Conquering Hero 5
The Great Moment 2.5

The Great McGuinty 3.5
Christmas in July 3
The Lady Eve 4
Sullivan's Travels 4
Hail The Conquering Hero 3.5
The Great Moment 4.5


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