World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges
Born Edmund Preston Biden
(1898-08-29)August 29, 1898
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died August 6, 1959(1959-08-06) (aged 60)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Playwright, screenwriter, film director
Years active 1928–1956
Spouse(s) Estelle de Wolf Mudge (1923–1928; divorced)
Eleanor Close Hutton (1930–1932; annulled)
Louise Sargent Tevis (1938–1947; divorced)
Anne Margaret "Sandy" Nagle (1951–1959; his death)

Preston Sturges (;[1] born Edmund Preston Biden; August 29, 1898 – August 6, 1959) was an American playwright, screenwriter, and film director. In 1941, he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film The Great McGinty, his first of three nominations in the category.

Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for a Sturges character to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene. A tender love scene between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve was enlivened by a horse, which repeatedly poked its nose into Fonda's head.

In recent years, film scholars such as Alessandro Pirolini have also argued that Sturges' cinema anticipated more experimental narratives by contemporary directors such as Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Zemeckis, and Woody Allen, along with prolific The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder: "Many of [Sturges'] movies and screenplays reveal a restless and impatient attempt to escape codified rules and narrative schemata, and to push the mechanisms and conventions of their genre to the extent of unveiling them to the spectator. See for example the disruption of standardized timelines in films such as The Power and the Glory and The Great McGinty or the way an apparently classical comedy such as Unfaithfully Yours (1948) shifts into the realm of multiple and hypothetical narratives."[2]

Prior to Sturges, other figures in Hollywood (such as Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Frank Capra) had directed films from their own scripts, however, Sturges is often regarded as the first Hollywood figure to establish success as a screenwriter and then move into directing his own scripts, at a time when those roles were separate. Sturges famously sold the story for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures for $1, in return for being allowed to direct the film; the sum was quietly raised to $10 by the studio for legal reasons.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • From Broadway to Hollywood 2.1
    • Screenwriting heights 2.2
    • Studio battles 2.3
    • Independence and decline 2.4
  • Personal life 3
  • Death 4
  • Partial filmography 5
  • Adaptations 6
  • Published screenplays 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Sturges was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Mary Estelle Dempsey (later known as Mary Desti or Mary D'Este) and travelling salesman Edmund C. Biden. His maternal grandparents, Catherine Campbell Smyth and Dominick d'Este Dempsey, were immigrants from Ireland, and his father was of English descent.[3]

When Sturges was three years old, his eccentric mother left America to pursue a singing career in Paris, where she annulled her marriage with Preston's father. Returning to America, Dempsey met her third husband, the wealthy stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who adopted Preston in 1902. According to biographers, Solomon Sturges was "diametrically opposite to Mary and her bohemianism". This included her close friendship with Isadora Duncan, as the young Sturges would sometimes travel from country to country with Duncan's dance company. Mary also carried on a romantic affair with Aleister Crowley and collaborated with him on his magnum opus Magick. As a young man, Sturges bounced back and forth between Europe and the United States.[4]

In 1916, he worked as a runner for New York stock brokers, a position he obtained through Solomon Sturges. The next year, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Service, and graduated as a lieutenant from Camp Dick in Texas without seeing action. While at camp, Sturges wrote an essay, "Three Hundred Words of Humor", which was printed in the camp newspaper, becoming his first published work. Returning from camp, Sturges picked up a managing position at the Desti Emporium in New York, a store owned by his mother's fourth husband. He spent eight years (1919–1927) there, until he married the first of his four wives, Estelle De Wolfe.


From Broadway to Hollywood

In 1928, Sturges performed on Broadway in Hotbed, a short-lived play by Paul Osborn,[5] and Sturges' first produced play, The Guinea Pig, opened in Massachusetts. The play was a success and Sturges moved it to Broadway the following year, a turning point in his career.[6] That same year also saw the opening of Sturges' second play, the hit Strictly Dishonorable.[7] Written in just six days, the play ran for sixteen months and earned Sturges over $300,000, a staggering amount at the time. It attracted interest from Hollywood, and Sturges was writing for Paramount by the end of the year.

Three other Sturges stage plays were produced from 1930 to 1932, one of them a musical, but none of them were hits.[8] By the end of the year, he was working more in Hollywood as a writer-for-hire, operating on short contracts, for Universal, MGM, and Columbia studios. He also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges' reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, "The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession."

For the remainder of the 1930s, Sturges operated under the strict auspices of the studio system, working on a string of scripts, some of which were shelved, sometimes with screen credit and sometimes not. While he was highly paid, earning $2,500 a week, he was unhappy with the way directors were handling his dialogue, and he resolved to take creative control of his own projects. He accomplished this goal in 1939 by trading his screenplay for The Great McGinty (written six years earlier) to Paramount in exchange for the chance to direct it. Paramount promoted the unusual deal as part of the film's publicity, claiming that Sturges had received just one dollar (in reality, he was paid $10 for legal reasons).[9] Sturges' success quickly paved the way for similar deals for such writer-directors as Billy Wilder and John Huston. Sturges said, "It's taken me eight years to reach what I wanted. But now, if I don't run out of ideas – and I won't – we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them."

Screenwriting heights

Sturges won the very first [10]

Though he had a thirty-year Hollywood career, Sturges' greatest comedies were filmed in a furious five-year burst of activity from 1939 to 1943, during which he turned out The Great McGinty, American Film Institute as being among the 100 funniest American films.

Sturges' rich writing style has been described as that of "a lowbrow aristocrat, a melancholy wiseguy." His scripts were almost congenitally unable to deliver a single mood. In Hail the Conquering Hero, the series of lies, crimes, and embarrassments all somehow bolster the film's theme of patriotism and duty. Sometimes this attitude could be conveyed in a single line of dialogue, such as when Barbara Stanwyck describes the man of her dreams with a combination of love and malice: "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."

In 1942, in his review of The Palm Beach Story, critic Manny Farber wrote:

He is essentially a satirist without any stable point of view from which to aim his satire. He is apt to turn his back on what he has been sniping at to demolish what he has just been defending. He is contemptuous of everybody except the opportunist and the unscrupulous little woman who, at some point in every picture, labels the hero a poor sap. That the invariable fairy godfather of each picture is not only expressive of his own cold-blooded cynicism but of typical Hollywood fantasy is an example of how this works. Another phase of his attack is shrouding in slapstick the fact that the godfather pays off not for perseverance or honesty or ability but merely from capriciousness.[11]

Studio battles

Production on these films did not always go smoothly. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was literally being written by Sturges at night even as the production was being filmed in the daytime, and Sturges the screenwriter was rarely more than 10 pages ahead of the cast and crew.

Despite box office success for The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, conflict with Paramount's studio bosses increased. In particular, executive producer Buddy DeSylva never really trusted his star writer-director and was wary (and arguably jealous) of the independence Sturges enjoyed on his projects. One of the sources of conflict was that Sturges liked to reuse many of the same character actors in his films, thus creating what amounted to a regular troupe he could call upon within the studio system. Paramount feared that the audience would tire of repeatedly seeing the same faces in Sturges productions. But the director was adamant, stating, "[T]hese little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures."[12]

Members of Sturges' Torben Meyer, Charles R. Moore, Frank Moran, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, Emory Parnell, Victor Potel, Dewey Robinson, Harry Rosenthal, Julius Tannen, Max Wagner and Robert Warwick. In addition, Sturges re-used other actors, such as Sig Arno, Luis Alberni, Eric Blore, Porter Hall and Raymond Walburn, and even stars such as Joel McCrea and Rudy Vallee, who both made three films with Sturges, and Eddie Bracken, who did two.

The prolonged clashes between Sturges and Paramount came to a head as the end of his contract approached. He had filmed The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek in 1942 and Hail the Conquering Hero in 1943, but Paramount was suffering from a surfeit of films. Indeed, some of the studio's finished movies were sold off to United Artists, which needed films to distribute.[14] The studio held onto Sturges' three films, since he was their star filmmaker at the time, but did not immediately release them.

Internally, studio heads expressed serious reservations about them, as did the censors at the The Millionairess Sturges was having no better luck in Hollywood, where his clout was gone.

Over the next several years, Sturges continued to write, but many of the projects were underfunded or stillborn, and those that emerged did not approach the same success as his earlier triumphs. His 1951 Broadway musical, Make a Wish, underwent extensive rewriting by Abe Burrows and ran for only a few months.[15] His next Broadway project, Carnival in Flanders, a musical which Sturges wrote and directed in 1953, closed after six performances.[16]

Sturges was left professionally adrift. Accepting an offer from Darryl Zanuck, he landed at Fox where he wrote, directed, and produced two films. The first, Unfaithfully Yours (1948), was not initially well received by either reviewers or the public, though its critical reputation has since improved. However, his second Fox film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), was the first serious flop in star Betty Grable's career, and Sturges was again on his own. He built a theater at his Players restaurant, but the project did not pan out.

Coming on the heels of the failure of The Great Moment, these further flops, disappointments and setbacks served to tarnish the once stellar reputation of the golden boy of Hollywood.

In the meantime, California Pictures had put another film into production, Vendetta. At Hughes' behest, Sturges had written the script as a vehicle for Hughes' protégé, Faith Domergue. Max Ophüls was hired to direct, but after only a few days of filming, Hughes demanded that Sturges fire Ophüls and take over the direction himself. Seven weeks later, Sturges himself was fired or quit (accounts differ). The promising partnership between the two iconoclasts was dissolved after just one completed picture. As Sturges later recalled, "When Mr. Hughes made suggestions with which I disagreed, as he had a perfect right to do, I rejected them. When I rejected the last one, he remembered he had an option to take control of the company and he took over. So I left."

However, this career peak also marked the beginning of Sturges' professional decline. While the startup California Pictures was being created and structured, it was three years until Sturges' next release. That film, a Harold Lloyd vehicle entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), for which Sturges had coaxed the silent film icon out of retirement, went over budget and far behind schedule, and was poorly received when it was released. Hughes, who had promised not to interfere in the film's production, stepped in and pulled the movie from distribution in order to re-edit it, taking almost four years to do so. Released in 1950 by RKO, which was by that time owned by Hughes, the retitled Mad Wednesday was no more successful than Sturges' original version.

Millionaire Howard Hughes, who had formed a friendship with Sturges, offered to bankroll him as an independent filmmaker. In early 1944, Sturges and Hughes formed a partnership called California Pictures. The deal represented a major pay cut for Sturges, but it established him as a writer-producer-director, the only one in Hollywood besides Charles Chaplin and one of only four in the world, along with England's Noël Coward and France's René Clair. The status led, again, to widespread admiration and envy among his Hollywood peers.

Sturges was a temperamental talent who fully recognized his own worth. He had invested in entrepreneurial projects such as an engineering company and The Players, a popular restaurant and nightclub at 8225 Sunset Boulevard, which were both net losses. At one point the third highest paid man in America – for writing, directing, producing, and numerous other Hollywood projects – he was often known to borrow money (from his stepfather and studio, amongst others).

Independence and decline

[17] got Sturges to agree to adapt the script and direct. But she could not get a single Hollywood studio to back the project.

A 1953 lien by the Internal Revenue Service, with whom he had been having tax problems, cost Sturges the Players and other assets. Sturges put a brave public face on the situation, writing, "I had so very much for so very long, it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way for a while, and I really cannot and will not complain." However, his drinking became heavy, and his marriage and many of his relationships continued to deteriorate.

Sturges began spending more time in Europe, as he had as a young man. His last directorial effort took place there when he wrote and directed Les Carnets du Major Thompson, an adaptation of a popular French novel. The film was released in France in 1955 and two years later in the U.S., under the title The French, They Are a Funny Race. It failed to register with critics or the audience.

Sturges made four brief onscreen appearances during his career: in two of his own films (Christmas in July and Sullivan's Travels), in the Paramount all-star extravaganza Star Spangled Rhythm, and, in the years of his decline, in the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday, which was filmed in France and would be the last film he worked on. Two decades earlier, Sturges had been a writer on one of Hope's earliest film successes, Never Say Die.

In 1959, Sturges summed up his career:

Between flops, it is true, I have come up with an occasional hit, but compared to a good boxer's record, for instance, my percentage has been lamentable. I fought a draw in my first fight, stupified everyone by winning the championship in my second, got a couple of wins with picture rights, then was knocked out three times in a row. Dragging my weary carcass to Hollywood, I was immediately knocked out again, won a big fight some six months later, then marked time for six years as an ordinary ham-and-beaner, picking up what I could. Suddenly I saw a chance and offered to fight for the world championship for a dollar. To everyone's astonishment, I won that championship and defended it successfully for a number of years, winning nine times by knockout, fighting three draws, losing twice and getting one no-decision in Europe. I have just come over to America for a fight, but it was called off at the last moment, one of the promoters having gone nuts and having to have been locked up. Why I'm not walking on my heels after all this, I don't know. Maybe I am walking on my heels. It would be surprising if I weren't.[18]

Personal life

Sturges married four times and had three sons:[4][19]

  • Estelle deWolfe Mudge – married in December 1923, separated in 1927, divorced in 1928
  • Eleanor Close Hutton (a daughter of Marjorie Merriweather (Post) Close Hutton Davies May) – eloped on April 12, 1930, marriage annulled on April 12, 1932
  • Louise Sargent Tevis – married on November 7, 1938 in Reno, Nevada, separated in April 1946, divorced in November 1947
    • son Solomon Sturges IV (b. June 25, 1941) – actor
  • Anne Margaret "Sandy" Nagle (a lawyer and former actress) – married on April 15, 1951, marriage ended in 1959 with Sturges' death, mother of his two younger sons
    • Preston Sturges Jr. (b. February 22, 1953) – screenwriter
    • Thomas Preston Sturges (b. June 22, 1956) – music executive


Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel while writing his autobiography (which, ironically, he'd intended to title The Events Leading Up to My Death), and was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His book, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words, was published in 1990 by Simon & Schuster.[20] In 1975, he became the first writer to be given the Screen Writers Guild's Laurel Award posthumously. He has a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1601 Vine Street.[21]

Partial filmography


Published screenplays

See also



  1. ^ "Sturges". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Pirolini, Alessandro. The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study, McFarland & Co., 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-4358-1
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Preston Sturges at the TCM Movie Database
  5. ^ Hotbed at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. ^ The Guinea Pig at the Internet Broadway Database
  7. ^ Strictly Dishonorable at the Internet Broadway Database
  8. ^ Preston Sturges at the Internet Broadway Database
  9. ^
  10. ^ Dickos, Andrew. Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies, 55–56
  11. ^ Farber, Manny. Farber on Film New York: Library of America, 2009. p.41
  12. ^ Frankel, Mark "Hail the Conquering Hero" (TCM article)
  13. ^ Demarest appeared in ten films written by Sturges, eight of which he also directed: The Great Moment (1944)
  14. ^ This included a film Sturges was involved with as producer, I Married A Witch.
  15. ^ Make A Wish at the Internet Broadway Database
  16. ^ Carnival in Flanders at the Internet Broadway Database
  17. ^ The Millionairess at the Internet Broadway Database
  18. ^ Sturges (1990) p. 12
  19. ^ 100 Years Prestontennial (timeline)
  20. ^ ISBN 0-671-67929-5
  21. ^ IMDB Awards
  22. ^ Complete filmographies: IMDB,TCM, AllMovie,

Further reading

External links


  • The Lady EveJames Harvey's essay on
  • Sullivan's TravelsTodd McCarthy's essay on
  • Unfaithfully YoursJonathan Lethem's essay on
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Hawaii eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.