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7 Classic Preston Sturges Movies

The Man Who Redefined the Screwball Comedy

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After getting his start as a screenwriter, Preston Sturges turned to directing in the 1940s and redefined the screwball comedy with a number of classic movies. In a short span of time, he directed a series of great films that were popular with critics and audiences.

But his thirst for absolute control over his creative output ultimately ruined his career. Here are seven classic Preston Struges movies that established his legacy as one of the greatest comedy directors of all time.

1. ‘The Great McGinty’ – 1940

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
In Sturges’ first film as a director, Brian Donlevy – an actor who specialized in playing tough guys in a number of film noirs – was featured as a former hobo who is transformed into the protégé of a corrupt political boss (Akim Tamiroff), becoming both a mayor and governor before both take a fall and wind up in jail. Of course, all is played for laughs and Donlevy is surprisingly appealing in a lighter role. Sturges, then the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, convinced Paramount Pictures to let him direct in exchange for selling his script for a mere ten dollars. The modestly-budgeted box office hit gave Sturges greater clout, especially after he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1940, and went on to become one of the best movies about politics ever made.
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2. ‘The Lady Eve’ – 1941

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Sturges directed one of the finest installments of his collection with The Lady Eve, a comedic battle of the sexes between about Charles (Henry Fonda), a snake expert and seeming pushover who attracts the attention of a trio of con artists aboard a ship bound for New York. One of the crooks is the sultry Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), who finds herself falling in love with him while her father and his partner fleece poor Charles for $32,000 in a card game. Chock full of witty innuendo and winning performances, The Lady Eve was another hit for Sturges and helped turn Fonda and Stanwyck into stars.
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3. ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ – 1941

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Because of his already successful track record, Sturges was given free rein to do as he pleased by Paramount, leading to his most ambitious and acclaimed comedies, Sullivan’s Travels. Starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake and set during the show business satire focused on a young director of successful, but superficial comedies who decides to make more meaningful pictures. Dressed as a penniless hobo, he goes on the road with a failed actress (Lake) in order to find out what it really means to live in poverty, only to learn that lesson the hard way. A brilliant satire from start to finish, Sullivan’s Travels remained one of the best movies about making movies ever made and stood as the high-water mark of Sturges’ career.
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4. ‘The Palm Beach Story’ – 1942

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
This vintage, fast-paced Sturges classic was another great example of his ability to give the screwball comedy a harder, more cynical edge. Here, Joel McCrea plays a struggling inventor whose wife (Claudette Colbert) decides that the only way to help him earn financial backing is to divorce him and marry somebody wealthy. Her rash decision leads her to a train heading toward Palm Beach, FL, where she encounters a number of whacky characters. Of course, her husband follows and makes the acquaintance of the love-starved sister (Mary Astor) of a pompous man who happens to be one of the richest men in the world. All collides head-on in an unpredictable farce that featured outstanding performances from the cast, especially Colbert who delivered a career best.
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5. ‘The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ – 1944

Paramount Pictures
Sturges rankled Hays Code Hollywood with this screwball comedy of errors that tackled everything from motherhood and marriage to religion and patriotism – all anathema to mainstream 1940s cinema. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek focused on a young small town girl (Betty Hutton) fond of “entertaining” every G.I. that happens to pass through. After one wild and crazy night, she discovers that she’s pregnant, which she tries to hide from her policeman father (William Demarest) and her hapless sometime boyfriend (Eddie Bracken). Hilarity ensues when she gives birth to not one child, but sextuplets. With the studio withholding the film from release, Sturges battled Paramount and Hollywood censors over the then-racy content of the movie. In the end he won out, but the experience left him craving more creative freedom.
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6. ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’ – 1944

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
With Hail the Conquering Hero, Sturges boldly lampooned the soldiers fighting in World War II during the height of the country’s adulation of the heroes fighting the war. Left in less capable hands, the idea of satirizing American hero worship may have crashed and burned. But Sturges once again deftly maneuvered through difficult territory in telling the story of a marine (Eddie Bracken) discharged only after a month of service due to chronic hay fever, who pretends to be a war hero so as not to upset his mother. Of course, his rouse grows way out of proportion and leads to an unlikely run for town mayor. Despite being nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscar, Sturges craved creative independence and severed his relationship with Paramount – in retrospect a move that permanently damaged his career.
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7. ‘Unfaithfully Yours’ – 1948

20th Century Fox
Having struggled to reclaim his footing after leaving Paramount, the temperamental Sturges accepted work from 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, who allowed him to write and direct what became his last major film, Unfaithfully Yours. The black comedy starred Rex Harrison as a famous symphony conductor who suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) is cheating on him, leading to a plot for revenge that involves possible murder. Despite being a comedy, the dark subject matter of Unfaithfully Yours turned off audiences, leading to box office failure. Time has aided the film, however, as critics have increasingly ranked the film as one of his best efforts. Sturges suffered from financial difficulties for the remainder of his life and only directed two more films before his death from a heart attack in 1959.
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