Most movie lovers carry lists around in their heads of films that are criminally overdue for a DVD release. This week my own list just got a bit smaller. Universal has announced the release of a boxed set of films by screenwriter and director Preston Sturges. I’ve seen all but one of the films included in the collection thanks to retrospective screenings and Facets’ VHS archive, but it’s great to see that these classics will finally be widely available.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with Sturges’ comic genius; born in Chicago in the late 19th century, Sturges made his mark early as a prolific and well-paid screenwriter (he even had a hand in penning Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century). However, his best films—some of the funniest and most slyly satirical comedies to ever come out off Hollywood—are the ones he wrote and directed in the 1940s. With a few exceptions (most notably The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Unfaithfully Yours, both of which are available on DVD elsewhere, and well worth seeing), the newly announced Universal collection includes the director’s best works.
The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both available in the new boxed set, are probably the best known of Sturges’ films. Their casts feature the most marquee names (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda appear in the former, Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in the latter), and both have been available for many years in Criterion DVD editions. Some viewers may be less familiar with films like The Great McGinty and Christmas In July, however, due to their inaccessibility on video.
The Great McGinty is not as laugh-out-loud funny as many of Sturges’ screwball comedies, but it’s arguably the filmmaker’s most politically and socially perceptive feature. Brian Donlevy stars as a shivering Chicago hobo who makes money stuffing ballot boxes for the local political machine. He’s so skilled at what he does that he’s soon made an alderman, then mayor of the city, and finally the governor of the state—but his conscience eventually catches up with him, and Sturges deftly shows how little room there is for honesty in politics.
Christmas in July is charming, heartbreaking, and very, very funny. Typically thought of as a lesser Sturges, it’s actually one of my favorites—Dick Powell plays an office clerk who pitches a terrible idea to a coffee company ready to award $25,000 to whoever can pen the best slogan. His co-workers pull a practical joke by fooling Powell into thinking he’s won, and soon he’s off on a rollicking selling spree. Like McGinty, Christmas in July flawlessly mixes its slapstick comedy and witty dialogue with acute observations about American life—our materialistic impulses and foolish yearnings. Sturges accomplishes this with a light touch and a warmth for his characters that keeps his films from ever feeling caustic or patronizing, even at their most satirical.
The seven films collected in Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection were produced in the span of just four years—a prodigious outporing that hasn’t been matched since. If you happen to know one of those people who claim not to care for “old movies”, there is no better remedy than any one of the classics collected in this set.
Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection will be released on November 21st, and is available for pre-order now.
– Nathan Hogan