Ants In His Pants

Film still for Ants In His Pants

Light-hearted irreverence was Preston Sturges' forte but his comedies also have a serious edge. Philip Kemp recalls them below while comedy directors Terry Jones, Baz Luhrmann, Clare Kilner and Peter Farrelly offer tribute

For four years from 1940 to 1944, Preston Sturges exploded over Hollywood like a fireworks display. In that short period he wrote and directed for Paramount seven pungently exuberant comedies, and tossed in a biopic as makeweight. The first of the writer-directors, he pioneered the way for John Huston, Billy Wilder and a host of others. Then, only in his mid 40s and seemingly at the height of his powers, he abruptly fizzled, sputtered and plummeted to earth. Over the next 15 years he made just four more films, in which his erstwhile brilliance flared up only fitfully, before dying bankrupt and forgotten in that graveyard of burnt-out wits, New York's Algonquin Hotel.

It's an extravagant, even barely plausible trajectory, and one that might well have come from one of Sturges' own films. But then, Sturges' life and his films were constantly leaking into each other and few writers about him have been able to resist tracing the cross-connections. The reviews of James Agee, one of Sturges' earliest admirers, tended to talk less about the films than (as Penelope Houston put it) to "subject the film-maker to a curious brand of sustained psychoanalysis." Subsequent critics have frequently followed suit.

The temptation is understandable. The son of a culture-deranged mother who dragged him round every museum and art gallery in Europe and sent him to school in a frilly Greek tunic; an engineer, songwriter, tirelessly eccentric inventor and failed restaurant proprietor; a flamboyant socialite, four times married - few lives offer such rich pickings. But attempts to get a fix on Sturges the man often stem from the near impossibility of pinning down the films. His comedies - or at least the great run of seven he produced in the glory years - lurch breathlessly in every direction, at once sophisticated and raucous, urbane and philistine, careering headlong through slapstick, satire, farce, elegant verbal wit and shameless sentimentality with unstoppable momentum and not the least care for incongruity. Had his upbringing not instilled in him a fixed loathing of culture, Sturges might have quoted Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

Sturges has sometimes been pigeonholed as a satirist, and he certainly relished taking potshots at most of American society's sacred cows. In his first film as director, The Great McGinty (1940), it is proposed that corruption isn't a disease of the political system, but the very fuel on which it runs. "They're always talkin' about graft," says a character, "but they forget if it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics - men without ambition - jellyfish." The film offers a parody of Horatio Alger-ish inspirational parables. The hero is a bum offered $2 for his vote. Seeing his chance, he sells it 37 times and through this laudable show of initiative rises to be governor of the state. He's brought down not by righteous exposure but through an unwonted moment of honesty.

Likewise in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943) fornication, illegitimacy and bigamy can be quietly overlooked when a girl glorifies her country by giving birth to sextuplets. ("Hitler Demands Recount" reads a briefly glimpsed headline.) Patriotism comes in for a further drubbing in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) in which a smalltown booby, rejected by the marines for hay fever, is hailed by his duped townsfolk as a returning war hero and is elected mayor. As for "Topic A", as Sturges liked to call sex: energy and ingenuity excuse pretty well anything, especially on the part of attractive young women. The heroines of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) are both out-and-out gold-diggers pursuing rich men for the most mercenary motives. Both end up with the men they want and the cash.

But in all these cases the cross-currents of comic energy swirling through the films deflect any sustained satirical thrust. In Conquering Hero the hero is greeted at the railroad station by four brass bands all playing different tunes; it's an apt metaphor for Sturges' tumultuous brand of comedy. Sullivan's Travels (1941), which tilts at Hollywood, is often reckoned to be nearest to an expression of Sturges' own beliefs, but it's not easy to tell just who is being satirised or for what: the studio bosses, demanding another mindless trifle (Ants in Your Pants of 1941); the director Sullivan, wanting to make a socially significant movie "with a little sex in it" (O Brother, Where Art Thou?); or the condescension of the rich trying a little social slumming for research purposes? At the end, having seen chain-gang convicts distracted from their misery by a Disney cartoon, Sullivan concludes: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh... It isn't much but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan." Viewed as a credo, it's more than a touch glib; but given Sturges' love of self-cancelling paradox we should probably be wary of taking it at face value.

Satire, in any case, requires an edge of genuine scorn if not outright venom, and Sturges is usually having too much fun with his characters' antics to get round to disliking them. The rich are mocked, but good-humouredly. Henry Fonda's near-catatonic beer-fortune heir and his overgrown baby of a father (Eugene Pallette) in The Lady Eve are pathetic, incapable creatures, hamstrung by their wealth and all the better for being jolted by some silky female chicanery. The same goes for Rudy Vallee's emotionally stunted millionaire in The Palm Beach Story, while Sturges regards with unconcealed delight the bunch of elderly moneyed reprobates in the same film who call themselves the Ale and Quail Club and rampage viewhallooing through Pullman cars with dog and gun. To borrow a phrase from Arsenic and Old Lace, eccentricity doesn't run in Sturges' films, it gallops.

The prevailing mode in Sturgesian comedy - not that anything is allowed to prevail for long - is less satire than burlesque, not least for the stock company of gargoylish character actors who infest his films, grimacing in exasperation or alarm. Franklin Pangborn, jowls wobbling in prim outrage; Raymond Walburn, with his boot-button eyes and caterpillar moustache; Robert Greig, the quintessence of butlerly hauteur; and Sturges' favourite of all, the irascible William Demarest, primed to explode at any second - these and their like expostulate their way through the hubbub, usually tagged with absurd mittelEuropeanish names. They work best when serving as chorus to straight actors in the leads, a garish backdrop to the subtler comic talents of Barbara Stanwyck or Joel McCrea; less well when, as Sturges increasingly came to prefer, the leads are also cast for caricature. Agee considered Sturges "the smartest man for casting in Hollywood", a judgement belied by the director's preference for the charmless mugging of Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton over McCrea, Stanwyck, Henry Fonda or Claudette Colbert.

In the 30s, before he became a director, Sturges scripted one of the wittiest screwball comedies, Easy Living (1937) for Mitchell Leisen. His own style of comedy unmistakably developed - or perhaps erupted - out of the classic screwball conventions, but laced with elements of silent-movie pratfall and overwound to his own breakneck pace. One of his loopy inventions was for "a device for making water flow uphill", and there's something of that desperate Sisyphean contrivance about his movies: the contraption rackets along, high on its own velocity, somehow managing not quite to trip over its own manic contortions. Yet now and then Sturges will suddenly apply the brakes to savour a morsel of near-baroque eloquence from an incongruous source. A barman, faced with a first-time-ever drinker, responds, "Sir, you arouse the artist in me"; in Sullivan's Travels Joel McCrea, preparing for his down-and-out safari, is warned by his butler: "Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera... It is to be stayed away from, even for the purposes of study. It is to be shunned."

It's for these unexpected moments of solemnity, even of poetry, that Sturges deserves to be treasured as much as for the high-octane fizz and riot of his careening humour. His movies, for all their neurotic overspill, lastingly loosened the stays of filmed comedy; after him, anything went. He was too sui generis, too flailingly inconsistent, to attract disciples, and almost certainly wouldn't have wanted them. But every film-maker who has set out to push the envelope of comedy, from Frank Tashlin to Todd Solondz and the Coen Brothers, owes him a debt.

Terry Jones

Co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, director of Personal Services

It was my brother who introduced me to Preston Sturges when we were in our early teens. We went to see The Palm Beach Story and from the opening titles I was hooked. The Palm Beach Story remains one of my all-time favourite films, but Hail the Conquering Hero is perhaps more perfect. It has a classic storyline which appears simple and seamless.

Woodrow (played by Eddie Bracken) has been set on becoming a marine like his hero father since childhood. However, he is discharged on account of his chronic hay fever. He spends a year working in a shipyard while pretending in letters to his mother he's fighting with the marines. On his way home he runs into a group of marines who - against his wishes - arrange for him to return dressed in one of their uniforms. Unfortunately the entire town turns up to give Woodrow a hero's welcome with four marching bands. "They got four bands," says one of the marines. "That don't look good with only one medal." Before Woodrow can protest he's dressed in a corporal's uniform with a whole raft of medals. And events snowball from there on.

There's not a dud scene or a spare moment. It's like a wonderful piece of clockwork - all the scene has been set, the back stories told, the characters established while Woodrow is on the train home. Once he steps off it, the rapid series of events toboggan towards their climax with wondrous momentum. The tightness of the story stands in contrast with the delirious profusion of characters, each firmly established and each essential to the story, stirred into the action with reckless abandon.

As in all Sturges' films, the dialogue is sharp, fast, accurate and funny. Written in 1943 and completed in 1944 during the height of World War II, Conquering Hero had to contend with censorship and meet the patriotic aspirations of the government and the public. It does this while remaining effortlessly wry and subversive, and profoundly sceptical about love, politics and the celebration of heroism itself.

Its genesis was far from effortless. Sturges kept refining the story then found himself falling foul of the studio system. The first two previews brought a mixed audience response, whereupon Paramount chief of production Buddy DeSylva decided to recut the film. Sturges' contract ran out at that point and he was forced to stand by helpless as his film was taken away from him. But the preview of the new version proved so disastrous Paramount allowed Sturges back to recut the film again, reshoot some scenes and shoot a new ending. In the end the film was released to great critical acclaim, though only modest commercial success.

Preston Sturges made it look simple, but then that was his genius.

Peter Farrelly

Co-director of There's Something about Mary

I didn't see any of Sturges' films until I was asked to write a column about him because our movie There's Something about Mary was being compared to his work so much. The films all blur into each other because I watched them in one day, but it wasn't the comedy that struck me so much as the stories with their clever plot twists. Each movie seems to have three or four high concepts, and today's films, which rely on a single plot device, seem thin in comparison. For instance, today the American boy marries the Mexican girl and takes her home and that's the whole story. But if it were Preston Sturges then when he got her home she'd invent a cure for cancer and suddenly everyone would want to marry Mexican women in the hope it would make them rich. That inspired me. It's a bit like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, which impressed me because it starts as a very small idea and then keeps going off in different directions. I saw it when I'd got stuck writing There's Something about Mary because it seemed that 15 minutes into the movie you already knew she was going to end up with Ted. So I had to develop a bunch of different characters and send the plot in many different directions. The thing I'm most proud of is that 10 minutes before the end most people don't think she'll end up with Ted. And that's what Preston Sturges movies are like. They keep you off balance.

Clare Kilner

Director of Janice Beard 45 wpm, released on 5 May

It was a dreary Saturday afternoon and I was meant to be working on my next treatment. Then the opening credits of Sullivan's Travels danced across the television screen - this could definitely be classified as work! I was at film school deciding whether to make a comedy or a drama for my graduation film. Sullivan's Travels had a huge influence on my decision - it freed me from the British sensibility that often considers comedy to be less important than gritty drama.

Sullivan's Travels is a masterpiece. The script is intelligent and funny and the characters are beautifully drawn yet quirkily flawed. Sturges poses incisive political questions about the middle classes and their attitude to social deprivation.

The film is about a successful Hollywood comedy director consumed with the desire to make a serious and meaningful film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Sullivan was brought up in the lap of luxury and his producers tell him he should stick to what he knows - they want him to make a sequel to his comedy Ants in Your Pants. Realising they have a point, he throws out his cheque book and sets off with only 10 cents in his pocket. His entourage hire a Winnebago and follow him, saving him from every sticky situation he gets himself into.

Eventually he's sentenced to years of hard labour on a chain gang. A church in a nearby village invites the prisoners to see a film. The projector whirs and all Sullivan can hear is laughter as he watches Mickey Mouse jump around on the screen. He sees the faces of the criminals as they escape their harsh reality and realises how valuable laughter is, that it can bring people together, enable us to see life from a different perspective and lift worries from the soul. He gives in and is soon roaring with laughter. This moment gets me every time: as they start laughing, the tears start rolling down my cheeks. The more they laugh, the more I cry.

It's an incredible moment in a film that's entertaining from beginning to end. Sturges makes his point about the futility of middle-class guilt fuelling self-indulgent films under the guise of worthiness. I did make my graduation film a comedy. On presenting the not-yet-dubbed print to the examiners, it was pronounced not remotely amusing. My tutors commiserated - "It looks beautiful... Comedy is always risky" - I was inconsolable. Then when we screened our graduation films, I decided to grin and bear it. The lights went down, the credits started... silence... a little chuckle, then another and another, the laughter grew and grew. This was my Sullivan's Travels moment.

Baz Luhrmann

Director of Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

I've always been fascinated by Sturges' films and by him as a person. What I really relish is the way he strikes a balance between high tragedy and comedy, making the transition in as little as a single gesture. I've tried to achieve the same effect in Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.

It's a feat he pulls off effortlessly in Sullivan's Travels, where he starts in a physical madcap style, with people following a highly paid film director who goes out on the road to discover "real life". Then midway through the film, when it's still just on the edge of screwball comedy, Sullivan ends up in prison and the tone goes very dark. Then one night the prisoners go to see a Disney cartoon and the laughter frees them and the film makes the shift again. So the character has made a journey during which he recognises that the value of laughter is the same as the value of tears.

I've taken from Sturges and Lubitsch a way of creating a heightened audience-participation style. I call it "contract playing": you sign a contract with the audience in which they agree to participate in your film. Naturalistic film-making puts the audience to sleep; in the two films I've made the idea is to make them wake up and participate. In the film I'm making at the moment, Moulin Rouge, I hope to take contract playing to its furthest development, and Sullivan's Travels is very much on my mind. It's one of my all-time favourite films, which is ironic considering the way my life has gone. I feel a bit like Sullivan with the studio people trailing behind me.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012