The Trump years are over, the pandemic is winding down, and as Americans slowly return to what’s left of our normal lives, many of us are carrying a lot fewer illusions about the nature of our national character. A country where Donald Trump is possible is not a country you can trust, and the same goes triple for its residents. And yet we’ve still got to live here. It would be nice if there were a way to reconcile the knowledge that our society is a series of interlocking scams with some kind of happiness.
Unlike most of America’s ongoing problems, however, this one was solved 80 years ago, by screenwriter and director Preston Sturges. In an extraordinary run of seven films Sturges wrote and directed at Paramount from 1940 to 1944, he mapped out a way to be clear-eyed about the hucksters, hustlers, and horse’s asses that make up our great nation, while somehow loving it anyway. Taken together, these cynical comedies add up to an essential user’s manual for life in these United States, and the Criterion Channel is currently streaming all seven of them, plus 1948’s Unfaithfully Yours, so now is the perfect time to watch them. Here’s where to start.
The Lady Eve
If you’ve seen one Preston Sturges movie, it is probably this undeniable masterpiece, the subject of a recent episode of Flashback. If you haven’t, it is the obvious place to begin. (If you don’t subscribe to the Criterion Channel, and have already used up your free trial, it’s also the Sturges movie easiest to rent from services like Prime Video.) Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a con artist working the card room of an ocean liner who sets her sights on the biggest mark on the ship: Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), the exceptionally naïve heir to a brewing fortune. Naturally, Jean falls for Pike, complicating her plans to fleece him. “Couple falls in love under false pretenses” plots are a dime a dozen, but Sturges sprints through the obligatory plot points (deceit-to-love-to-revelation-to-rejection) in the first half of the movie. The usual payoff, in which the mark realizes over the course of a sad montage that he is still in love with the person who deceived him and races to the airport or takes her to the prom or whatever, is a non-starter in a Sturges movie, because a couple learning to be honest with each other is anathema to his vision of romance. Instead, Charles drops Jean cold when he realizes she’s not who she said she was.
That leaves Sturges with half the movie to fill, and he does so by repeating the love-under-false-pretenses plot nearly beat-for-beat. Jean tracks Charles down in Connecticut, where she reintroduces herself with an even more ridiculous fake identity: Lady Eve Sidwich, an Englishwoman visiting the United States who just happens to look exactly like Jean Harrington. Finding a satisfying ending for a romantic comedy with one plot is hard enough; Sturges has to resolve two at once, while sticking to his basic premise that no couple ever solved anything by sitting down face-to-face and being honest. No spoilers here, but the ending is perfect.
The Great McGinty
The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first and best take on American politics, looks on its face like a traditional film about the rise and fall of a political figure, and that’s certainly how Paramount tried to sell it:
Like most Preston Sturges movies, however, The Great McGinty is only wearing its genre trappings as a disguise. Over the course of the movie, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) rises from bum to governor before crossing the wrong people and getting busted all the way back down to bartender. So far, so traditional, but it’s the way McGinty does it that makes this a great movie. His first entrée into politics comes when he’s plucked from a bread line and offered $2 to fraudulently vote for the incumbent mayor. In one of the rare moments in which McGinty shows some initiative, he realizes he can vote more than once, and visits 37 different polling places, earning $72 and impressing a political operative played by William Demarest. McGinty is impressed too, once he sees the buffet and open bar at Mayor Tillinghast’s victory party, and his interest in politics never goes much further than the free food and drink it affords him.
That doesn’t slow his meteoric rise. A local mobster hires him to beat up people who owe protection money, which leads to his first political office, collecting bribes for the local political machine. When Mayor Tillinghast inevitably gets caught up in a corruption scandal, McGinty is in the right place at the right time for Tillinghast’s machine to put him forward as the “reform mayor” while keeping the money flowing—and what good is a reform mayor if he doesn’t eventually run for governor? Along the way, McGinty acquires a sham marriage, a couple of kids, and a much better wardrobe, but he never loses touch with his roots, in the very specific sense that he’s constantly getting drunk and getting into fistfights. When McGinty acquires a conscience, it lasts for about 15 minutes and has catastrophic consequences for everyone and everything he cares about. In a Preston Sturges movie, as in American politics, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or who you punch, it only matters who other people want you to be. Forget that at your peril.
Christmas in July
The Lady Eve posits that romance depends on not asking too many questions, while The Great McGinty takes the same approach to politics. It will probably not surprise you to learn that Christmas in July, Sturges’ look at big business, is not exactly a paean to honesty and transparency. The film, a direct ancestor of The Hudsucker Proxy, follows a dumb but sweet yokel played by Dick Powell as he convinces the executives at several companies that he’s some kind of a marketing genius. Powell has the confidence to do this, because he mistakenly believes he’s won a coffee company’s slogan contest, despite the fact that his entry, “If you don’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk!” makes approximately no sense and depends on his character’s ludicrous misconception that coffee helps people sleep at night. Once again, perception triumphs over reality, despite the fact that no one in the movie has much faith in their own perception, either. Powell’s boss, who has just given him a raise and a new office because he thinks Powell has won the slogan contest, puts this very succinctly:
I’m no genius—I didn’t hang on to my father’s money by backing my own judgment, you know! … You see, I think your ideas are good because they sound good to me. But I know your ideas are good because you won this contest over millions of applicants.
In a Preston Sturges movie, nothing is more important than what you think other people think, even if you’re wrong. It sounds like his work would make for a pretty grim filmography, what with almost all of his characters lying almost all of the time, but here’s the thing: These are wildly optimistic movies anyway. His romantic comedies end in marriage, his workplace comedies end in success, and even The Great McGinty, which ends with a fight at a dive bar somewhere in South America, has an upbeat ending, at least on its own terms. Sturges sometimes reaches a happy ending with plot twists so wild they feel like cheating—see, e.g., The Palm Beach Story—but he never does it by making his characters come clean and straighten up. So if you’ve been feeling bad recently about living in a country as fundamentally crooked as the United States, you might find Preston Sturges’ movies to be a tonic. Trust me on this.