PRESTON STURGES By Preston Sturges Adapted and edited by Sandy Sturges Simon and Schuster. 352 pp. $22.95
FOR TOO brief a time during the early to mid-1940s, Preston Sturges had what it took to create comic art in Hollywood with films such as "The Lady Eve," "The Palm Beach Story," "Christmas in July" and "Sullivan's Travels." Combining the very different, if equally difficult, roles of screenwriter and director, Sturges managed to exercise an enormous degree of artistic control in a business whose essence was mass production. His was a rare state of grace for any artist to be indulged in during the so-called "Golden Age of the Studio."
Like most states of grace, though, this one soon came to an end. Whimsy, anger, energy and arrogance -- useful enough traits in a film director -- eventually combined to lead Sturges into a serious miscalculation of his own best interests. Tired of quibbling with the bosses at Paramount and riding high atop his own fame of the moment, he decided to cast his lot with another Hollywood renegade, the Texas millionaire Howard Hughes, in order to finance a new studio -- and did so just as the studio system itself began to be buffeted by storms from within and without.
Thus was born California Pictures Corporation, known as Cal-Pix, a bastard from its inception in the summer of 1944. For where Hughes was, or rather Hughes' money was, there was to be found the ultimate word in control. A less arrogant, or merely a lesser, man might well have perceived as much from the beginning and backed off. Sturges, as always, went ahead full-throttle. And failed miserably.
Genius has its limits, especially if those limits are measured out in profit-and-loss statements. The studio bosses told themselves that they couldn't bank on that fellow Sturges any longer, he was just too unpredictable, too quixotic (if they knew what the word meant). He was a man who had bucked the system. And lost.
Preston Sturges is not particularly about any of that. Fewer than a hundred of its pages deal directly with the world of Hollywood. Nor are there any great revelations here. Most of the terrain is, in fact, familiar ground, having been explored by James Curtis in his more than competent biography of a decade ago, Between Flops.
What we have instead is a remarkably charming, even lilting account of Sturges's early life drawn together by his last wife, Sandy, from letters, private diaries, and an unfinished autobiography left behind at the director's death in 1959. The various sources are carefully woven into a cohesive whole that is captivating. If the tone seems occasionally a bit precious, well, Sturges's films sometimes seem precious too. But never mind.
Nothing in any Sturges movie quite matches the reality of the writer's own life as an exploration of ambiguity, nor for its sheer absurdity (an unlikely second marriage to the very young and spoiled Eleanor Post Hutton, stepdaughter of E.F. Hutton and granddaughter of C.W. Post, the cereal king), its joie de vivre or its heartbreak -- though these things touch, influence, explode upon the cinematic canvases of all the great Sturges films.
For this is the story of a little boy who only once met his real father, a "Mr. Biden." Who adored, without reservation, the man whose name he bore and called "Father." Whose mother, nee Mary Dempsey, fancied her plebian Irish name to be merely a corruption of the aristocratic Italian "d'Este," and so affixed that token of nobility to her own ("Mary d'Este Dempsey," she called herself when she wasn't being coy. Then she was "Doctor Dimples," which was what all the young men called her in medical school -- that is, if she ever did go to medical school): She was the founder of the celebrated perfumery Maison d'Este, 4, rue de la Paix, in pre-Great War Paris; great good friend to the dancer Isadora Duncan; free spirit and passionate lover of men; married (briefly) to the Turk Vely Bey, from whose father, Ilias Pasha, a distinguished surgeon and personal physician to the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, she got the formula for a supposed anti-wrinkling cream, which she unashamedly sold as "Le Secret du Harem."
A life too preposterous for words? All life is, but Preston Sturges's was something special.
John Anderson, co-author of "Burning Down the House," is currently at work on a biography of novelist Raymond Chandler.