JOHN D. Hackensacker III. The Wienie King. King. Muggsy. Trudy Kockenlocker. Wodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith. Sgt. Julius Heffelfinger. Donald Diddlebock, E. J. Waggleberry. Wormy. Hilda Swandumper.
These ridiculously savory and suggestive names were characteristic inventions of Preston Sturges, who flourished during a brief but prodigious reign as the comic genius of Hollywood. In the annals of talking comedies there's nothing to match the creative outburst sustained by Sturges from 1940 to 1943, when he directed seven of his original scripts at Paramount and even sandwiched in an embarrassing serious flop between the delightful humorous triumphs.
The American Film Institute Theater is paying tribute to this singular achievement in a retrospective series, beginning tonight at 8 with a showing of "The Lady Eve," one of the most clever and satisfying romantic farces ever created for the movies.
Sturges perfected a style of preoccupied, argumentative, wisecracking dialogue that had a rare, wacky, formal beauty all its own. Here's a characteristic sample from a scene in "Hail the Conquering Hero" in which Raymond Walburn as the pompous Mayor Noble is dictating a letter to his son Forrest, temporarily detached for secretarial duty.
Noble: "Now where was I? Don't tell me, I accept the responsibility with a sense of both humility, satisfaction and gratitude."
Forrest: "You can't say both humility, satisfaction and gratitude. 'Both' means two and you have humility, satisfaction and gratitude. That's three."
Noble: "I can't say it?"
Forrest: "You cannot."
Noble: "I've been saying it for years."
Forrest: "It isn't correct grammar."
Noble: "I am not running on a platform of correct grammar. I even let my grammar slip over a little sometimes. It gives that homey quality: horny hands and honest hearts. Now where was I?"
Forrest: "With a sense of both humility, satisfaction and gratitude."
Noble: "All right, take out humility ."
Forrest: "Leave it in."
Noble: "Take it out! Will you do what I tell you? Now were was I?"
Forrest: "with a sense of both satisfaction and gratitude."
Noble: "And humility."
The typical Sturges plot created an intricate tangle resolved by a brilliant stroke of fortune. For example, in the charming, neglected "Christmas in July," a young couple, Dick Powell and Ellen Drew -- who live in a tenement and plug away at lowly office jobs -- are sustained in their dreams of a better life by the husband's belief in his ability to compose clever advertising slogans. He's particularly hopeful that his slogan for the new Maxford Coffee contest will be the winning entry: "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk."
The contest has been stymied by controversy within the selection committee, chaired by William Demarest as a union representative named Bildocker. The company president, played by Raymond Walburn, is thoroughly disgusted with the delay. Three of Powell's fellow office workers play a practical joke on him by drafting a phony cable of congratulations from the Maxford company. When the unsuspecting Powell proudly presents himself to Walburn, the presidednt feels so abused by the slogan committee that he takes it for granted they've chosen the winner, without notifying him first.
Elated by their apparent good fortune, Powell and Drew throw a block party, buying gifts for everyone in the neighborhood. When the truth catches up with Walburn, he revoked the winning check and a horde of creditors descends on the block party to reclaim the merchandise. A near riot ensues, with social and class resentments exacerbated by the misunderstanding. In the aftermath Powell and Drew resign themselves to renewed poverty. But wait! At the Maxford Coffee Co. the selection committee finally reaches a decision. Bildocker boasts to the president that his stubbornness has paid off, and the other members have agreed to go along with the slogan he's been holding out for all this time. When he reveals what it is, the president lets out a shriek and the movie comes to an abruptly perfect conclusion.
The AFI Theater's Sturges series is scheduled to run through Dec. 20, when "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering hero" will share a final double-bill. The series also includes several examples of the movies Sturges wrote, alone or in collaboration, on his way up in Hollywood during the '30s, plus two of the features he directed on his way down in the late '40s. Double features are the rule. "Christmas in July" will be paired with Easy Living," "Diamond Jim" with "The Power and the Glory" (a 1933 Sturges script which is not to be confused with the Graham Greene novel, although it may have influenced Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles when they were cooking up "Citizen Kane"), "Star Spangled Rhythm" (a Paramount World War II extravaganza in which Stuges made a guest appearance, along with Cicil B. DeMille, the other prestige director on the lot) with "The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend," "The Good Fairy" with "Remeber the Night," "The Breat McGinty" with "Sullivan's Travels," "The Big Pond" (Sturges' first script credit, a 1930 musical comedy with Maurice Chevalier) with "The Great Moment" and finally "Morgan's Creek" with "Hero."
Sturges began his dazzling, exuberant string of satirical comedies in 1940 with "The Great McGinty." He had been itching to direct his own scripts for several years, and the impetus seemed to carry him right through "Christmas in July," "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," "The Palm Beach Story," "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero."
(Between "Palm Beach" and "Morgan's Creek" Sturges indulged himself in a high-minded fiasco, "The Great Moment," a tribut to Boston dentist W. T. G. Morton, who discovered the pain-killing uses of ether. Conceived in the reverential biographical style perfected by Warner Bros. and 20th Century-Fox, "The Great Moment" proved an understandable, baffling disappointment to executives at Paramount, who aggravated its weaknesses and embittered its director by releasing a multilated version that appears to make mincemeat of an already scrambled continuity.)
Over the course of his comic cycle, Sturges achievced a phenomenal, rollicking new blend of verbal and visual slapstick while seizing on aspects of the contemporary American social scene that had lasting as well as timely comic significance.
The sensibility controlling these comedies remains remarkably immune to dating. American politics has not transcended the satirical context of "The Great McGinty." Prestigious American film directors are still miscalculating and rationalizing along the lines of Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan in "Sullivan's Travels." Social climbing has taken no radical new turn since "The Palm Beach Story." No image of the male nincompoop has improved on Henry Fonda as the baffled Charles Pike in "The Lady Eve. No comic miracle has surpassed the obstetric joke that saves the day in "Morgan's Creek." No comic patsy has survived choicer exploitation than the sweet shnooks played by Eddie Bracken in both "Morgan's Creek" and "Hero."