People of wit can be surprisingly difficult biographical subjects. Their elegant, irresistible jests have an unfortunate tendency to cut both ways, amusing the reader while making him aware of how lacking in similar style are the self-appointed Boswells into whose hands the lives have fallen. And so it is with "Between Flops," the story of Preston Sturges, the cleverest writer-director of comedy the benighted Hollywood film industry has ever seen.
Preston Sturges ought to be a name to conjure with. Alexander King dubbed him "the Toscanini of the pratfall," critic Bosley Crowther proclaimed his talent as "definitely and distinctly the most refreshing new force to hit the American motion pictures in the last five years," and fellow writer-director Billy Wilder, hardly one to be free with compliments, said of his work, "compared with the 90 percent of drivel that went on the screen, there was thought. There was a man of intellect, of size, a man who wrote literature."
Sturges was nominated for three Academy Awards, won one, became the third highest-paid executive in the country and turned out such comic masterpieces as "The Lady Eve," "The Palm Beach Story," "The Great McGinty," "Sullivan's Travels," "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." Yet as brilliantly as his star shone, that is how quickly it was extinguished. All those films, plus two more, were made in a brief, four-year span beginning in 1940, after which Sturges' career went into a harrowing decline from which his posthumous reputation has yet to recover--a circumstance that would hardly surprise the man himself, who mordantly wrote of his life, "Between flops, it is true, I have come up with an occasional hit."
Sturges' life was certainly as dizzying as any of the screwy plots he later specialized in. He barely knew his real father and rarely saw the man who took his place, a stolid Chicago stockbroker named Solomon Sturges. Young Preston grew up in Europe with his mother, Mary, a formidable creature who fervidly followed Isadora Duncan around the continent for a quarter of a century and even hand-painted the famous shawl that caused the dancer's death.
Through the Turkish father of one of her later husbands, Mary came across a skin lotion that she dubbed "Le Secret du Harem" and turned into the cornerstone of a quite successful beauty line called Maison Desti. Sturges desultorily ran the company himself for a bit when he got older, even inventing a lip rouge that would stay on for 24 hours, but until the age of 30 he had precious little idea of what he wanted to do with his life. Then, during a hospital stay, he read a book on drama and his decision was made. The second play he wrote, "Strictly Dishonorable," was a huge hit, and in 1932 he made the inevitable "brief trip" to Hollywood that was to last 20 years.
Despite some initial missteps--he tried a version of "The Invisible Man" notable only for the letters to director James Whale he signed "yours for bigger and better goose pimples"--Sturges was soon a success as a screenwriter, but he wanted more. In fact, his most lasting contribution to film was not the comedies he wrote but the fact that he was the first screenwriter to make the jump to directing, to being, as he called it, "a prince of the blood." He sold Paramount his screenplay to "The Great McGinty" for $10 on condition that he be allowed to direct it himself, and when he won an Oscar in the process, his days of glory began. A man with a great sense of personal style who boasted "I spritz dialogue like seltzer water," Sturges became a major figure on the Hollywood scene, opening his own restaurant, appearing in all the magazines, building a reputation as an eccentric genius without peer.
Then, suddenly, the genius disappeared and all that was left were the eccentricities. Sturges fell out of favor with Paramount over a serious film he wanted to do on--of all things--the inventor of anesthesia. He formed a disastrous partnership with Howard Hughes, his debts mounted and his career slowly disintegrated, helped not at all by a personality that actor Joel McCrea called "intelligently conceited." Even at the nadir of his career, when William Wyler tried to help him out financially by offering Sturges some rewriting work on a script that in reality was ready to shoot, Sturges responded by insisting an entirely new script was needed. "There's one good line in it," he told Wyler, "that's all." "He never left you with anything," said William Demarest, who starred in eight of his pictures. "He was like a separate thing walking around by himself. I don't think he had any love for anybody."
There ought to be a fine book in this witty misanthrope's dramatic rise and fall but here, as in other aspects of his career, Sturges has been unlucky. James Curtis has dutifully collected all the requisite facts, but his pedestrian style is the complete antithesis of his subject. This is connect-the-dots writing, a chatty succession of anecdotes that not only doesn't reach beneath the surface but acts as if there was nothing to reach for. His occasional stylistic gaffes on the order of "the question fried his Victorian sense of chivalry to a crisp" aside, Curtis simply lacks the questioning, thought-provoking sharpness that makes biographies more than merely serviceable. Preston Sturges remains, even after hundreds and hundreds of pages, a fascinating character just beyond our reach, the victim of a book that outlines the body but can't fathom the soul.