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Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Hollywood studios dictated the creative process of motion picture making in America. As part of the Hollywood assembly line approach, everyone involved in the filmmaking process had a fairly well-defined role and these roles (director, producer, writer, actor, etc.) remained distinct and discrete. Writers wrote dialogue, actors read the dialogue, directors filmed the actors reciting the dialogue, etc.

While writer-directors are fairly common nowadays, and they have been since the '60s, this hybrid was virtually unheard of until 1940, when a dramatist by the name of Preston Sturges was allowed to both write AND direct. Previously, Sturges had written screenplays for Frank Lloyd and William Wyler, but after watching film directors at work, he decided where the greatest control lay. Two of his scripts had been directed by Mitchell Leisen, Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940), and Sturges didn't like how they turned out: he thought Leisen threw away the important lines and kept the ones he should've thrown away. Sturges knew if he wanted his scripts filmed as he intended, he would have to assume the director's chair himself. So in 1939, he pressured Paramount to let him direct his own script. He offered them a script for $1 if they'd let him direct it. Sturges was a hot commodity and Paramount wanted to keep him happy, so they accepted the offer. Much to Paramount's surprise, the resulting movie -- The Great McGinty -- was one of the biggest box-office successes of 1940. It also won the 1940 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Sturges' future as a writer-director was assured. Soon afterwards, other writers, such as Billy Wilder and John Huston, were allowed to direct their own scripts.

Sturges followed The Great McGinty with several additional box-office successes -- such as The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) -- but by 1950, his career in Hollywood had burned out. During his peak, which lasted no more than five years and included no more than seven movies, Sturges created an influential body of work notable for its razor sharp dialogue and keen satirical wit.

Two of Sturges finest movies -- Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve (both 1941) -- are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in generous packages filled with extras that provide insight into Sturges' life and his creative genius.

 Sullivan's Travel'sTOP OF PAGE   

Sullivan's Travels is one of the great American comedies. It stars Joel McCrea as a Hollywood movie director who has tired of turning out pabulum such as Hey, Hey, In the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939. He tries to convince the studio executives to let him film a serious movie about human suffering, to be titled O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- but the execs are leery. What does John L. Sullivan know about suffering? He lives in a mansion. He lives a pampered life. Sullivan admits they have a point, so he decides to dress as a hobo and set out on a journey to discover what it means to be poor and homeless.

As written, this character was no doubt somewhat similar to Sturges himself; however, by casting the very earthy, middle-class Joel McCrea in this role, Sturges was able to distance himself from the role. McCrea was also the perfect type of actor for Sturges to work with. Sturges would give his actors detailed instructions on how to read every line, how to make every gesture, every turn of the head. Some actors bristled at the instructions, but McCrea liked this approach. They worked together on two more films, The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Great Moment (1944).

Sullivan's Travels contains some of Sturges' sharpest satire, as when Sullivan's butler immediately takes offense at his employer's intention to go slummin' and questions the film project: "The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." The dialogue is particularly lively in the studio execs office where the execs listen to Sullivan describe his next film project:

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity -- a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.

Producer: But with a little sex.

Sullivan: With a little sex in it.

But Sullivan's Travels also contains some of the broadest comedy of Sturges career, as when Sullivan tries to lose the bus full of studio employees that has been following him as he moseys down a road, his clothing tattered, his belongings wrapped in a handkerchief that is tied to the end of a stick. He hitches a ride in a souped up contraption driven by an enthusiastic teenager who wants to be a "whippet tanker." He sends them bouncing across the countryside at breakneck speed. The bus bounces after them in hot pursuit -- as the bus' occupants bounce off the walls and ceiling.

Veronica Lake co-stars as the girl Sullivan befriends on his journeys. She knows the ropes and passes along her knowledge to Sullivan. She's tough but also vulnerable. It's one of Lake's most appealing performances. In some movies, Lake could become icy and distant, but here, she's warm and likable. The rest of the cast is chockfull of superb supporting players, including William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, and Eric Blore. (This group had become part of Sturges' reliable troop of supporting actors.)

The Criterion Collection's DVD is one of their best single-disc releases. It contains an excellent documentary by Kenneth Bowser titled Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (originally filmed for PBS' American Masters series) that contains many insights into Sturges' career and includes rare interviews. The disc also includes an interview with Sturges' widow, Sandy Sturges, who reveals that Sullivan's Travels was the result of Sturges seeing other comedy directors attempting to make movies with messages. So Sullivan's Travels has his attempt to show them that messages weren't necessary--that laughter alone was a worthy goal. Other extras on this disc include a Hedda Hopper interview of Sturges; archival recordings of Sturges singing and reciting poetry; storyboards, stills, original publicity materials, and an original theatrical trailer. You'll also find an excellent presentation of production blueprints (for set construction). You can select various sections of these blueprints and display corresponding production stills. In addition, the disc includes an audio commentary track; however, whoever suggested Christopher Guest and Michael McKean as commentators should have their head examined. Guest and McKean have absolutely no insights to offer, but that doesn't stop them from babbling non-stop. Kenneth Bowser is also present on the commentary track, and whenever he speaks, he provides valuable information, but to get to his comments, you must wade through the inanities offered by Guest and McKean. (I like their This is Spinal Tap, but they're completely out of place here.) The weak commentary track is this disc's only weakness. Otherwise this is a superb disc and an absolute must have for all lovers of classic American comedies.

 The Lady EveTOP OF PAGE   

Barbara Stanwyck is in rare form in The Lady Eve. She was a beautiful woman, but in The Lady Eve, she is positively luminous (with thanks to Edith Head's superb costume designs). Stanwyck plays a con artist named Jean Harrington who plies her trade on ocean liners. Accompanied by her card shark father, "Colonel" Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn), they quickly discover the high rollers and entice them into poker games. She typically targets rich, predatory men, but then she encounters Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). When we first meet him, he's in the jungle, having spent several weeks researching snakes in the Amazon. He's the future heir to the ale throne, but he knows nothing about the business. He knows beer and ale are different types of alcoholic beverages, but he has no idea how they are different: "Ale's sort of fermented on the top or something. And beer's fermented on the bottom. Or maybe it's the other way around. There's no similarity at all," he says. When Jean meets Charles, she's immediately smitten by his honest and shy manner. He's nothing like any of her previous marks. And Charles (Jean calls him "Hopsie") is equally smitten. Whenever he's with her, he becomes a bumbling fool who babbles gibberish and walks into walls. He pursues her, yes, but he doesn't try to own her. He's not predatory. Jean finds this approach to be refreshing and utterly charming. Like the Eve of the title, Jean tempts Hopsie with intimations of love and sex, and he falls for her charms completely.

Many critics consider The Lady Eve to be Sturges' best movie. The New York Film Critics even gave it their 1941 award for Best Picture. It's less hectic and more leisurely paced than Sullivan's Travels. The story is relatively slim. The emphasis is upon the characters and that lets the actors shine. In one of her best scenes (it's their first scene together), Jean uses her pocketbook mirror to watch Charles/Hopsie as he sits by himself, having dinner aboard an ocean liner. She narrates the action as other women try to impress the ale king. They bat their eyes lashes, smile coyly, and even drop handkerchiefs, but Charles remains unaffected -- until as he's leaving the restaurant, Jean sticks out her foot and trips him! Equally impressive is the scene where Charles and Jean get comfortable in her ocean liner cabin. Jean and Charles relax on a sofa as she strokes his hair and dreamily talks about her ideal mate -- as Charles turns to jelly and slides to the floor.

The Criterion Collection's extras for The Lady Eve aren't quite as impressive as those on the Sullivan's Travels disc. You'll find no interviews with Sturges. And you'll find no interactive blueprints of the set design. But you will find a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich; design sketches of Edith Head's costumes; original publicity materials, production stills, and a trailer; and an hour long radio broadcast of Lux Radio Theater's adaptation of The Lady Eve (starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland). In addition, the disc contains an audio commentary track by film scholar Marion Keane. She provides a generally valuable commentary track, but she also exhibits a tendency to rely on scholarly tropes -- even when they don't apply well to her arguments. For example, her psychoanalytic approach insists on interpreting snakes as phallic symbols. Therefore, when Charles shows his pet snake to Jean, she runs away screaming. Why does she run away? According to Keane because Jean is afraid of sex. She is a virgin…. What? No, no, no, no! Keane's myopia fails to see the ample evidence provided in the movie that suggests Jean is very experienced in the ways of love. Watch the way he holds and strokes Charles/Hopsie's head. She shows no awkwardness or confusion or naïveté or anything else that would indicate her lack of experience. She is totally at ease. She shows no giddiness. Hopsie is the awkward one. He stumbles through the scene (and throughout much of the movie). In addition, in a following scene Jean's own father refers to the "others" in her past after she confesses her intention to marry Hopsie. While the commentary track is a somewhat laborious listen, the rest of this dies is a delight.

Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve represent the very pinnacle of Sturges' film career. Just five years later, after a pair of box-office failures, Sturges fell out of favor in Hollywood. If the truth be told, his relationship to Hollywood was always very tenuous. Earl Felton wrote, "The big studios were scared to death of him. A man who was a triple threat kept them awake nights.… [T]hey were waiting for him to fall on his face so they could pounce and devour this terrible threat to their stingy talents." But for a few brief years, Sturges was the Wonder Boy and his films -- with their witty but warm perspective -- have influenced a legion of filmmakers.

Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfers created from the 35mm negatives. Sullivan's Travels includes an audio commentary track that features Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Noah Baumbach, and Kenneth Bowser; an interview with Preston Sturges' widow, Sandy Sturges; production stills; original publicity materials; a theatrical trailer; rare audio recordings of Sturges; an Hedda Hopper interview of Sturges; and more. The Lady Eve includes an audio commentary track by film scholar Marian Keane; a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich; sketches for Edith Head's costume designs; original publicity materials; production stills; an original theatrical trailer; and a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn in their original roles, and featuring Ray Milland (as Charles Pike). Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.