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Preston Sturges films
shown every weekend in July

by Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday July 05, 2002

Easy Living
The Great McGinty
Sullivan’s Travels


During the height of summer, when the heat and the bounty of the season beckon Berkeleyans to taste its pleasures, spiritual discipline might suffer. Who wants to visit church or temple when the sun is shining and the ice-cream truck is chiming? Those wanting in religious rigor might consider a secular facsimile, and attend weekly movie screenings. Beginning this weekend and continuing every Saturday in July the Pacific Film Archive will be showing romantic comedies by the genre’s greatest writer-director, Preston Sturges. You would have to look hard to find Divine messages in these films, but their divinity is plentiful and – why not? – regular attendance resembles weekly mass. 

Made during Hollywood’s Golden Age – the fabled, Edenic 1940s when America had just kicked Hitler’s butt and the studio system was churning out sparkling comedies and brooding noir – the films of Preston Sturges were the cream of an already impressively creamy crop, smart-laced slapstick with wit to burn. In a world of "Men In Black II" and "Reign Of Fire," these bon-bons of black and white charm truly are "Christmas In July." 

The 1940 film from which the Pacific Film Archive series gets its title (screening July 6) has signature Sturges elements: fat cat capitalists amazed by how much money they throw away, scrappy lower-class characters riding a tsunami of circumstance into ill-gotten riches, and chaos in the streets (in this case the usual pie-in-the-eye fight is escalated to throwing fresh fish across a crowded avenue). When a lowly number-cruncher in an anonymous pool of number-crunchers is distracted by the possibility of winning a slogan contest at Maxford House Coffee ("Grand To The Last Gulp") his supervisor delivers a pep talk about the respectability of the lower-middle class work ethic. Success is not measured in money, he says, but self-worth. But that lowly dreamer believes he has won the jackpot and everyone around him picks up his self-confident cue, believing he is winner because he acts like a winner. The unexpected present of virtual credit blows over his entire tenement as he and his fiancé buy half a toy store for the neighborhood kids. 

The pattern becomes a familiar one. In "Easy Living" (1937, written by Sturges, directed by Mitchell Leisen, screening Sunday, July 7) Jean Arthur plays a struggling young single woman. She is working at a magazine with the improbably pious title "A Boy’s Constant Companion." Fortune literally falls upon her in the way of a mink coat hurled out the high window of a wealthy banker (Edward Arnold) in fit of rage over his wife’s spendthrift habits. Although the coat causes her to lose favor and lose employment with the magazine’s uptight matronly clucks, she unexpectedly enters high society through a series of absurd coincidences connected with the expensive fur (and, once again, a food fight). 

And then again in "The Great McGinty," when a bum in a bread line (Brian Donlevy) falls in with a corrupt political machine and, lacking charm or smarts but with unlimited backing of an underworld boss, winds up the governor. Perhaps two years ago, these films and their lessons of success that favors the lucky or the clever would have been reaffirming to those caught up in the internet-economy bubble that was backed by unlimited venture capital. Now the frothy screwball stories, in which riches and power come to those who merely think they’ve got it, strike a sour note in the spleens of those of us with obsolete skills and spotty experience who did not make a mint during the boom times. 

"Sullivan’s Travels," (July 27) reverses the pattern, but the message is all the same and so are the players. The denizens of the so-called Sturges Stock Company are a stable of flawlessly comic character actors, including the sledgehammer style of William Demarest, whose vociferous, one-note curmudgeon would eventually be softened by the small screen to the housekeeper on "My Three Sons." In “Sullivan’s Travels,” a Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) is on an undercover research mission exploring poverty to make a socially-conscious film "O Brother Where Art Thou," which eventually puts him in the doldrums of poverty, for real. This is the film from which the Coen Brothers titled their hobo odyssey, although the two films have nothing in common save jumping, moving boxcars.  

Before going out on the trains, Sullivan’s stately butler (stock company regular Robert Greig) warns him in a Sturges-esque speech against patronizing the poor. Echoing similar speeches from "McGinty," and "Easy Living," Sturges repeatedly makes the point that there is no shame in the lower class, and that the poor, for the most part, don’t want sentimentalized help from the rich. ("Did you ever think they wanted to be left alone?" Governor McGinty asks his do-gooder wife of an arranged marriage.) Sullivan, however, doesn’t heed the hired help’s warning ("He get’s kind of gruesome sometimes, doesn’t he?") and goes meddling in the Hoovervilles. Eventually he is pulled out of a swampy prison work detail (having been accused of a murder) by a publicity stunt and returns to his rightful place of privilege in Hollywood. 

As a summery, religious substitute Sturges’ films fall shy of preaching the humble lifestyle. His telegraphed moralizing affirms that the meek shall inherit the earth, but while eking our sympathies for the luckless underdog caught in an unexpected windfall, his plots celebrate sleight-of-hand, power of suggestion and the luck of the gambler. For all the buoyant hijinks Sturges weaves about the quiet nobility of the lower class, in the end it is better to be rich and laugh all the way to the bank.