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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Preston Sturges (originally published 6/98)

Press releases on the latest video offerings from the major studios only rarely give me a genuine cause for celebration. Mostly they proclaim the release of yet another recent refugee from the box office attempting to score at the video store some of the revenue it didn't earn at the theaters. This week, however, an announcement crossed my desk from Universal Studios Home Video that caused my pulse to quicken and my soul to rejoice.

It has long been my contention that writer-director Preston Sturges, while not exactly forgotten, has never fully received his due as one of the most gifted filmmakers ever produced by the American film industry. One of the ways this neglect has manifested itself is in the availability of Sturges titles on home video. Although most of his major works have been in video release for some time, including classics like "The Lady Eve" (1940), "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), and "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), until now his early work has remained tantalizingly out of reach.

In celebration of Sturges's upcoming 100th birthday, Universal is about to ameliorate that unfortunate situation. Early August will see the long overdue video release of three early Sturges works, films that he scripted but did not direct. For a delectable sampling of Sturges's unparalleled gift for dialogue, look for these titles coming soon to a video store near you.

"Easy Living" (1937). They say that the clothes make the man; this delightful little comedy begins with the premise that they also make the woman. Jean Arthur stars as Mary Smith, a poor but honest working girl whose life is transformed when she accidentally comes into possession of a mink coat. It all begins with an argument between millionaire J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) and his wife in their posh penthouse apartment. In his pique, Ball tosses his wife's mink coat off the balcony. It lands right on top of Mary, who is passing in the street below, as if it were a gift from heaven. Suddenly, Mary is a person of consequence. Simply by being seen in a hotel where Ball is staying, she acquires a reputation as Ball's mistress. Thereafter, the mere fact of her presence there transforms the hotel into a fashionable establishment. Somewhere at the root of all this is a thirties version of "Cinderella," but Sturges's clever, breezy dialogue and slapstick situations keep it well camouflaged while retaining the elements that have made the story a perennial classic.

"If I Were King" (1938). Speaking of perennials, Justin McCarthy's historical play had already been adapted by Hollywood three times by the time Sturges got his hands on it, twice as a silent film and once as a Rudolph Friml operetta. The story postulates a historically unsubstantiated confrontation between 15th Century French poet Francois Villon and King Louis XI. This version boasted an exceptional cast, with Ronald Colman as Villon and Basil Rathbone as Louis. Even more importantly, it also had the benefit of a Sturges screenplay. Straying freely from the original play, Sturges immersed himself in Villon's verse, writing his own translations of the original poems and even composing some remarkably convincing phony Villon poetry of his own.

"Never Say Die" (1939). This one is somewhat adulterated Sturges, but still well worth seeing. Sturges had originally written it as a Jack Benny vehicle. Benny was to star as John Bennington Kidley, a wealthy American taking the cure at a Swiss health resort called Bad Gaswasser. When Kidley's lab work is mixed up with that of a dog, he is told that he has only a month to live. The studio, however, decided to cast Benny in another project, changing "Never Say Die" into a vehicle for Bob Hope instead. The necessary rewrites dilute but by no means extinguish the wit of Sturges's original script.

I should mention, by the way, that Universal is also releasing a fourth film in their "Preston Sturges Centennial Collection," but it doesn't belong in the same category with these three gems. "Imitation of Life" (1934) was an adaptation of a Fannie Hurst melodrama. Sturges did about two weeks' worth of work on the script, virtually none of which was used. It's a valuable addition to the video shelf, making for a fascinating comparison with its 1959 remake, but as an example of Sturges work it doesn't even appear on the radar screen.

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