A Book Review by Jeremy Carr.
While Klawans routinely sings the praises of Sturges, he also expresses an evenhanded awareness of certain shortcomings, making this critical analysis from Columbia University Press a perceptive, exceptionally well-composed and earnest evaluation.”
Lest there be any doubt about Stuart Klawans’s regard for the subject of his book Crooked, but Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges, the longtime critic opens his introduction by boldly stating the esteemed writer/director “changed film history, as the first person in Hollywood’s sound era to direct movies, great ones, from scripts he’d written himself.” But while Klawans routinely sings the praises of Sturges, voicing his pleasantly unabashed admiration for the filmmaker within detailed dissections of ten specific films from 1939 to 1948, he also expresses an evenhanded awareness of certain shortcomings, making this critical analysis from Columbia University Press a perceptive, exceptionally well-composed and earnest evaluation of “a dazzling figure who promised to bring the movies into a new era of sophistication.”
Klawans notes, for instance, Sturges’s singularity within the constructs of the classic American film industry, where a team of screenwriters on any given picture was the norm. For Klawans, Sturges broke this mold and it was with the director’s 1940 debut, The Great McGinty, that “a Hollywood studio produced a movie dreamed up from scratch and committed to celluloid by a single person, with the attendant possibility of the artist’s feelings being expressed, disguised, or concealed.” To this end, however, this notion of auteurist individuality and creative articulation, Klawans promises his text will “veer from the ‘biographical-psychological interpretation’ of his films,” citing a term by editor Brian Henderson. Still, although he early on promotes the works of prominent Sturges biographers, pointing the reader to more conventional assessments of Sturges’s life story, Klawans does provide background biographical information throughout his own text, doing so with remarkable judgement, only when necessary to the illuminating breakdown of a given film. And this Klawans manages quite capably, juxtaposing the personal and the professional and the work at hand. The balance not only pertains to Sturges himself, but to the broad and corresponding historical context Klawans also provides, interwoven with a judicious allotment and researching depression-era politics and the maneuverings and intricacies of the studio system.
Klawans delves into Sturges’s early failures and does not gloss over the more lackluster building blocks that shaped the director’s personality and later work, nor does he ignore Sturges’s eventual downfall. He explores Sturges’s working process and shifting styles, at one point dividing up his acclaimed comedies into subcategories from slapstick and “small-town comedy” to “romantic adventure on the road,” providing, with each chronological step, a shrewd understanding of external forces at play; for example how World War II affected Sturges personally and primed his subsequent work. “So far in this zigzag through Sturges’s films,” Klawans writes near the end of Crooked, but Never Common, “I have dodged the clutches of psycho-biography.” This is a debatable argument, as Sturges’s psychology and biography have surely informed much of the subject matter to this point, but when arriving at 1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Klawans states he is “in the grasp” of such an inclination. Of this film, a curiosity in Sturges’s filmography (conceived as something of a comeback vehicle for silent comedian Harold Llyod, Klawans reveals Sturges initially planned to revive the career of D.W. Griffith!), Klawans says he must “yield to the superior critic” Manny Farber by similarly questioning Sturges’s faculty for “coherence,” something Klawans has otherwise promoted so vigorously and compellingly before, emphasizing Sturges’s preparation and meticulous creative technique (allowing for some nevertheless evident spontaneity and perhaps even improvisation).
With each film discussed, and ultimately as one cohesive study, Klawans delves into several central themes interconnected throughout Sturges’s work, noting how these essential elements expanded and developed as his career progressed, beginning with the “comedies of success” that did a large part to apprise the public and historical perception of Sturges. Klawans draws plot and character parallels while avoiding the more obvious tendency to recount a film’s entire scenario in one segmented portion of a respective feature’s analysis. He breaks up the summary with a review of such repeated characteristics as Sturges’s structural control (a hallmark of his films and a defining feature of Crooked, but Never Common), guided by earlier provisions and guiding each succeeding chapter. Again, though, alongside the laudatory, Klawans also permits equitable criticism, not letting Sturges completely off the hook for what the author notes are occasionally questionable narrative devices or excuses of contrived complications.
All the same, merging plot dissection with formal consideration and the inevitable historical context, alternating back and forth between these and other points of argument, Klawans crafts a fascinating survey that agreeably defies a straightforward directorial appraisal. When he says later in his book, during a typically fluctuating discussion of Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), “I’ve cheated a little by jumping ahead,” this should not be considered an admission of guilt. On the contrary; it is hardly a cheat. This unique approach is one of the more appealing features of the book, a creative and engaging way in which to consider each film.
Klawans notes in his introduction, as a parenthetical aside, that the “good news when you write about Sturges” is “your book is full of marvelous lines. The bad news: they’re all his.” And to be sure, Klawans allocates rightful attention to Sturges’s dialogue and his knack for clever repartee (downplaying his own witty way with words). But he also highlights the less often remarked upon visual expression of Sturges’s films, noting with Unfaithfully Yours (1948), for example, how Sturges “takes greater delight in visual storytelling and parody than ever before.” The actors integral to the realization of Sturges’s vision are likewise considered, not only the panoply of stars but the multifaceted stock characters who populate his world and are often advanced beyond the standards of their type. Klawans acknowledges prior interpretations of Sturges’s work, common areas of analogy like the Biblical overtones of The Lady Eve (1941), while questioning preconceived notions and allowing justified readings to stand on their own. But if there is a minor objection to Klawans’s otherwise measured assumptions and assessments, it’s his infrequent doubting of public acuity. Praising Sturges’s “impeccable” management of time with The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and commenting on the breakneck pacing of The Palm Beach Story (1942), which unfolds in “the blink of an eye–the standard Preston Sturges unit of time,” Klawans seems to suggest that only the attuned critic or scholar could appreciate such hectic dramatics, dismissing the common viewer’s understanding and awareness and writing, “They will have neither the capacity nor the inclination to look back and assess everything that’s happened so far.”
According to Klawans, Sturges dedicated his “best-known film,” 1941’s Sullivans Travels, “to the notion that movies are a form of popular entertainment and should not pretend to be anything else” — this opposed to preachy message movies. At the same time, the “principal deception” of Sullivans Travels “is the pretense of self-revelation,” another key theme of Crooked, but Never Common. In this idea of a film’s true purpose and how it reflects a director’s individual disclosure, Frank Capra is an understandably recurrent figure of comparison and contrast, but he is not the only filmmaker Klawans connects to Sturges. In fact, more than anyone, there are recurring links to Orson Welles, whom Klawans dubs Sturges’s “funhouse double,” setting up a relationship that is certainly appropriate and unexpectedly insightful. Klawans concludes his text by connecting Sturges to contemporary filmmakers, asking is “anyone today able to approximate a Sturges film?” It’s an interesting exercise, canvasing but largely rejecting the Coen brothers, David Mamet, Alexander Payne and others before asserting that, of all people, Charlie Kaufman “comes the closest to Sturges’s inventiveness with language and his daring in narrative construction.” Perhaps, but if one thing is clear by the end of Crooked, but Never Common, it’s that Preston Sturges is surely in a class by himself, a uncommon filmmaker, particularly for his era, who is given his due in Klawans’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable examination.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).