Weekly Top Five: The best of Preston Sturges

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The Miracle of Morgans Creek
  • The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
Today at 11:30 AM, the Music Box screens Unfaithfully Yours, a late film by the great satirist Preston Sturges. It isn't among my favorite of his films—what Dave Kehr calls a "[move] toward a more Lubitschian elegance," I'd describe as a softening of his sensibilities, though that's in no way meant to disparage the great Ernst Lubitsch. Even with the film's dark sensibilities, it lacks the bite of his best work, the unique brand of satire that's simultaneously pessimistic and jocund. It's also among his least lyrical efforts. His work is filled with what's known as "studio poetry," meaning his films tackled themes and subjects that brushed up against the moral rigors of Hays Code and came out imaginative, subversive, and allegorical.

You can catch my five favorite Sturges films after the jump.

5. Christmas in July (1940) I wouldn't consider it a major work, but this delirious satire of consumerist ambition provides an ample roadmap to Sturges's style. His most lasting techniques, including the biting satire, punchy one-liners, symphonic use of an ensemble cast, and brisk pacing, are each on display, though they exist in a sort of embryonic state, effective but not quite fully formed.

4. Sullivan's Travels (1941) Sturges's great autobiographical film, in which his caricatured stand-in, Joel McCrea, traverses the treacherous waters of Hollywood commercialism. Class indifference is the director's chief concern here, which he exemplifies with great absurdity and just a hint of pragmatism. It's a brutally honest film and not the least bit self-critical, proving Sturges never held himself above the level of contempt.

3. The Lady Eve (1941) Self-perception is Sturges's most consistent narrative motif. His characters tend to project idealized images of themselves, usually in an effort to impress and intimidate friends, enemies, lovers, and everything in between. Here, the institution of marriage is depicted as a means to some sort of indefinable existential end. It's maybe Sturges's most serious-minded film (it's certainly his least farcical, albeit quite funny), but it retains the cutting edge of his most incisive work.

2. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) This screwball comedy is most famous for sneaking vulgar jokes past the Hays Code, and not for nothing, either—the amount of crude humor crammed into the last reel alone is dizzying. But what I find most remarkable is how the film manages to be as blatant as it is subtle, owning its morally malicious humor in one instance and taking subtle shots the next, so that each joke lands with both an acerbic punch and a knowing gesture. It's not so much that Sturges got away with it, it's that he had the balls to structure a film like this in the first place.

1. The Palm Beach Story (1942) Claudette Colbert stars as a married woman who leaves behind her decent but destitute husband to find wealthy suitors in Florida. Her pursuits prove fruitless, though, as the upper-class tycoons she encounters turn out to be loutish, racist, uncontrollable jerks. The overriding message, of course, is that happiness cannot be found in the search for money, and those who have achieved wealth, though they may exude happiness, ultimately sacrifice their humanity in their pursuit. It sounds didactic, but Sturges never looks down on his characters or, by proxy, his audience.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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