Wednesday, June 08, 2011

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

Douglas McGrath has a decent piece in Vanity Fair on Preston Sturges' Paramount years.  In a run almost unparallelled in Hollywood history, the writer-director made eight amazing films there in the first half of the 40s.  We're talking about titles like The Lady EveSullivan's Travels, The Geat McGinty and The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek.

It's not all praise.  For instance, McGrath, quite properly, questions Sturges' talent for slapstick. But then we run into this odd paragraph:

And sustaining a tone was difficult for him even at the top of his game. It must be said that even the seven wonders [McGrath doesn't think much of Sturges "serious" film The Great Moment] of the Sturges canon have their problems, and the problems can always be traced to an instability of tone. Not one of these movies is a perfect picture, the way The Shop Around the Corner is perfect, or The Wizard of Oz or Zelig or The Godfather is perfect. Each of those films clears its throat and sings its song, and there is never a moment when you tilt your head and wonder, What was that?

First, it's a bit unfair to pull out a bunch of all-time classics to compare to Sturges' films.  The Shop Around The Corner makes sense, since it's a comedy--and a perfect film--from that general era, but the others are different genres and two are from decades later.

Much weirder....Zelig?  It's doesn't even make Woody Allen's top five.  I guess it's consistent in tone, but it's no classic, and even at 79 minutes threatens to wear out its welcome.  Whatever is it doing  between Oz and Godfather?

Finally, the criticism of Sturges is wrong.  His problem isn't always uneven tone.  The Lady Eve may have a plot that splits in half (thanks to Eve herself) but it's not like the second part is unattached to the first.  The Palm Beach Story may not rank with his greatest (at least not to me), but it's pretty consistent, and the wild slapstick in it is part of Sturges' world of odd characters.  And complaining about Sullivan's Travels' shifts in tone is is like complaining about Top Hat's musical numbers--the movie is practically designed around its tone shifts.

Anyway, Sturges did make a perfect film.  One that starts solid, picks up steam, and never stops until the end--Hail The Conquering Hero.  It ranks, alongside The Shop Around The Corner and a few others, as one of the greatest comedies of its time.


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