Monday, July 13, 2009

Book: Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990)

Yes, I’m feeling much better now. Thank you for asking, and for the many cards and letters. It’s your strength that keeps me going.

My convalescence was sped along by reading Preston Sturges’ memoir, adapted and edited by the filmmaker’s widow Sandy from material Sturges was writing at the time of his death. I was hoping to glean some insight into that five year stretch, unparalleled in movie history, when Sturges made one dazzling comedy after another. The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Hail The Conquering Hero, so many more.

On that score, I was disappointed. Sturges doesn’t head for Hollywood until the last quarter of the book, and most of those pages chronicle frustration and financial woes. His advice is worth taking, though.

Money is not star material. One should never have enough of it, or enough lack of it, to allow of its playing a principal role.

If I’d had Sturges’ childhood, I’d have lavished attention on it, too. His mother Mary was a peripatetic Auntie Mame type. Whatever her flaws, she showed her son that the world was a place of great possibility. Through her, Preston met countless interesting people. He briefly shared a room with silent screen siren Theda Bara. Occultist Aleister Crowley called him a “brat.” His mother gave Isadora Duncan the scarf that led to her death.

Glamorous ocean voyages, romance with heiresses, disaster avoided with the help of wealthy benefactors. Sturges’ early years were out of a Sturges movie. Only someone who led a charmed life could make films so blithe. Yet another reason to be disappointed.

The Sturges family has set up a terrific website dedicated to the man and his work. Pay special attention to his eleven rules for box office appeal.

Maybe it’s better not to know too much about people whose work you admire. I thought that after reading Lawrence Block’s recent memoir, in which he evinced little interest in the questions I would have asked him. Maintaining a touch of mystery is a good thing, maybe a necessary one. Albert Brooks often talks about his odd friendship with Stanley Kubrick, who called him full of praise after seeing Modern Romance. (Kubrick told him he’d wanted to make his own film about jealousy, which became Eyes Wide Shut.) They spoke on the phone often, but when Brooks suggested meeting in person Kubrick said it would be a bad idea. After Francois Truffaut raved about James Toback’s Fingers, Toback wanted to get together. Truffaut declined, saying, “Let’s continue to communicate with each other through our films.” And then there’s the time Mel Brooks ... why don’t I let Mel tell the story?