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Christmas in July: Excerpt


Like so many writers of his generation, Preston Sturges went west in the early thirties to Hollywood. He was in love with the idea of success in America—the promise of romance and fortune and fame—thought he had little film experience and no particular attraction to the movies. Nor was he a writer or even an American in any conventional sense. Born in Chicago, he'd spent much of his childhood in Paris with his mother and her best friend, Isadora Duncan; and at thirty-four he was very much a bohemian, with no fixed income or goal in life. He'd been a stage manager, a flier in the Air Service, a songwriter, the manager of his mother's cosmetics firm, and the inventor of a kiss-proof lipstick and a vertical rising airplane—as well as a promising playwright. But while his 1929 Strictly Dishonorable—about a girl who exchanges her boring American fiancé for a poetic Italian—was a Broadway hit, his last three plays had failed. His mother had recently died in New York, and his second wife was leaving him. So when Universal Studios offered Sturges $1,000 a week to come to California and write screenplays, he accepted immediately, but with no commitment to stay on.

He did, though, and between 1939 and 1943 at Paramount Pictures he wrote and directed seven of the wittiest and most distinctive comedies Hollywood ever sent out to the world: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. They were films about wild success which also made Sturges wildly successful. A mid-forties article in Vogue observed: "Lubitsch and Hitchcock, each with the stamp of a great personality on his work, are names not half as familiar to the American public [as Preston Sturges]." The familiarity was short-lived. Quarrels with the studios soon followed, then an ill-fated partnership with Howard Hughes, and finally expatriation to France in the early fifties. When he died in New York's Algonquin Hotel at the end of that decade, Sturges, once the third best-paid man in America, was poor, and remembered mainly by ardent cineasts.

During the ensuing years, Sturges's films have reemerged to an increasingly wider public. This past decade has seen numerous revivals not only of the classic Hollywood comedies, but of the later, no less original The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1946) and Unfaithfully Yours (1948). Narratively audacious, his films range from the tale of a scandalously pregnant girl who becomes a celebrity when she gives birth to sextuplets on Christmas (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), to the black ruminations of a famous conductor who grows suspicious of his adored young wife (Unfaithfully Yours). And whether set on a luxury liner, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, or in a Midwestern hamlet, they're unmistakably the product of a formidable intelligence—frantically paced, elliptical, formally self-conscious, spewing voluptuous, geographically uprooted language, filled with slapstick and brilliant repartee. For the French theorist André Bazin, they reflected "the deepest moral and social beliefs of American life."

Christmas in July
...but we need the eggs
Hollywood Renaissance