Crooked, but Never Common
The Films of Preston Sturges
by Stuart Klawans
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Pub Date 10 Jan 2023 | Archive Date 19 Apr 2023
In a burst of creativity unmatched in Hollywood history, Preston Sturges directed a string of all-time classic comedies from 1939 through 1948—The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek among them—all from screenplays he alone had written. Cynical and sophisticated, romantic and sexually frank, crazily breakneck and endlessly witty, his movies continue to influence filmmakers and remain popular to this day. Yet despite this acclaim, Sturges’s achievements remain underappreciated: he is too often categorized as a dialogue writer and plot engineer more than a director, or belittled as an irresponsible spinner of laughs.
In Crooked, but Never Common, Stuart Klawans combines a critic’s insight and a fan’s enthusiasm to offer deeper ways to think about and enjoy Sturges’s work. He provides an in-depth appreciation of all ten of the writer-director’s major movies, presenting Sturges as a filmmaker whose work balanced slapstick and social critique, American and European traditions, and cynicism and affection for his characters. Tugging at loose threads—discontinuities, puzzles, and allusions that have dangled in plain sight—and putting the films into a broader cultural context, Klawans reveals structures, motives, and meanings underlying the uproarious pleasures of Sturges’s movies. In this new light, Sturges emerges at last as one of the truly great filmmakers—and funnier than ever.
About the author: Stuart Klawans was the longtime film critic for The Nation, for which he received a National Magazine Award. He is the author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (1999) and has contributed to the New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, Film Comment, and Parnassus: Poetry in Review.
"From one of our finest critics, an elegant and deftly argued contribution to our appreciation of the great and glorious Preston Sturges. Klawans teases out inspired connections in the culture surrounding the director—the books, paintings and legends that fed the artistry of a man who refused to call himself an artist. The kind of book that makes you want to dive back into the films for fresh stimulation and delight."
—Molly Haskell, film critic and author
"Coming late to the party of Sturgesologists, Stuart Klawans has extended and upended the field with his takes that are as witty and audacious as his subject. One has only to read his wry unpacking of the contradictions in Sullivan's Travels, or his sympathetic dissections of my own favorites, The Lady Eve and Unfaithfully Yours. Klawans really knows these films, has a nuanced understanding of cinema in general, writes beautifully, and is the best, most trustworthy guide imaginable to the genius of Preston Sturges. A triumph."
—Phillip Lopate, author of Totally, Tenderly, Tragically
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 2 members
Crooked, But Never Common: The Films of Preston Sturges, by Stuart Klawans, primarily looks at his classics and ties them together in a way that offers a much more coherent and appreciative view of his work as a whole.
While I have watched the main ten films at least once, this volume took me back to the times we studied one in a film course. Because none of the courses were devoted to Sturges, it seemed very much like we would have fun discussing the movie, the professor would comment on Sturges being the writer and director, but we never seemed to talk about him as a true groundbreaker. Yet he was, though admittedly not on the grand scale of those who are usually cited as such. Klawans does a great job of remedying that situation.
The chapters, each devoted to one of the films, offer wonderful readings largely through connecting them to Sturges' personal life as well as the society which they were critiquing. As we move from film to film, we begin to see what his strengths during this red-hot period of his career were as well as anticipate why it wasn't going to last.
For those less interested in film history, this is still an ideal book to use to revisit these films, The different ways into each film will make them speak to you in new ways. And if you've never seen any of his films, or maybe don't remember them, this is a great companion.
I found the attempt to trace a genealogy of Sturges into contemporary film artists to be particularly interesting. For me, I find the directors and screenwriters who treat all of the characters lovingly to be the ones I would associate with Sturges. I don't necessarily think that is because they are directly descended from him but rather that that feeling toward the characters is what I most enjoy in Sturges, and what I most enjoy in a lot of contemporary film.
While not extensive, I think the bibliography offers a number of key texts not only on Sturges but also a handful of general books that are well worth reading.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.