Preston Sturges’ Missing Best Director Nomination

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of the other posts for Week 2: The Oscar Snubs.

Screenwriter/director Preston Sturges was awarded an Academy Award, in 1940, for his screenplay, The Great McGinty.

So why did I choose him as my subject for the “Oscar Snubs” topic of this blogathon?

Preston Sturges was also a great, underrated director, who never received a Best Director nomination.

Sturges was not the first to both write and direct his films (there were several who did so during the silent era, including Charlie Chaplin) but he was considered the first of the sound era to make a career of it. He is often recognized as the filmmaker who paved the way for other writer/directors such as Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. He began as a playwright and then wrote screenplays in Hollywood during the 1930s, including The Invisible Man, Diamond Jim and If I Were King.

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Dissatisfied with the way directors handled his scripts, he became determined to direct his own work. He offered the screenplay for The Great McGinty for $1, as long as he could direct the film. Paramount took the deal (though they had to up the price to $10, for legal reasons).

The term “writer/director” makes some people assume the filmmaker is stronger as a writer than a director. That view has changed over time, as several writer/directors have been nominated for and some have even won in The Best Director category. But it took a while for that perception to change.

Then there’s the fact that Sturges made comedies. Only a handful of comedies have won Best Picture and/or Best Director.

So it’s not a HUGE shock that he never won Best Director–but in my opinion, he more than merited at least a Best Director nomination.

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Sturges’ comedies are unique and to this day feel fresh to the modern eye. His films, even though they are hilariously funny, look at American life at both its best and worst. The Great McGinty presents a pretty cynical view of American politics (a man who rises to political power is sunk by an honorable act). Hail the Conquering Hero pokes fun at patriotism–even as Hollywood was stoking it up during war time. The Palm Beach Story targets America’s obsession with the pursuit of wealth and status. Sullivan’s Travels jabs social idealists. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Unfaithfully Yours and The Lady Eve present a complex view of the war between the sexes. (Not so incidentally, Sturges created some complex female characters for his stories.) In an era of fast-talking screwball comedies, his dialogue was even zingier than most.

There’s little debate over whether or not he was an exceptional screenwriter, but what about his skills as a director?

He was a master at constructing an exceptional supporting cast, culled from a stock company of actors that included William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Rudy Vallee, among many others who appeared in several of his films. Casting is no small part of the director’s job.

Just as he wasn’t afraid to jump from zany to gentle comedy and even from comedy to straight drama, he was also adept at shifting directing styles, even within the same film. If for no other reason, this fearlessness rated some Academy love, in my opinion.

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In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, he switches from the pratfalls of a schnook in love with a girl who only wants to use him to get herself out of trouble, to a moment of quiet revelation where the girl realizes she will love him until she dies.

In the scene where the heroine gives birth, he leaves the camera in basically one set-up (moving the camera only slightly when needed) looking down the long hospital corridor where family and friends wait for news. It starts off as sad and serious, then builds to a moment frantic with shock, joy and triumph.

In Unfaithfully Yours, he switches from almost surreal and disturbing fantasy sequences, where a jealous husband imagines ingenious plots to murder his wife, to scenes of hilarious incompetence, as the husband tries and fails to implement his crime.

Sullivan’s Travels tells the tale of a film director determined to stop making light comedies so he can direct a “socially significant” film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Sullivan decides to live as a hobo. Of course, he is no more than a tourist, returning to his privileged life in Hollywood several times–until he is arrested and put in a work camp. Sturges switches from zany pratfalls (reminiscent of silent film comedies) to a much more realistic, almost documentary style as Sullivan lives among the desperate poor and later becomes a nameless convict.

To me, one of the greatest sequences in film is in Sullivan’s Travels, and it highlights Sturges’ exceptional skills as a director. Sullivan and the other prisoners are taken to a small African-American church so they can watch a film. The preacher entreats his parishioners to treat the (mostly white) prisoners with kindness. They sing an old spiritual as the prisoners march into the church in chains. The lights go down and they watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Soon, the prisoners, the church members, even Sullivan, are roaring with laughter at the silly antics on screen. People living out some very harsh realities share a moment of forgetfulness through laughter.

Beat for beat, shot for shot, it’s one of the most perfectly constructed, as well as one of the most moving, sequences in a film I can name.

I can’t think of another director who could jump from style to style with so little effort and still make a cohesive film. Sturges made everything flow, weaving a remarkable tapestry of American life.

For that, he more than deserved at least a nomination in the Best Director category.

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15 thoughts on “Preston Sturges’ Missing Best Director Nomination

  1. I remember that film, being completely swept up in the story as a kid. A couple of years ago we were doing a watchathon of movies that impacted us as kids. I remembered the film but had no idea who it was or how to find it. Thanks. 🙂

  2. I never saw a Preston Sturges movie until 1987, when the L.A. Museum of Art screened THE PALM BEACH STORY. I walked out of the museum with my feet barely touching the ground. This man was criminally underrated in his time. I’m so glad his great work still remains. Lovely blog.

  3. You make a great case, Debbie! Unless it’s from ardent cinephiles I rarely see Sturges’ name come up in exchanges about great directors. Yet, when put into this type of context there’s no denying he belongs alongside the greatest. For THE LADY EVE alone he deserves Oscar in my opinion. I’m happy you chose him as your topic for snubs! Well-deserved entry. 🙂

    Aurora

    1. I’m always surprised how many people don’t truly appreciate Sturges’ talent as a director. They say something like, “Oh, absolutely, he was a great writer, but…”

      I’ve always felt (and I’m speaking as a writer) that the director matters. People say you can’t have a great film without a great screenplay–and that’s absolutely true–but a great film also needs a great director. He could do both jobs brilliantly.

  4. I love him so much I bought a book of his screenplays recently:) He’s amazing, and you highlight one of my favorite scenes. It’s such a stunning argument for the value of comedy, which he contributed to so well. Leah

  5. Terrific post, well-written and well-argued, and I couldn’t agree with you more both about Sturges and comedy being undervalued. Don’t remember where I read an anecdote about Hutton and Bracken competing to get bigger laughs on Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Sturges literally falling out of his director’s chair, helpless with laughter. The Great Moment, Sturges’ stab at a serious film (but taken from him and heavily reedited) was his first flop after that astonishing string of hits. But we’ll never know what his version would have been like—it might have opened a whole new realm of noncomedic material to him as a director. Alas, poor Preston, he deserved better…

  6. The Preston Sturges snub had totally passed me by, so thank you for highlighting in this great article. I completely agree that comedy is undervalued – the idea that if you look like you’re having fun it can’t have been much of a stretch is ridiculous. It speaks volumes about what the Academy values and what cinema-goers want to see.

  7. So happy to find your wonderful post about Preston Sturges never receiving a Best Director nomination. I’ve watched THE LADY EVE many times and it’s still as fresh and fun as the first viewing.

    On a side note: We also have Sturges to thank for playing a role in getting I MARRIED A WITCH made.

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