Remember the Night

Lots of folks try to ease the burdens of their busy day with a meal on the town or a stiff drink at the local tavern.  Not many would find a way to harken back to the good ole days (whenever they were!) to either do a good deed, run a scam or rig the outcome of an athletic competition.

Well, Preston Sturges would!  This erstwhile son of a cosmetic heiress spent much of his precocious youth  as a world traveler of sorts.  His mother developed a cosmetics business in the period after World War I and was, apparently, very adept at not only selling her line, but also of hobnobbing her way into the most elegant of European circles.

Preston of course, being a mere lad, went along for the ride.  To hear him tell it:

“My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it.  She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed fervently.  Often, twice was enough.”

Be that as it may, Sturges probably had what could easily be called an ideal introduction to the art and science of creativity and persuasion.  Those skills certainly served him well later in life.  His first breakthrough, if one can call it that, came in the early 1930s when he was working as a writer-for-hire, operating on a series of short contracts.  This gave him an opportunity to test his wings, observe and, as they say, sally forth.  He managed to sell his first original screenplay for The Power and The Glory to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy.   It told the story of a self-involved financier  via a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane.  

Sturges managed to negotiate a $17,500 upfront payment plus a percentage of the profits from Jesse Lasky – an unprecedented deal for a screenwriter at that time.  Sturges later recalled, “The film made a lot of enemies.  Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers.  And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”   Menace or not, he was able to thrive and grow, and ultimately engineered a deal with Paramount where he was able to take creative control of his own projects by selling them his screenplay for The Great McGinty for $10 in exchange for the chance to direct.  Sturges, in fact, won the very first Academy Award for Writing the Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty and now was on his way.

His stories are characterized by a reverence for the zany as well as a unique metaphysical insight into how the human heart – and occasionally the mind – work.   Often the narratives turn inward on themselves, creating a mirror-like mobius strip, making it difficult to discern the cuteness from the con.  His characters are survivors.  Having worked at the machine shop, they know how to turn a screw without falling apart.  An amiable attitude we could all learn from and enjoy.


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