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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.

That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.

None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.

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I’m drawn to the problem films of great moviemakers for this very reason. The “headline classics” are films where everything went right, which hides the inner workings of the machine. But the problem films are ones where something, or multiple somethings, went awry, and diagnosing those glitches provides insight into how that artist worked.

Of course it doesn’t take much study to deduce that part of Sturges’ winning formula was his comic universe. A couple of weeks ago when we talked about Easy Living we noted a) his reliance on his stock company of variously grizzled- and funny-looking character actors; and b) the furious escalation of comic incidents to the point where just about any and every gesture or utterance turns into a punchline.

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These are of course two sides of the same coin. The key to building a Jenga tower of snowballing comic tension is having jokes come from every direction. Other comedians would be content to drop one funny person into the world and watch the jokes fly–Sturges almost does the reverse. His usual protagonist is an innocent person with some particularly skewed misunderstanding of how the world works, plunked into the middle of a world full of eccentrics–hence the Sturges stock company of players.

And right off the bat we can see that Beautiful Blonde is playing by a different set of rules. The stock company is (more or less) in place. Sure, we miss William Demarest–who doesn’t? He’s awesome–but there are enough other craggy-faced weirdos to populate the screen. But instead of colliding with each other in nuclear comic reactions, their weirdness is tamped down and isolated. The chain reaction never really gets explosive.

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And then there’s the protagonist, our titular Beautiful Blonde (pun intended–it’s pretty mild compared to the juvenile 1940s era raunch Sturges indulged in throughout the film). Betty Grable’s character is easily one of the most inspired characters in Sturges’ entire career, and she’s nothing like anyone else he wrote. She’s a hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent, hyper-competent sharpshooting jilted lover on the run. In one go, she’s a distillation of every Western cliche there was. She’s the madonna/whore/love interest/aloof drifter/expert gunslinger/escaped desperado.

The satiric possibilities are endless.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that virtually none of those satiric possibilities are even sampled.

I mean, that’s not really a surprise. Sturges was always more of a farceur than a satirist. Using Grable as a satirical attack on the Western genre would have meant populating her cinematic world with other Western archetypes for her to play off, when Sturges clearly had more interest in giving the supporting cast more specific idiosyncrasies.

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Also, to be fair, this is 1947. The Western boom has yet to happen. The so-called “cliches” embodied by Grable haven’t yet had a chance to become cliches. Sturges can’t be accused of squandering an opportunity so much as failing to recognize he even had it.

Nevertheless it is noteworthy how little momentum is derived from a movie built around a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. Having shot a judge, in the rump, twice, she’s fleeing her inevitable prosecution by assuming the stolen identity of a smalltown schoolmarm. Her number one concern is laying low and not attracting any attention.

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So you’d think the maximum comic mileage would come out of a series of circumstances designed to attract attention to her. And the film briefly feints in that direction–the worldly bombshell is far from the stereotypical schoolteacher, and the film contrives to get a gun into her hand as quickly as possible. But instead of pursuing this line of thought, the movie swerves into an unexpected narrative skid which I’ll address in a moment.

First, a few thoughts on why Preston Sturges’ heart may not have been in this.

He was concluding his divorce, for one thing. He was pouring most of his time and money into a lunatic plan to develop a new kind of dinner theater–an idea that could be charitably described as a money pit and absolute boondoggle. And he was suffocating in his new partnership with Darryl Zanuck, whose micromanaging and second-guessing didn’t sit well with Sturges.

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Betty Grable lost faith in Sturges and all but disowned the film. It’s not that the director and star need to see eye to eye–Sturges and Claudette Colbert made a masterpiece out of Palm Beach Story despite his aggravation at what he considered a spoiled and flighty star. But it’s clear something wasn’t clicking right.

You can see that the filmmakers weren’t rowing in the same direction in the fact that Zanuck brought in another director to shoot new footage to impose an alternate ending against Sturges’ wishes. Say what you will about Sturges’ insufferable qualities, the man always stuck the landing (the aforementioned Palm Beach Story is arguably the ballsiest go for broke punchline in all 40s cinema). Not letting Sturges decide the ending is just nuts.

But Sturges did slather his attention on one aspect of Beautiful Blonde. The gonzo slapstick gunfight at the finale is something Preston seems to have been yearning for all his career.

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Sturges, like Blake Edwards after him, worshipped at the Church of Keystone. That is, he was a Mack Sennett acolyte, devoted to the simple joys of pratfalls and custard pies. By virtue of being a “sophisticated” talkie director in the post-slapstick era, he was in the wrong era to work in purely visual comedy. But he deliberately built slapstick set pieces into even his most dialog-driven classics. (Part of his complaint about Mitchell Leisen’s alleged mishandling of Easy Living was Leisen’s lack of gusto when it came to slapstick gags).

And so the Beautiful Blonde a From Bashful Bend winds itself into a frenzy at last. Everyone grabs a gun, and the laws of physics are briefly suspended to let a cartoon aesthetic take over for several minutes. What Tex Avery did with animated animals, Sturges does with one of the top sex symbols of the 1940s. And for a few precious feet of film, we get a glimpse of what this movie could have been.

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4 Responses Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)
Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : February 21, 2015 10:23 am

This is the one Sturges film that I’ve never managed to catch up with. Suffice to say that it is now on my list of things to do. Many thanks, Mr. Kalat.

Posted By kingrat : February 22, 2015 8:12 pm

Thanks for a great piece about a movie I’ve never seen. David, would you consider a series about flawed films by top directors? Your point that we can learn a lot by the ones that don’t quite work is excellent.

Posted By vp19 : February 23, 2015 2:35 am

Perhaps this might have succeeded with a different Betty (Hutton, who was splendid in Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” not Grable).

Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2015 4:50 pm

Still have not seen this, but I have been lucky enough to see the behind-the-scenes home movies from the set taken by El Brendel, which are plenty amusing.

IMDb trivia reports that Betty Grable asked for Gregory Peck as her leading man, I wonder how that would have worked out?

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