Preston Sturges — Geniuses Never Grow Up (1946) 🇺🇸

Preston Sturges |

November 30, 2021

Can a famous Hollywood producer be a hero in his own home? Yes, it says here — when he is daring, dynamic Preston Sturges.

by Mrs. Preston Sturges

It embarrasses him, but doesn’t embarrass me at all, that even my husband’s competitors refer to him as a genius.

When Preston protests, “I’m not a deep-dish man — I only skim the surface,” other people differ with him, saying that pictures like “The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek,” “Hail The Conquering Hero” and that new hilarious film, “The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock,” probe with sharp wit the foibles of human beings — and make us like it.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced, being Mrs. Sturges, but I think the man is at least as interesting as his best work. I think that the amount and quality of work he can turn out stems from what he is. Preston experienced the most remarkable childhood any man ever had. He developed early a restless and adventurous spirit — always shooting the moon and backing his dreams against odds. He believes, almost like a religion, that every piece of work should measure up to his full-limit best.

Those reasons help explain why this six-foot gentleman with the keen brown eyes can write, direct and produce all at the same time. (He has proved to Hollywood that a movie needn’t be patched together by a committee.) Other factors in his life show why people have become his books (he reads a person as avidly as most fans read a detective thriller) and why, therefore, he can do far-out-of-the-ordinary casting. His keenness discovers in actors possibilities that other people, and they themselves, had overlooked. Examples of this include: starring virtually unknown Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels; uncovering a new Rudy Vallée in The Palm Beach Story: revealing Barbara Stanwyck’s true glamor in The Lady Eve; bringing out, in several pictures, the stellar comedy talent of Eddie Bracken; highlighting in “Hail The Conquering Hero” that attractive star personality, Freddy Steele, who then went on to do fine work in “The Story Of G.I. Joe.” Now Preston has lured out of retirement one of the kings of all funnymen, Harold Lloyd, who’s funnier than ever in Diddlebock.

Screenland’s editor asked me, “Will you give our readers a closeup of your exciting husband?” Before we cut back to the very young Preston Sturges, maybe you would like to make his acquaintance in the somewhat haphazard manner I did. Lila Lee, a mutual friend (well-known actress of silent picture days), first introduced us. Then Gouverneur Morris, the famous author, introduced us again and Preston, evidently not lavishing a great deal of attention on me, assumed I was one of Mr. Morris’ daughters!

Some time after that we lived fifty feet apart for several years. He had dachshunds and I had a cat — and no entente cordiale developed.

At another time, Preston was brought to my home by a friend just when I was much excited about a new stove I’d got — gleaming porcelain, fancy trim and bright gadgets. “Wouldn’t you like to see my new stove?” I asked.

Mr. Sturges, raising his eyebrows, walked boredly from parlor to kitchen, eyed my pride and joy, then gave judgment coldly: “I don’t like stoves that look like radios.”

I was so angry I threw a blank for the next two hours. Others talked; I choked. Finally the visitor himself, moving to the piano, tried to break the ice. “I thought of a little melody today,” he announced with a polite smile. “I’ll play it.”

Having done so, he swung on the piano stool, naive and pleased as a small boy. “Like it?”

“It’s very good.” Here was revenge, and I pitched my voice to be sweetly cutting. “It was also good when Schubert used it as the theme of The Unfinished Symphony.”

Of course Preston’s subconscious had played him a trick, as anyone’s mind is | likely to do about tunes. I didn’t realize until years later that the charge of un-originality was probably the worst wound I could have offered. The man’s original! He left almost at once that night, a trifle pale, still polite — but no smile.

Three years later, I was asked to join a group who were going up on Sunset Strip to a new restaurant. It turned out to be Preston’s — founded by him to give a Hollywood start to a New York song publisher who had helped him during New York lean days. Our party arrived late — almost closing time. My old “enemy” asked me to dance, then excused himself and spoke to the orchestra leader. Just as I didn’t learn till long later why Preston had started that restaurant, so I didn’t know that night that he had paid a fancy price for the orchestra to play four more hours, till six a.m. (I should have guessed, because for 240 minutes he danced the feet off me — without stepping on them, either!)

During that much dancing you either begin a friendship or else, and eventually Mr. Sturges and I wound up in a home that, like everything else about him, is unique. To understand that home and the way we live, as well as Preston’s “sharp” creative work, we’d better flashback to his fantastic youth:

Spent early years half each in Chicago, half in Paris... the world-famous dancer, Isadora Duncan, “saved” his life at eight months with a champagne diet to “cure” pneumonia... she was entrusted with much of his Paris rearing... books were crammed down him... he had to stay in and rest afternoons so he could attend the opera at night... for several years he rode to school on a bicycle, wearing Grecian robes.

Second phase — Preston’s mother’s cosmetic business jeopardized by World War I... Preston, sent to America at sixteen to rescue the New York branch, invented kiss-proof rouge... not liking cosmetic business, became a Wall Street messenger... working at $7.50 a week, he sold a $50,000 batch of bonds to a customer; was raised to $10 a week... not liking that either, he quit... during World War I he served as an air cadet.

Odd jobs and restlessness continued until one time, sick in Chicago after a dangerous appendectomy, Preston secured the late Irvin Cobb’s permission to dramatize that humorist’s “Speaking Of Operations.” Theatrical producers unanimously turned the play down. “Operations may be funny in a book,” they held, “but on the stage — too graphic to make laughter for American audiences.”

In the midst of that disappointment, and always eager to shoot the moon, Preston poured out all his dreams and proposed to a girl who he thought had been encouraging him. She had. “I just wanted to see,” she told him, “how far a young upstart like you, with no prospects, would go.” That’s probably where my husband-to-be began studying people, because he embalmed the lady in caricature and poked fun at himself in a play titled “The Guinea Pig.”

When producers didn’t want “The Guinea Pig” either, Preston rented, in January, a “Summer” theater on the snowbound estate of Frank Vanderlip. There the cast, working on trust, rehearsed long weeks. The theater held a small stove and — the Vanderlips being off wintering in some sunny clime — Preston decided landlords should furnish heat and raided the banker’s coal-cellar. “The Guinea Pig” staggered, half-frozen, down to Broadway and played sixteen weeks. Everyone got paid off except Preston — that’s why the New York restaurant-keeper was feeding him on credit while he was attending rehearsals of Strictly Dishonorable. That play (written in nine days) is noted for two things: running two years on Broadway, it drew Preston many Hollywood offers; it also established his complete originality because, for the first time in any American play, he let the “Latin Lover” win the girl from the handsome American “hero.” Maybe that’s where the Good Neighbor policy began!

In Hollywood as a writer, Preston authored so many hits that only a small percentage may be listed here: “The Big Pond,” “The Power And The Glory,” “Thirty Day Princess,” The Good Fairy, “Diamond Jim,” “Port Of Seven Seas,” “Easy Living,” “Remember The Night” and If I Were King. It’s legend — accurate — that to enlarge his duties to direction also, he sold Paramount his original screenplay, “The Great McGinty,” for ten dollars — provided he could pilot it.

Well, we all know that the gentleman now writes, directs, produces — and casts. Let’s get back to the man himself.

The honeymoon home to which I was taken was just two blocks above Hollywood and Vine. The fact that Charlie Chaplin and Mildred Harris had been married in the front room was of no interest whatever to Preston, but he owned some furniture that suited the front room’s Victorian atmosphere. Upstairs, too, in our bedroom, he had had placed an old-fashioned, four-poster mahogany bed. Adjoining our room he had fitted up a masculine den-workroom.

When the baby needed quarters, filing cabinets came out of what was first his “office” and crowded the piano in his den. Included is a fine bust of his beloved stepfather, Solomon Sturges, of Chicago, for whom our son is named.

I knew by this time that Preston’s nomad boyhood, Chicago to Paris to Chicago and back, over and over, and the phony culture in Paris, had soured him on the very word “culture.” His decision that people, not books, were the most profitable (and enjoyable) study for a dramatist made itself plain during our honeymoon in the odd house that he was remaking to suit his dreams.

For a man who works as hard as Preston (he’s never late on the set or anywhere else) , a vacation, when he isn’t already starting his next screenplay, means staying up all hours at night and abed till three in the afternoon. This marked our honeymoon and I was astonished to hear Preston answer the phone to the horde of salesmen who try to descend on my bridegroom who has some cash. “I don’t want to buy anything, old man,” he’d invariably say, “but if you want to come up and speak your piece — any afternoon after three.”

So — we spent our afternoons, receiving, like royalty, in the huge four-poster bed. And did the salesmen come: insurance men, interior decorators, wine merchants, caterers, gowns-for-madame experts, tailors, furriers, canned goods wholesalers, cosmeticians, jewelers, even maternity hospital representatives!

Though he listened with flattering attention, Preston, except for a few instances where my eyes couldn’t keep from glistening over some item, bought nothing. After a week — and I was getting a bit fed up, too — I caught on. “It’s a wonder,” I chuckled, “someone doesn’t shoot you. You’re simply gathering material in case you want to write a screenplay about a salesman.”

“Well” — his brown eyes twinkled — “I told them frankly I wouldn’t buy anything.”

He does like people, though, as well as study them. That explains why the Chaplin-Harris wedding parlor is left in solemn museum state while our real living room is fifty-six feet long, proportionately wide, swept with sunlit windows (pepper trees and a swimming pool outside) , and containing such assorted items as a ping-pong table, card tables, deep leather chairs about a wonderful fireplace, books galore, ship models and, at the bar, samples of Preston’s unending attempts to invent a comfortable barstool.

In this big room we spend much of our time. Even when alone or just with a close friend, we like to eat in the cheerful game-room; but our social evenings usually consist of sixteen for dinner (Preston says the big room looks empty with less) and I bask, watching him enjoying people around him. I also seem to hear his brain click, once in a while, registering a bit of dialogue.

That nomad boyhood has accentuated a trait that must have always sought fulfillment in Preston — intense love of home. He has a great gift for building and the upstairs suite he planned for Solomon, including the installation of special cooking and sterilization facilities, is a model of its kind. The security of a home — and love — that is his own, motivates him to a poignant degree.

One day when the baby was eight months old. I tucked him under my arm, so to speak, and started out to an afternoon hen party. Something went wrong on the set, and for the only time in our married life, Preston came home early. I left the party well before dark and when I arrived near our house there, pacing up and down the sidewalk, an almost wild look in his eyes, loomed my husband. It wasn’t right that he should come home and not find his family waiting for him! He wasn’t angry, just temporarily hurt (the mood vanished immediately in gaiety) , as if I had deserted him and eloped, baby and all, to far parts!

As with most men who possess a real, hard-used creative talent, there is a wistfulness about Preston; he has moments when, spiritually, he wants his hands held up; when, in spite of all he has accomplished, he wants someone near and dear to tell him he’s good. Such underlying humility, I think, is part of any true artist.

One of my husband’s most appealing traits is his regard for other people’s feelings and reputation. One evening, among our sixteen guests for dinner, was a woman once prominent, now less so, and whom life had embittered. She repeated or invented one after another “I-knew-her-when” tales, all of them malicious and harmful. I saw Preston’s hands clench and his jaw-muscles tense. When the guests departed, he turned to me whiter-faced than the time, long before, when I insulted him about the Schubert melody. “Please, Louise,” he said, placing his hands on my shoulders, “please do not let us ever have that woman in our home again.” In all my knowledge of Preston, I have never heard him utter a harmful word about anyone. And his many kindnesses to people — I hear of scores, but not from him.

Preston’s innate joy of living glows in his relations with Solomon. They have worked out an elaborate double-talk system, and will gabble together in this lingo, eyeing me mischievously, tickled because though — I feel sure — they are saying nice things about- me, I can’t understand a word. I think that geniuses and children are natural companions.

Delightful contradictions pop up in Preston. He is world-famous as a connoisseur of food. He helped create the menu for “The Players,” his noted restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Yet his favorite food would surprise his chefs. My first duty as a housekeeper is to always have on hand a full supply of this delicacy, a dab of which is to him like a chocolate to a read-and-dip-in-the-book girl, or a toddy to a man with a ruddy nose. I unveil the Preston private food passion — peanut butter!

Besides his hatred of gossip, there is one other characteristic that can render him stern — his aversion to disorder, untidiness, inexactitude. It shows in his dress, which is informal yet always spic and span. It shows in his scripts, which are constructed like perfect-fitting mosaics. Though a warmly affectionate person, he defines his own sense of order: “To the problems of life, I prefer the scientific, not the emotional approach.” He can’t abide people who just “wish” to do something, but won’t take the time and pains to learn to do it right. A sloppy workman, in any line, doesn’t stay around him long nor those who speak loosely, without accurate thought.

An amusing example of Preston’s passion for exactitude illustrates the constant novelty of living with the man. (I told you he is original!)

Solomon, five this Summer, was born June 25, 1941. However, he arrived much sooner than the due date, August 15th. You guessed it! We celebrate both days as Solomon’s birthday!

Latest Sturges production, “The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock,” celebrates the come-back of Harold Lloyd, once the movies’ leading comedian.

Exclusive home pictures by Jack Albin

Collection: Screenland Magazine, April 1946