In the four-year span that saw Preston Sturges win the inaugural Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his directorial debut, 1940’s The Great McGinty, and become only the second (of four) people to receive two Academy screenwriting nominations in the same year – for 1944’s The Miracle at Morgan Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, respectively – he had gone on a seven-film run that cemented him as the greatest director in all of screwball comedy. While other films from within that run enjoy greater prestige today (particularly The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both from ‘41) Morgan’s Creek and Conquering Hero are his grand capstones, as well as arguably the most subversive of the bunch.
The Chicago-born Sturges first made his name in theater, penning hit comedies for Broadway. He made the move to Hollywood in 1932 and quickly established himself as one of the most in-demand writers in town. But for as much money as he was making, Sturges was left disappointed by the way other people handled his work. He decided he wanted to direct, and went about achieving this goal in an unprecedented manner: he agreed to sell his popular script for McGinty, a satire of corrupt big city politics, to Paramount for only $10, on the condition that he also direct. The gambit paid off, with McGinty proving a modest commercial, but huge critical hit, thus setting the stage for Sturges’s future directing career while also paving way for other screenwriters—including fellow screwball scribe Billy Wilder—to make the jump to directing.
Screwball comedy enjoyed its heyday from the start of the Great Depression through the end of World War II, offering escapist—but by no means empty—entertainment as a balm to those troubled times. The genre is generally distinguished from more traditional romantic comedies by its reliance on farce, dizzyingly rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick mayhem, and sharp social critique. Like its darker-shaded cousin, the film noir, screwball comedy uses a cynical (although not pessimistic) and often-times surreal lens to reflect the anxieties of their time, particularly those revolving around class and sex.
Sturges’s movies were especially big on this angle, and by 1944 he had already tackled politics (McGinty), advertising and big business (Christmas in July), obscene wealth and dire poverty (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels) and divorce (The Palm Beach Story). In 1944, he trained his sights on the war effort—principally the hero worship it begot—with not one but two exceptionally edgy comedies of error.
In The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, young Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) attends a farewell dance for departing GIs against the wishes of her overprotective police chief father (William Demarest), only to get drunk, concussed (after hitting her head on an overtly phallic-shaped chandelier), married, and pregnant (tricky subject matter for the times, and that’s not even accounting for current standards of consent modern audience will bring to it). On the advice of her whip smart/smart-ass younger sister (Diana Lynn, who you could drop into any teen comedy of the last 78 years and she’d feel right at home), Trudy asks her longtime friend Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken)—a shy orphan declared 4-F on account of his bad nerves, who’s held a torch for Trudy since childhood—to pose as the mysterious soldier that married and knocked her up in order to annul the union, before then marrying her for real (this fake romance becoming a touchingly real one refreshingly early in the story). This leads, of course, to all manner of chaos, ultimately climaxing in a wild montage that somehow includes Mussolini and Hitler.
For Hail the Conquering Hero, Bracken again takes the lead, here playing Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (those Sturges character names are second to none), the son of a slain war hero from a small town, who finds his dreams of following in his father’s footsteps dashed when he’s booted from the Marines due to chronic hay fever. After helping out a group of battle-scared grunts on R&R (led by Demarest’s gruff but sympathetic Sargent), they decide to return the favor by concocting a story for Woodrow’s to tell his beloved mother about how he distinguished himself in combat by saving all their lives (all of this vert much against Woodrow’s will). Things spiral out of control when Woodrow’s town homecoming committee catches wind of his return and plans a big welcome home parade, while the local opposition party decides to draft him as a candidate for mayor.
Often, too much is made of how ‘modern’ films from the Golden Age of Hollywood are, as though the evolution of feature filmmaking over the past 100 years has been one of non-stop progress and enlightenment, as opposed to one that has constantly suffered setbacks as the result of interference from various political, social, and economic factions. But by their premises alone, Morgan’s Creek and Conquering Hero really do meet that criteria. The idea that a director could make two films skewering not only blind patriotism and groupthink, but the inherent virtue of American GIs, during the height of WWII is almost unthinkable. Granted, all of the GIs and townspeople in both films—save one asshole banker in Morgan’s Creek and a slimy politician in Conquering Hero—are presented as well-meaning in their buffoonery, but still. It’s likewise remarkable that both movies would position a non-combatant as the hero. In doing so, and by casting the self-described “homely” Bracken as the lead, they go a long way towards undercutting the accepted notions of masculinity of the time (and since).
Being filmed so close together, they repurposed many of the same sets, and watched back-to-back, the small suburban backdrops seem nearly identical. The same is true of the people who populate the settings. Beyond Bracken taking the dual lead roles (and basically playing the same guy, even if Woodrow has a little more sand and game than Norval), both films are stacked with several of the same supporting players, actors who appeared throughout the director’s films and so came to be known as the ‘Sturges stock company.’
Far and away, the MVP of this repertory company was Demarest, whose salty screen presence and penchant for pratfalls saw him steal almost every scene he was in (particularly in The Lady Eve). He’s especially memorable in Morgan’s Creek, proving the model for all the outwardly curmudgeonly, but inherently sweet dad characters in film and TV comedies to follow. Sturges rewarded him for his great work by giving him third billing in Morgan’s Creek and Conquering Hero, cementing him as the character actor of screwball comedy.
(Among his many virtues, Sturges was known for his loyalty, and he fought to keep these actors in his films despite the studio—who thought audiences would grow tired of seeing the same [non-star] faces over and over again—objecting to them. He likewise fought to keep Conquering Hero’s lead actress Ella Raines in the role after producers sought to replace her.)
One underappreciated staple of Sturges’s work is his love of meta-narrative chicanery. This is in evidence in both Sullivan’s Travels, in which a Sturges-like comedy director has an artistic crisis of conscience (and which cheekily name-drops his peer, Ernest Lubitsch), and 1942’s The Palm Beach Story, which ingeniously begins with the madcap conclusion, sans any explanation later on, of an entirely different adventure. He continues this tradition in both ‘44 films, with Miracle at Morgan’s Creek featuring the return of the Great McGinty himself (Brian Donlevy, reprising the role) for its framing device, while Hail the Conquering Hero blatantly and hilariously features a billboard advertisement for Morgan’s Creek in the background of one scene.
Both movies proved popular; Morgan’s Creek was Paramount’s biggest hit of the year. That film, unsurprisingly, also met with its share of controversy, with the censorial Hays code wary of an potential connection viewers might make between Trudy and the Virgin Mary (SPOILER ALERT: even more ridiculous: some members of the audience apparently believed that Trudy’s sextuplets were the result of numerous fathers which is not only very dumb, but also…very dark), while the War Department was concerned the picture would paint a negative portrait of enlisted soldiers (oddly, they had no such objections to Conquering Hero, a movie specifically about stolen valor).
More than almost any other subgenre, screwball comedies are equal part of their time and ahead of it. While the worldviews are very far removed, it’s not hard to imagine Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern watching these two films and getting some ideas for Dr. Strangelove, and the same is true of later war-oriented political farces (such as David Mamet’s Wag the Dog or Armando Iannuci’s In the Loop), as well as any number of individual moments throughout the films of the Coen Brothers and Aaron Sorkin.
But even within just the category of screwball comedies, none feel as startlingly fresh or timeless as those of Preston Sturges, his two war-time farces serving as the feather(s) in his cap.
“The Miracle at Morgan Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” are both streaming as part of the Criterion Channel’s “Screwball Comedies” program, and are screening in the “Written and Directed by Preston Sturges” series, running at New York City’s Film Forum through February 2nd.