Preston Sturges made his directorial debut in 1940 with the political satire "The Great McGinty" (Universal, $15), for which he won an Oscar for his original screenplay. Brian Donlevy, in his first starring role, plays a bribe-friendly bum who makes his way to the governor's mansion, thanks to the crooked political machine, only to lose it all when he decides to become honest. Akim Tamiroff is the corrupt political boss.
That same year, Sturges wrote and directed the sweet comedy "Christmas in July" (Universal, $15). Dick Powell is perfectly cast as a young working man who thinks he's won a big slogan contest and goes on a shopping spree. Unbeknownst to him, though, it's all been a practical joke. Ellen Drew and the always wonderful William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn also star.The year 1941 was a banner one for Sturges, who released his two greatest comedies:
"Sullivan's Travels" (Universal, $15) is a marvelously inspired comedy - and a delightful jab at the socially conscious films of the '30s - starring Joel McCrea as a successful director of entertainment films who decides to direct a "serious" movie. He dresses himself up as a hobo and sets out on the road to learn about poverty and despair. McCrea is wonderful and so is Veronica Lake as the young woman who accompanies him. The great supporting cast features such Sturges regulars as Demarest and Pangborn.
"The Lady Eve" (Universal, $15) is a near perfect comedy. Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn play two con artists who get more than they bargain for when they try to fleece a wealthy but naive beer tycoon (Henry Fonda).
Sturges and McCrea teamed up again for 1942's screwy romantic comedy "The Palm Beach Story" (Universal, $15), which features such colorful characters as the Wienie King and the members of the Ale & Quail Club. Claudette Colbert has a field day as McCrea's wife who decides to divorce him and find a wealthy new husband so she can finance McCrea's inventions. Rudy Vallee steals the film as an eccentric Palm Beach millionaire. Mary Astor also stars.
It's best to avoid the next Sturges and McCrea collaboration, the 1944 clunker "The Great Moment" (Universal, $15). The movie was taken out of Sturges' hands and re-edited. It's a clumsy, offbeat biopic about a Boston dentist who discovers that ether could be used as an anesthetic. This not-so-great "Moment" wavers uncomfortably between comedy and drama. Betty Field, Demarest and Pangborn also star.
Sturges, though, rebounded quickly that year with the terrific, biting satire "Hail the Conquering Hero" (Universal, $15). Eddie Bracken plays a frail young man - the son of his small town's greatest World War I hero - who is discharged from the Marines because of hay fever. When he returns home, though, the town believes he's a big war hero. Demarest steals the show as a fast-talking sergeant. Sturges received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay.
The same year, he received another Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the equally riotous skewering of American values, "Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (Universal, $15). Betty Hutton gives her best performance as a small-town girl who gets drunk at a party, marries a soldier on leave and returns home the next morning. Trouble ensues when she discovers she's pregnant and can't remember her husband's name. To avoid a scandal - she's expecting sextuplets - she tries to get a local nerd (Bracken) to marry her. The film's release was delayed a year due to censorship problems. Diana Lynn, Donlevy, Tamiroff and Demarest also star.