Sturges, Preston: Auteur–Small-Town America in his Work

Like other major filmmakers, Preston Sturges also made movies about small towns during the World War II. However, compared with most of Hollywood’s war products set in small towns (Tortilla Flat, The Human Comedy, The Fighting Sullivans, Medal for Benny), in theme, wit, and style, Sturges’s films seem to have been created in another country and another era.

In similar vein to Welles and Hitchcock, both intrigued with exposing the darker and invisible facets of small-towns, Sturges confronted his subject matter in an original mode, turning upside down the established conventions of Hollywood’s portraiture of small-town life. The eccentricity of Sturges’s characters was meant to demonstrate the more multifarious and resourceful nature of small-town folks who only appear” to be plain and ordinary.

Sturges’s comedies, beginning with Sullivan’s Travel (1941), reflected the influence of film noir on every genre at the time, including screwball comedies. Along with Billy Wilder, whose directorial career began at the same time, Sturges embodies in his films a cynical view, exposing the downbeat side of “normal” American life. As Allan Silver has observed, Sturges incorporated into his comedies “noirish sentiments of meaninglessness and abject existentialism.”

Flaunting a caustic and crackling dialogue, his comedies portray not winners, but losers, individuals who resort to absurd strategies to survive the day. Sturges’s protagonists refuse to accept “the hand of fate” as a controlling force of their lives, attempting to overcome insurmountable obstacles; that they seldom succeed is beside the point. Moreover, unlike typical noir heroes, his are not weary or beaten by life, always hoping that life would turn out better for them. Sturges’s brilliant style combines sparkling narrative situations with witty dialogue, mixing farce and slapstick with a subtle and sophisticated brand of American comedy.

In Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (both in 1944), Sturges expresses ambivalent emotions toward basic American values and institutions. Hail centers around an army reject who is accidentally thought to be a war hero, whereas Miracle is a satirical folktale, spoofing just about every sacred mores, including motherhood. Indeed, in his review of Miracle, Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 20, l944) wondered how Sturges “ever got away with such a thing, how he persuaded the Hays Office he wasn’t trying to undermine all morals.”

The film’s release was delayed for several months because of censorship problems, but the approved version was most satisfactory to the director. A young girl goes out with a solider, and the next thing she knows, she has a wedding ring and is pregnant, lacking the slightest idea as to her husband’s identity or whereabouts. In despair, she turns to her childhood friend who always loved her, “trapping” him into marriage. But at the end, she “redeems” herself by marrying him and giving birth to sextuplets, all boys.

The film acknowledges humorously its political context. A montage of international newspapers shows the reaction of the two Fascist leaders, Hitler and Mussolini, who seem to jump off the front pages upon hearing about the sextuplets.

Some viewers were apparently outraged by Miracle’s plot device. “Many letters have been received here,” wrote Sturges, “including bitterly denunciatory ones from analphabets who believed the sextuplets were the result of the heroine having been promiscuous with six different men.” “Education,” Sturges noted, “though compulsory, seems to be spreading slowly.”

No issue or profession is too sacred for Sturges’s biting sting, least of all politicians. The Governor (Brian Donlevy) initially doesn’t even recognize the town’s name. “What was the town again Is it in my state I never heard of it.” By contrast, believing that Morgan’s Creek will be the most famous town in America, the newspaper’s editor asks for “State Police, food, water, beds, and blankets.” “You got a flood or did you strike oil, or something” inquires the governor. “Get a map of the State and make sure Morgan’s Creek is in it,” he instructs, “If it isn’t, we might be able to persuade them to move over or something.” He then advises the political boss (Akim Tamiroff): “You better get down to Morgan’s Creek and buy up a few choice corners–some hotel sites maybe, and the bus franchise will be very valuable.” At this point, the governor announces: “This is the biggest thing that’s happened to this state since we stole it from the Indians.” “Borrowed, not stolen,” the boss corrects him.

Each character in Miracle is an eccentric individual, not a type. Sturges reverses the prevalent images of the boy and girl next-door and inverts the meanings of masculinity and femininity, spoofing machismo as well as female domesticity. Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is anything but the innocent or repressed small-town girl; assertive, she loves the company of men.

Trudy wants to have fun, always seeking to be the center of attention. In an early scene, she is seen singing to admiring male customers in her record store. Later, surrounded by soldiers, she drives Norval’s borrowed convertible. Trudy has boundless energy. “I never get tired,” she boasts to her sister, and Sturges shows Trudy going from one party to another. Trudy is also manipulative, repeatedly abusing Norval’s trust. Trudy combines traits of the girl-next-door and the town’s popular girl (most small-town films separate between the two types).

It is the boy, Norval (Eddie Bracken), not Trudy, who longs for conformity to conventional middle-class values: Marriage and domesticity. Exempt from military service with 4-F, he says: “Every time they start to examine me, I become so excited, I get the spots!”

Norval lacks control over his two main goals: to fight in the war and to marry Trudy. A bank clerk, he is an orphan living with the Johnsons, the town’s lawyer and his wife. Full of doubts, all of his fears materialize in the film, including going to jail. A helpless, yet sincere boy, Norval has the kind of romanticism that’s genuine and heart-felt. It is therefore ironic that, by sheer accident, Norval becomes the symbol of virility: the father of six boys.

Trudy’s widower father, officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), is the town’s constable. A severe man, his favorite recreational activity is to clean his gun on the front porch. Trudy’s sister Emma (Diana Lynn), a 14-year-old brat, defies her father’s authority, lacking any respect for him. “I think you have a mind like a swamp!” she tells her father. Contemptuous of his coarseness, Emma wishes he would be “a little more refined.”

Her father’s aggressiveness is both verbal and physical, kicking Emma around, telling her she has “ladder legs,” etc. But every once in a while, when both are in a quiet mood, Emma enjoys sitting on his lap. Emma is brighter and more sophisticated than Trudy; she is the type of girl who in a more conventional movie would leave town for the Big City. It’s Emma who gives Trudy the idea to marry Norval–to save her face. “He was made to be a patsy,” says Emma, “like the ox was made to eat, and the grape was made to drink.”

When a soldier asks, “which church is giving the dance tonight” the father’s angry response is, “How many churches you think we got” It is one of the film’s few direct references to the town as a whole. Shot on the studio lot, there are not many outdoor scenes. The town, shown when Trudy and Norval stroll along, is clean-looking with white picket fences and large yards; the residents like to sit on their front porches and observe the scene. Its landmarks are the typical institutions: the movie house, the drugstore, the gas station, the pool hall.

However, even here, Sturges deviates from conventions. Trudy and Norval go to the moviehouse, not to watch a film or to “neck,” she drops him there, so that she can borrow his car and have fun with other men.

There is, of course, gossip, especially when it concerns courtship and love, but the gossip is not malicious. The bank’s president, Mr. Tuerck (Emory Parnell) tells Norval he heard about his engagement to Trudy from Mr. Shottish, the neighbor who spotted Norval in the morning, after presumably a wild night on the town (ironically, Norval spent the night by himself, waiting for Trudy to come back). “It is none of his personal business,” Mr. Tuerck says, “what time you get home in the morning, or how drunk you are when you do get home,” but “it’s the bank’s business. “A man in a bank is like a fellow crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, he cannot be too careful.”

Desperate over her pregnancy and with no solution in sight, Trudy says she will jump into the river together. Norval’s objection to her idea is rational: It won’t work because “there’s not much water at this time of year.” Trudy then suggests gas poisoning, but this is also unacceptable. “What’s the matter with bigamy” he asks.

At the end, trapping Norval into marrying her, Trudy becomes a legitimate mother. “You’re a papa now,” she says, specifying his new obligations: “The papa gives love and protection.” Norval is the ultra adjustable type, always adapting to the needs of others, aiming to please. As viewers, we are told that Norval “recovered and became increasingly happy.” And Shakespeare is used for the film’s coda: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Norval has greatness thrust upon him.

Miracle debunks many prevalent myths of small-town America. The town’s normal state of being is not order, but disorder; chaos is the norm. The residents crave to achieve celebrity status, do anything” that would alleviate them from humdrum lives. Sturges takes the most basic events, marriage and birth, and turns them upside down, showing their comic and horrible effects. “No one’s going to believe something good if they can believe something bad,” says Emma, expressing Sturges’s view of small towns. “You don’t know what to expect in a town like this,” she explains, “a town that can produce schnooks like Papa, always suspicious and suspecting the worst in everything.”
In Hail the Conquering Hero, a companion piece to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Sturges’ targets are both the public (the fetish of heroism) and domestic (the cult of momism) domains. Sturges probes into society’s need for heroes, and the ease with which such heroes are fabricated and revered by the masses.

Once again, ironies abound in the film. The hero, boasting the long and prestigious name of Woodraw Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), is an orphan whose father was a war hero. Embarrassed over the fact that he was dismissed from service because of chronic hay fever, he lies to his mother that he had fought with the Marines, concealing the fact that he is actually working in a shipyard. A group of Marines in a San Francisco bar take his story one step further, determined to make him a War hero in his own town. What his sponsors don’t realize is the mass hysteria induced by the hero-worshipping crowds.

The comedy offers a witty commentary on demagoguery and mob behavior, suggesting that as easily as a crowd could be persuaded to lynch an innocent man, it could also be susceptible to accept phonies as heroes. Practically the whole town of Oakridge is at the train station to greet Woodraw with not one but four bands. “I’m a haunted man for the rest of my life,” says Woodraw helplessly, realizing he is trapped in a position over which he has no control.

A comparison between Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero is in order, not only because they were made in the same year and shot on the same Paramount backlot, but also because they feature Sturges’s great ensemble of character players.

The hero in both films is played by Eddie Bracken, though his role is quite different. In Miracle, Bracken is an orphan living at the periphery of town, but ending at its center by accident, through manipulations of others. In Hail, Woodraw is also fatherless, but he boasts a prestigious lineage. Woodraw was reared in the shadow of his father, Hinky Dinky, a brave Marine who died in action in WWI, and his Congressional Medal of Honor. “I grew up with it,” says the exasperated Woodraw, “They hung it on me.” His grandfather, also in the military, continued to wear his Civil War uniform for the rest of his life.

In Hail, Woodraw is not completely innocent; after all, he initiates the fraud. He is responsible at least in part for the mess in his life. But if Woodraw is initially a small impostor, his fraud gets bigger and bigger, reaching a point where it becomes disproportionate to the original conceit.

The reverend Dr. Upperman states at Church that the mortgage on Woodraw’s mother’s home will be paid by the town. The incumbent mayor (ironically named Everett Noble) and the boss are both corrupt. The judge wishes Woodraw would run for mayor: the town needs someone who’ll help them “transcend their own lives and interests.” He thinks that Woodraw possesses two great assets, honesty and popularity, and that he has a “natural flavor for politics.” Honesty is not sufficient in itself. The other candidate, Doc Bissell, a veterinarian, is an honest man, but nobody would vote for him other than his brother; there are even doubts whether his wife would.

Woodraw tries to explain that his medals were pinned on him by mistake, but no one will listen. Hail the Conquering Hero shows society’s desperate need for heroes, even if they are fake, and that heroes are not expected to substantiate their claim to celebrity. “I been a hero, you could call it that, for twenty five years,” says Sergeant Heffelinger, “and does anybody ask me what I done” If they asked him, he could hardly tell, as he has told it “so different so many times.”

The statue of General Zabriski, which decorates the town’s square, also suffers from obscurity. “All everybody knows is he’s hero,” but no one could identify him or say why he became a hero. The only difference between Zabriski and Heffelinger is that the birds sit on the former’s statue.

The most outrageous character in Hail is Bugsy (Freddie Steele), the marine who “got a little shot.” Obsessed with mothers, he is shocked to hear that Woodraw has not visited home. “That’s a terrible thing to do to your mother,” he says, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Obsession with motherhood prevails from the very first scene, in a San Francisco bar, where a singer sings: “Home to the arms of Mother. Safe from the world’s alarms. As you stood in the gloaming. To welcome me home. Home to the arms of Mother. Never again to roam!”

Touching familiar chords, Woodraw asks for another song, “something gay.” Woodraw is mother-fixated, his behavior motivated by a strong need to please his mom. “I know you meant it for me, no matter what anyone else might think,” says his mother.

And at the end, when Woodraw resolves to leave town, he tells his mother: “If I can find a nice place, I’ll send for you.” Back in town, Woodraw has no time for himself and no privacy. Sturges pits Woodraw, the hapless individual, against the Marines, the bands, the Judge’s delegation, and the town’s crowd.

Sturges’s visual framing is extremely busy, always cramped with many people. Lacking depth or background, they convey the frantic world his narratives are set in. Yet, as James Harvey noted, “no one in a Sturges’s crowd fails to register his special and unique relation to it and to the others.”

It’s not an anonymous, faceless crowd. As a town, Oakridge is more individualized and richly characterized than Morgan’s Creek: It is a close-knit community, with a strong “we” feeling. With all their eccentricities and peculiarities, the characters in Sturges’s film are integrated within larger contexts, as members of social groups, and the interest of such groups is always superior to the individual’s.

For example, the Marines who bring Woodraw back to town are unified in an intimate camaraderie. The warm welcome they receive, particularly from Woodraw’s mother, makes them want to stay in town. They adopt Woodraw, taking care of him; Bugsy, for example, watches Woodraw while he’s asleep. But the Marines are outsiders and, at the end, they have to leave town so that order and equilibrium could be restored. Creating chaos and precipitating a chain of events they themselves could not have foreseen, their departure is necessary. At the last scene, again set at the train station, the whole town waves goodbye to the Marines.

Woodraw is also an outsider, but temporarily so. The town is willing to do anything to embrace him–not only to make him an insider but also to crown him as its leader. When Woodraw tells his former sweetheart Libby (Ella Raines) that he is a phony, she exclaims in disbelief, “You! A phony”

Sturges reverses another convention: In most war films, it’s the girlfriend or wife who are unfaithful, dating others while their men are fighting (Medal for Benny, Best Years of Our Lives). However, in Hail, Woodraw decides to release Libby from commitment to their relationship.

Another strategy Woodraw considers is to start an honest life somewhere else. Standing on a platform at the political rally, Woodraw finally confesses his deception, taking the whole blame on himself. “I stole your admiration,” he says, “I stole the ribbons I wore, I stole the nomination.” Relieved of the burden he has carried, Woodraw feels like a “coward, at last cured of his fear.” But Woodraw’s revelation demonstrates that he is honest, making him a real hero. He is nominated again, this time for his true self. Woodraw thus becomes a local hero in spite of himself.

In both Miracle and Hail, Sturges’s style is hyperbolic and the pace rapid. His camera moves fast, recording people who are always on the move; there are many pratfalls. An example of Sturges’s touch is the hospital sequence in Miracle, with the nurse running in panic in and out of Trudy’s room, bringing a blanket for the first baby, then another blanket, and another….

The hectic speed of Miracle and Hail reflects the notion of life in constant motion, of dynamic reality, even in small towns. In Hail, and to a lesser extent in Miracle, Sturges uses the basic paradigm of balance, followed by disruption and imbalance, and then back to balance. However, Sturges’ small towns never seem to be in total balance or complete equilibrium.

Sturges’s vision of small town life is richer and more complex than Capra’s, stressing inherent tensions, contradictions, and ironies. In Capra’s message-oriented films, appearances are deceiving and one has to dig deeper to reveal the genuine human essences buried underneath (most women in Capra’s films begin as deceivers, but later reveal themselves to be honest). By contrast, in Sturges’s work, appearances have their own reality and logic, and as such, are just as important as the other, presumably “deeper essences.”