Sturges’ Travels : MADCAP The Life of Preston Sturges <i> by Donald Spoto (Little, Brown: $14.95; 301 pp.; 0-316-80726-5) </i>


Preston Sturges was his momma’s boy. When a woman embarking on an affair with the film maker asked what had happened to her remains, he pointed to an urn by the bed and announced: “There are mother’s ashes.” His startled bedmate (who had graduated from secretary to lover) fled to the bathroom in horror.

If Sturges hadn’t already been doing battle with the Hays Office (whose stern codes inspired him to nickname sex “topic A”), the scene would have fit neatly into one of his swimmingly sleek screwball comedies. As it is, anyone who has marveled at Sturges’ comic ingenuity will experience a shock of recognition perusing “Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges,” Donald Spoto’s new biography of Hollywood’s most fanciful satirist.

After a checkered career as a Broadway playwright, Sturges blossomed on the screen, penning delightful late-’30s comedies (including “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night”) before embarking on a fistful of witty 1940s screwball wonders that lampooned Tammany Hall hacks, advertising gimmickry and patriotic bluster. Buoyed by sassy dialogue and jammed with kooks and cranks, Sturges’ films joyfully played the American dream as slapstick farce.


A native Chicagoan who spent much of his childhood overseas, Sturges had both an outsider’s appreciation for the American idiom and an insider’s feel for its tart, syncopated rhythms. Whether they are cast as cabdrivers, hoodlums or millionaires, his raffish characters wisecrack with a ferocious zest for zingers. After spending a year up the Amazon in “The Lady Eve,” ale heir Henry Fonda confides to Barbara Stanwyck: “Snakes are my life.” To which she snaps: “What a life!”

Hollywood’s first true writer-director, Sturges often gave his best lines to his floating stock company of character actors. Celebrating the spoils system in “The Great McGinty,” William Demarest plays a conniving ward heeler who explains: “If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics--men without ambition.” As a bartender taking a customer’s order for the first drink of his life, Edgar Kennedy proudly intones: “Sir, you rouse the artist in me.”

Sturges’ films defy summary. A perpetual tinkerer who once invented a kiss-proof lipstick, Sturges delighted in concocting labyrinthine plots that careened along at a breakneck pace, fueled by deliriously improbable comic tumult.

As “Madcap” makes abundantly clear, Sturges owed much of his narrative imagination to his mother, Mary Dempsey, an impetuous woman of Irish origin who fancied herself an artiste . Mary possessed such a lively fantasy life that she often claimed to be the offspring of a distinguished Italian prince named d’Este, who had arrived in Ireland on the lam after a romantic duel.

An able, informative biographer, Spoto is at his best describing Sturges’ impossibly exotic upbringing. It seems evident that mother Mary provided Sturges with a rich diet of childhood adventures, but little maternal nourishment.

When Preston was 2, Mary left Sturges’ father (a man who later tried to blackmail his son when his engagement to an heiress was announced). Mother and son embarked on a tour of Europe with Mary’s new pal, dancer Isadora Duncan, who nursed baby Preston through a bout of pneumonia with spoonfuls of Champagne. At age 12, Sturges met Theda Bara, who stayed briefly with Mary, intoxicating Preston with her “dark and snaky” carnality. Shortly afterwards, Mary had a torrid affair with Aleister Crowley, then at the height of his occult popularity (by the time Preston met the pair at Christmas his mother was calling herself Soror Virakam).

It seems evident that these misadventures were perfect fodder for Sturges’ career as a farceur. Spoto’s account of the break-up of Mary’s marriage to her third husband, a wealthy, unpredictable Turk named Vely Bey, reads like an outtake from one of Sturges’ woolly 1940s comedies. When young Preston laughed too loudly at the theater one night, Bey slapped him in the face, prompting a wild donnybrook that continued throughout the taxi ride home. The cabbie hailed several cops, but Bey dismissed the brawl as a family quarrel. “That is a dirty lie!” Mary retorted. “I’ve never seen this man before in my life!” (Bey lived long afterwards, but when Mary next married, she listed herself on the license as his widow.)

By age 17, Sturges was living alone in New York City, managing one of his mother’s cosmetic stores while she was off romancing more suitors. Of her amorous escapades, Sturges dryly noted: “I found that wherever Mother went, there was a man.”

It’s impossible to calculate how much this rootless existence contributed to Sturges’ own domestic instability later in life--he matched his mother’s four marriages with a quartet of his own, with numerous affairs along the way. Surely the tumult and instability left its mark on his work, which overflows with marital complications.

“The Palm Beach Story” ends with a triple wedding, involving two sets of identical twins and one couple who have pretended to be siblings for most of the film. “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” features spoofs of virgin birth and bigamy, concluding with the surprise birth of sextuplets. “The Lady Eve” offers a complicated comic tale of romantic revenge involving dual identities and false confessions of premarital indiscretions.

Sturges’ own chaotic love life offered a wealth of story material. While Sturges was courting his second wife, heiress Eleanor Post Hutton, her family was so concerned about his intentions that they had their prospective son-in-law followed by private detectives. The couple, in true Sturges fashion, eloped.

The marriage, like Sturges’ other early couplings, soon failed. It seemed impossible for Sturges to savor domestic bliss--whenever he would get comfortable, he would roil the waters. His work relations were rocky too. Even as a screenwriter for Paramount in the 1930s, Sturges was far more devoted to running his nightclub, the Players, than delivering his scripts on time.

Finally, after years of dickering, he persuaded Paramount to let him direct “The Great McGinty” with an offer they couldn’t refuse--he sold them the script for $10.

The audacious gamble paid off. In an amazing burst of creativity, he proceeded to make eight hit films between December 1939 and September 1943. How did Sturges manage to harness his wayward muse? Spoto offers some tentative theories, but largely leaves this mystery unsolved.

As with most biographers today, Spoto seems more interested in life than art. He provides rich details--Veronica Lake was so pregnant when she starred in “Sullivan’s Travels” that she gave birth exactly one month after the film’s last take. But we get little sense of what made “Travels,” perhaps Hollywood’s first post-modern fable to wrestle with the merits of art vs. commerce, such a strikingly self-conscious work.

Spoto’s failure to probe Sturges’ skills as a screenwriter is also a major disappointment. Unimpressed by Sturges’ keen ear for gaudy slang, Spoto writes: “His writing was simply a congenial occupation, a means to earn a comfortable living. . . . But he never had the sense that for growth the writer’s life requires a strategy of some discipline and reflection.”

Sturges certainly had no knack for career moves. At the peak of his fortunes, he abruptly left Paramount and signed with budding Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes, who would arrive, unannounced, at Sturges’ house at midnight, ready to take a meeting.

It was a ruinous partnership. Their first project, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” starred Harold Lloyd, a then-forgotten silent-film star, and an obscure actress with whom Sturges was having a very public affair. The result was a box-office bomb. After a disastrous three years together, the unlikely business team went their separate ways. But by then Sturges had lost his box-office magic--and he never regained his creative momentum.

Just before his death, Sturges wrote a friend that his house remained filled with his mother’s pictures and possessions. Years before, she had reminded her son: “For Art one gives his all. Only she is a jealous mistress and will permit no other gods.” The day she died she told Sturges to keep her old bed in his home. “If you’re ever heartsick or weary, lie down on it. I’ll come and put my arms around you and everything will be all right.”

Ever the dramatist, Sturges may have embellished his mother’s deathbed speech. But he took her advice to heart. He made wonderful films, and he slept in her bed every night.