Screwball!...Preston Sturges, Humility of Purpose and the Rules for Box-Office Appeal

Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges

Screwball comedy had its heyday in the 1930s. It was a film genre characterised by gender and class conflict, farcical situations and mistaken identity. It featured fast, witty dialogue, confident female leads and confused male counterparts. Critics have suggested that audiences needed escapism during the Depression, and the Hollywood studios needed sophisticated verbal sparring to subvert the restrictions of the Hays Code.

Preston Sturges was a master of screwball comedy. Films like ‘The Lady Eve,’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ and ‘The Palm Beach Story’ are all nailed-on classics. I think Sturges has a good deal to teach us in the modern era about the spirit of commercial creativity. He was serious about comedy and he poses compelling questions about social responsibility and populism - questions that still resonate today.

‘Don’t you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn’t you hear of the campaign promise?’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

Preston Sturges: The Embodiment of Commercial Creativity

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1889. His parents separated when he was very young and his childhood was divided between periods in the United States with his adopted father, a stockbroker, and travelling around Europe with his bohemian mother. She was a good friend of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, and Duncan’s company gave Sturges his first theatrical experience.

Sturges served in the US Army in World War I and worked as a store manager before gaining success as a playwright and then a screenwriter. Ultimately he wanted to direct his own scripts and in 1939 he sold his screenplay for ‘The Great McGinty’ to Paramount for just $1 on condition that he be allowed to direct. 

‘The Great McGinty’ was the first film to show the credit 'written and directed by...' followed by one name, and it went on to win the first Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay. And four of Sturges’s subsequent movies were chosen by the American Film Institute among the 100 funniest American films of all time.

‘You see, Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.’

Barbara Stanwyck to Henry Fonda, ‘The Lady Eve’

Sturges’s creativity was not constrained by his choice of career. Throughout his life he was an avid inventor. In 1920 he designed a kiss-proof lipstick, Red-Red Rouge. With varying degrees of success, he applied for patents for diverse products including a ticker tape machine, a hybrid helicopter-airplane and a hearing aid in the form of a telephone, the ‘Sturgephone.’ He also owned a nightclub on Sunset Strip, The Players, which featured revolving bandstands, tables that moved on tracks and ejector seats for drunks.

Preston Sturges clearly had a restless imagination, a breadth of interests, a fierce determination to succeed, and an ability to move beyond personal and professional setbacks. Above all, he seemed to be able to combine spirited entrepreneurism, business expertise and considerable creative talent. He was the embodiment of commercial creativity.

‘You can’t go around theatres handing out cards saying, ‘It ain’t my fault.’ You go onto the next one.’

Preston Sturges


‘Sullivan’s Travels:’ Humility of Purpose

In 1941 Sturges wrote and directed ‘Sullivan’s Travels.’ Like all his best work the film fizzes with witty wordplay and absurd adventures. But it also contemplates the role of cinema, and comedy in particular, in times of hardship and deprivation.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a hugely successful Hollywood director who has made his name with lightweight entertainments such as ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939.’ Sullivan determines that he will next make a more serious movie addressing the social issues of the day. The studio bosses naturally try to persuade their star director to stick to what he knows and to what makes them the most money.

 Sullivan: ‘I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan: ‘A little. But I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan (reluctantly) ‘With a little sex in it.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘How ‘bout a nice musical?’

It’s a conversation we recognise in the communications industry. So often we set out with purity of intent, but are seduced into compromise at every turn. ‘Perhaps just a little more product placement, a slightly more aspirational setting, a shown user? Maybe turn the Bunsen up on the branding? With a little sex in it… ‘

We all believe that creativity should work hand-in-hand with commerce to achieve best results. But so often we deal in a negotiated compromise between the two.

In any case, Sullivan presses on and decides that, before he makes a film which represents such a departure, he needs to do some field research. So he disguises himself as a hobo and sets out on the road. Inevitably our hero has a series of madcap adventures, farcical, far-fetched and forlorn. He has to deal with freight trains, soup kitchens and sleeping rough; hitchhiking, chain gangs and Veronica Lake.

Ultimately he finds himself in a labour camp watching a Disney cartoon. Seeing the joy on the audience’s faces, Sullivan realises that comedy can do more good for the downtrodden than any social realist drama or documentary.

‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’

‘Sullivan’s Travels’ has come to represent a significant touchstone for many comic writers. The serious work that Sullivan had been hoping to film was entitled ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film in that name was making a respectful nod to Sturges.

Sturges himself dedicated ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ ‘To the memory of those who made us laugh.’ And in his autobiography he explained his motivation for writing the movie:

‘After I saw a couple of pictures put out by my fellow comedy directors which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message, I wrote ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.’

I wonder what Preston Sturges would make of the modern world of marketing and communications; of our earnest commitment to Purpose and Values; and our enthusiasm for award-winning charity campaigns.

Do we sometimes ‘abandon the fun in favour of the message’? Do we occasionally get a little too ‘deep-dish?’ Should we consider ‘leaving the preaching to the preachers?’

I suspect that, while appreciating the good intent, Sturges would urge a greater sense of proportion and humility. Not every brand can address poverty, disease and malnutrition. Not every campaign can climb the mountaintop and make a stand for freedom, feminism and saving the babies. But all brands can make more modest social contributions through transparency, fair trade, fair pricing and good employment practices; through environmental and health responsibility; through paying their taxes and paying something back to the communities that support them.

Above all brands should feel proud if, like Sturges’s screwball comedies, they manage to bring just a little light into ordinary people’s everyday lives.


Preston Sturges’s Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal

At one stage in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Sullivan discusses with the studio bosses a previous ‘serious’ movie that was unsuccessful at the box-office.

Studio Boss 1: ‘It died in Pittsburgh.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘Like a dog!’

Sullivan: ‘Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh?’

Studio Boss 2: ‘They know what they like.’

Sullivan: ‘If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!’

The harsh verdict of the market is often frustrating to the creative community, and Sturges was certainly alert to the role of Box-Office as the ultimate arbiter of success. In the same year that he shot ‘Sullivan’s Travels,’ he formulated his Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal:

‘1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

2. A leg is better than an arm.

3. A bedroom is better than a living room.

4. An arrival is better than a departure.

5. A birth is better than a death.

6. A chase is better than a chat.

7. A dog is better than a landscape.

8.  A kitten is better than a dog.

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything’

One can imagine that these rules were composed with a mix of knowing expertise and ironic satire. They demonstrate that this great creative brain was not just concerned with grand themes and plotlines. He was well aware of the importance of executional detail.

Sturges’s Rules for Box-Office Appeal seem just as relevant to today’s world of YouTube clips and Instagram pics. Perhaps they serve to remind us that certain aspects of entertainment are timeless and universal. We can always depend on cats, babies, sex and human fallibility...


‘Anyway, men don’t get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

No. 86