When I was a kid, my sisters and I used to play with the record player. We loved to speed it up to make it sound like Mickey Mouse. I mention it because when I watch Preston Sturges’ films, I feel like the record player has become stuck on Mickey Mouse mode: everyone is running, shouting, falling, frantic. There are actors whose characteristics are uniquely suited to Sturges’ pace: Eddie Bracken’s exaggerated physicality, for example. Barbara Stanywck’s rapid speech.
Much of the humor of writer/director Sturges’ worlds is when someone slower enters the stage, and can’t keep up. Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve is so out of place that Sturges felt the need to underline it by having him reach the ship full of con artists and gold diggers in a small boat that’s been “up the Amazon.”
But certain actors do more than act as foils to Sturges’ frantic pace. They change the terms, slow things down, act as resistors to his electric current. They are part of the Sturges world, and wise about their companions, not naive, like Fonda’s Charles. We don’t laugh at them, but with them as they, like older siblings, view The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek-type mania around them, and urge everyone to settle down. Joel McCrea was the perfect Sturges resistor.
In The Palm Beach Story, he arrives in Florida to discover his wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert) flirting with J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Valee), scheming to apply the millionaire’s funds to her husband’s projects. As he tries to reason with her, Tom (McCrea) finds the dizzy chatterbox The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) flitting about his handsome form, and his own competition so woefully naive that he serenades Gerry. On McCrea’s face you can see as well as hear the sigh, the “Now this,” the years of putting up with his wife’s silliness, and now these idiots, and you can’t help but laugh.
Without grandstanding, without chewing the scenery, McCrea has stolen our attention from the mesmerizing Colbert with a few perfect expressions and the solidity of his presence. Suddenly, we’re rooting for him, for them, not for her success. Given the amount of his screen time, it’s a remarkable achievement, and makes you realize why Sturges would nab him for three of his films.
McCrea was even more essential, of course, to Sullivan’s Travels, which came out the year before. Consider the challenge: The lead must act as a stand-in for Sturges, pronouncing the need for comedy in times of trouble. Sullivan (McCrea) is, like Sturges, a director, who thinks he should experience poverty so that he can direct meaningful dramas instead of his usual farces. If the star of Sullivan’s Travels preaches the final lines or overplays his insights (in the theater with the convicts) about the value of comedy, the film becomes hokey. If the character comes across as stupid in not realizing humor’s importance earlier, the ending will feel forced. The actor must, in short, act naive/be deluded at the start of the film, but not be naive. An intelligent, understated performance is essential to delivering Sturges’ message, which is really an endorsement of his entire career (and thus not something he could have taken lightly). And so Sturges chose McCrea.
When we talk about comic timing, we often think of rapidity. But McCrea’s calming presence is part of what makes him so funny. While others around him continue their frantic scrambling, he walks and talks fairly slowly, his deliberation in sharp contrast to their quicker motions and thoughts. He underscores their rush, and makes us laugh. As Sullivan, he is very observant, as a comedic director should be, and gives us just enough of a pause to witness, to understand as he does. As in The More the Merrier, a brilliant comedy Sturges didn’t direct, McCrea gives us the space to recognize the layers of his personality, with Sturges’ regular troop (in this case, following their director in a motor home) left to be the screwball types who summon the simpler laughs.
Although I think most would call Sullivan’s Travels the perfect Sturges-McCrea pairing, I wish fewer people would dismiss The Great Moment. Because it’s not a comedy, of course, it flopped. (A drama? From Sturges?) But it’s truly a remarkable biopic. A dentist, Dr. W. T. Morgan (McCrea), publicly demonstrated the use of ether in an operation in 1846, and therefore helped make all of our surgeries since less painful. But it seems Morgan displayed less admirable behavior afterward, was more intent on getting credit than in the useful application of his discovery. Sturges highlights something beautiful about the man’s life by beginning after his death (after a short scene celebrating his biggest success), and ending the movie with Morgan’s decision to expose his discovery in this public demonstration (thus making unlikely his success in patenting).
The movie isn’t about the main character at all, but instead about an idea: Does an “incandescent” moment, a moment of self-sacrifice for others, make up for the pettiness of one’s life? It’s this rising above the history of events that I so rarely see in biopics, this understanding that recording events isn’t enough; you have to be saying something about them. McCrea’s measured timing lends a kind of gravity and dignity to the role, lets us see the heaviness and pain of Morgan’s decision to sacrifice for others.
And because McCrea is so likeable, we’re able to acknowledge the character’s usual selfishness (at least as Sturges saw it), and understand it too. I can’t say it’s my favorite film of Sturges’, but it has stuck with me; I find it haunting, which is surprising given Sturges’ light touch. I wish more aspiring directors would learn from it.
Joel McCrea was in three of Preston Sturges’ films, two of his most famous. I know I should be grateful to have that many, but oh! How I wish there were more.
Don’t forget to check out the other entries in the blogathon!