There may not be any experience I envy the fresh-eyed newbie more than the first confrontation with the films of Preston Sturges. These hellzapoppin' comedies are wall-to-wall talk, and that talk has a rambunctious life force, textural depth, and hailstorm wit that is impossible to mistake for the work of another man. Filled with anxiety and double meanings, Sturges's films are comic machines too busy throwing pistons and belching fumes to perform a regular movie's mundane work. Furthermore, Sturges's films pivot on adult issues that were otherwise verboten to filmmakers in the '40s, waxing maniacal on profane and unseemly topics just by way of ballistic speed and hullabaloo.
His career as a director/writer/auteur was brief, and that its halcyon days perfectly spanned the war years is no small irony: Sturges's brand of acidic hysteria was terminally out of fashion in a culture swooning with comfortable nationalism and home-front ardor. He began as a playwright and then a Hollywood wunderkind scriptsmith, establishing through the '30s a weighty reputation as the snappiest banter pro in town and eventually hawking the screenplay of The Great McGinty (1940) for $10 to Paramount on the condition that he direct it as well. A droll satire on corrupt politics, McGinty was a particularly nasty portrait of an amoral louse rising from homelessness to the governor's mansion by sole virtue of his amorality—but then Sturges hit his stride, represented in this must-have DVD box by just five years' worth of work on seven films, from McGinty to 1944's The Great Moment, each a precision instrument designed to shred the tender flesh of American self-regard into hamburger.
How the set manages to elide 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek—Sturges's most explosive and frantic movie—is a shamefaced mystery. But Sturges's films are oysters: Each is a luxury you're a fool to take for granted. The Lady Eve (1941) is his most conventional movie but also his most hair-raisingly sexual, with Barbara Stanwyck toying like an lazy jungle cat with Henry Fonda, driven to a sweaty boil that forever defines what it feels like to be so aroused you trip over your own feet. Sullivan's Travels (1941) is a farce about a pretentious Hollywood writer-director (Joel McCrea) who discontentedly goes off-road into Depression-era bumhood to discover what the populace really wants from Hollywood. A ferocious wartime freak, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) dared to mock, viciously, the American worship of war heroes, love of meaningless pomp, and devotion to self-congratulating provincialism.
Because Sturges did nearly everything on his films himself, his obsessions and beliefs are right there, locked into every scene: the troubling conviction that in America you are essentially what others think you are, the notion that Middle America harbors the lunatic kinks of an inbred mountain family, the genuinely warming regard for the whole unholy shebang. But none of it would mean anything if it weren't funny, and funny is what Sturges knew like a kid knows his own tree house.