Preston Sturges Can You Save Me Now?

by Martha Polk

If you wake up every morning feeling like the world’s current storm of environmental catastrophe and political turmoil might just spell the end of it all, you are not alone. If you study maps of United States’ fault lines far more than the average geologically disinclined citizen and dream only and always of radioactive steam, you are also not alone. If you’re on the train just minding your own beeswax per usual when all of a sudden you start sweating instead of breathing because you accidentally remember that the American political discourse has so crudely departed from your own moral paradigm regarding, for instance, reproductive rights and healthcare and immigration and education and food and money and war and just generally what is good and right for a person trying to live a life … you are totally not alone! And finally, if your bones rattle with the paradox that the whole world is on fire and you still have time to eat Nutella and read the Hairpin, duh you’re not alone.

If, like me, you are not actively fleeing the tsunami, war, tea party, etc., you might think you need to just thank all kinds of lucky stars and shut up about feeling nervous all the time. This may be true, but it’s also OK if you need a little extra guidance through this period of totalizing chaos and abstract global anxiety. Luckily, there are lots of productive things to do in times like these. I like to surprise myself with fits of uncontrollable tears when my subway pass runs out or my shoe comes untied, for example. I also like to get disproportionately pissed about managing umbrellas in the wind. When there’s a line for the dryers at the laundromat, I throw up all over. It’s just that easy! When you’re eating coffee for lunch and gin for dinner, and staring expressionless in the mirror for breakfast, you know you’ve made it — you’re finally coping with those pesky notions of impending apocalypse.

But there’s one more sure-fire self-help trick I’d be selfish not to share. With that, I kindly offer up this Netflix-Instant programming suggestion. It is called, PRESTON STURGES CAN YOU SAVE ME NOW?

From 1940–1944, while the whole world was freaking out, Preston Sturges made nine silly movies about upper-class white people’s trivialities. It’s tempting to write off these films as escapist, just a bunch of knee-slapping romps, the sad fantasies of a downtrodden WWII America, but these movies are also about human beings sprinting, flailing, desperate to love each other and be loved in a world that makes no sense. They’re about finding a way to acknowledge the world as mostly terrible and 100% preposterous while garnering enough faith and hope to clear a path through it. They’re also about the brutality of capitalism, as it turns out. And lastly, these flicks could never be ‘pure entertainment’ or some other trite classification if only because they’re just too doggone inspiring.

In all their silliness and seeming inconsequentiality, they are proof that, if given the chance (that’s a big if, by the way), we humans can play and dance and slap each others’ asses despite global meltdown. Of course there are plenty other, more directly effective things to do in the case of environmental crisis and sociopolitical disarray (see crying at untied shoe, etc.), but the act of proving our species’ will to laugh amid the horror is no small potatoes. Performing our humanity in inhumane times — that’s what these movies did, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving in an overwhelmingly freaky 2011. If we do this right, we’ll be chasing tail and slipping on banana peels and making fun of old people right through to the last shit-eating grin we give our dark, consuming finale.

And so then! Now streaming on Netflix-Instant, PRESTON STURGES CAN YOU SAVE ME NOW:

In The Palm Beach Story (1942), Claudette Colbert sucks at being a woman because she can’t cook or sew, and Joel McCrea sucks at being a man because he’s so bad at raking in the greenbacks. Obviously this means they have to take a hilariously wrought journey to Palm Beach to get a divorce. Stop worrying about why divorces were only possible in select American cities and start celebrating; it means we get a full 40 minutes of debauchery on a train! This includes Claudette Colbert wearing really huge pajammers, a room full of singing dogs, and a black bartender (Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones) who — though stereotyped to minstrel show excess — performs a brilliantly tacit pun by throwing up literal crackers off the bar as target practice for a host of real live gun-toting passengers.

The most difficult part of this movie is keeping track of who’s a rattlebrain and who’s a snake in the grass, who’s a nincompoop and who’s a stinkweed, and who’s just a good ole fashioned dripdrap. Probably doesn’t matter, though — it’s clear it’s all just a bunch of malarkey anyway. Maybe the number one example of such ballyhoo is this hair-raising anachronism from Joel McCrea: “You’re a very embarrassing lady — if I weren’t a little mixed up at the moment I’d take ya up on a few of your dares and make you say papa.” WHAT!??!!? The ultimate joke’s on Claudette Colbert, though, who tries so hard the whole movie to marry rich (even if his name is Snoodles!) and just generally be the gal the world wants her to be, until the absurdity of it all forces her to remember that having someone who loves you futz with your zipper is where it’s at — all of it.

The Lady Eve (1941) finally makes some good sense of murky topics like the world’s genesis and original sin; it’s a lot easier to understand how we got here when the mythic Eve is a sassy-as-hell cardshark who knows everything — including, for instance, that you can wear a sparkly bra type thing with a long sparkly skirt that hangs from ribs to heels no matter the occasion, and also that life is one big effing joke. She also knows that these two facts are not wholly unrelated. And it’s all second nature to Barbara Stanwyck, who charges through this movie like she owns it, meeting everything — men, disappointment, sofas — with sharp-eyed wit. So what is our Adam to do but fall in love with her? Sure, he’s trapped from the get-go in a tornado of feminine scheming and sex appeal, but it’s because he’s a bumbling idiot of breathtaking proportions and, then as it is now, whose fault is that really?

Luckily, Henry Fonda’s performance as the original numbnut kind of demands that you blame him as much as her for all of human folly. It’s perplexing, what Fonda pulls off here — poised in his performance of utter vacuousness, downright enthralling with his empty, glassy eyes. It’s the kind of vexing thing where you know he has to be so smart to play so stupid. Dizzy and totally humorless, Fonda pretty much exclusively says things like, “Why I’m just cockeyed on your perfume!” and, “Well you certainly had me fooled!” and, finally, “Snakes are my life!” Yups, Sturges couldn’t resist pushing the allegory so far as to make Fonda/Adam a pseudo-scientist obsessed with snakes, a fact that becomes even more brilliant once we learn that such people are actually called ophiologists. And when Stanwyck first spots this oafiologist who’s so taken with evil, I mean snakes, she just chucks an apple at his head. She is that on top of her game!

So the whole film is this wild dance about how much she’s gonna dupe this bozo, and despite or maybe because of all the hilarity that ensues, by the end we’re convinced that in tricking the world you’ll probably just end up tricking yourself. So you come away from The Lady Eve with all these profound feelings about how to be a person in the world, and you’re not quite certain how Sturges’ magic worked on you this time, but you’ve got a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with that bit about the blustery fat dad character wanting breakfast so badly, and also that schtick with the horse who keeps snuggling and nuzzling at the most inconvenient times, and also that stink-eyed male governess named Mugsy.

Previously: Newman’s Ownly: A Film-and-Food Experience.

Martha Polk writes about women and movies.