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Interview: Tom Sturges Talks Life, Cinema, and His Dad Preston Sturges

Talking to Tom Sturges is like talking to someone you’d meet at the TCM Classic Film Festival. For starters, he kicks things off by asking how I discovered his dad, director Preston Sturges in the first place. In our 42-minute conversation, not all of which made it into this written interview, we chatted about everything from the way Preston Sturges created sexiness to Tom Sturges’ books and how to overcome writer’s block (which I’m taking to heart). He also was gracious enough to send me an actual Preston Sturges canceled check, dated on my birthday, to help me begin what I hope is a classic film autograph collection!

He’s due to sit down at the Film Forum in New York this week to introduce his father’s feature, The Lady Eve, celebrating its 78th anniversary and took time to discuss his dad’s legacy.

Tom Sturges: How did you discover him [Preston Sturges]? 

Kristen Lopez: I’m a Veronica Lake fangirl so I watched I Married a Witch which I knew he wrote but didn’t direct, and that got me into seeing Sullivan’s Travels where I maintain she did her best work.

TS: Let me tell you, I don’t know how my dad got away with this one. There’s a scene of her that is just so sexy [in that movie]. It’s unbelievable that they put it in the movie. This is after they get rescued and she’s in the shower in that trailer they were roaming around in. Everything’s shapely and she pulls the shower curtain up against her body and it’s Playboy. It’s the sexiest thing ever. I don’t know how my dad pulled that off actually. 

KL: That’s why classic films are great because they were able to create sexiness without anything overt.

TS: It’s what you don’t see that gets everybody nuts. There’s also a scene where she finds out Sullivan [Joel McCrea] is alive and she’s running to go and she falls down. There was big consternation about that because of her pregnancy; they didn’t know how well the baby could sustain in there. 

Can you talk about putting this book [Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director] together? Because I know there’s Sturges on Sturges…

TS: That’s my mom’s book. Nick Smedley had reached out to me and said, “I’d be interested in writing a book about your dad.” I said there have been 17 books on my dad so far and it’s astonishing. It’s not like he worked for 40 years and made movies for 40 years. He had a really brief, beautiful 15-year stint. He had all these books and I said to him [Nick] when my mom passed away I found a bunch of things that might be interesting to you if you want to write a book about his last ten years. I found all this correspondence between my parents and it wasn’t pretty. They were arguing by mail. My dad would write and say, “Your letter of August 16th in the third paragraph. You said I don’t care about this and I don’t care about that, and that’s not true.” It’s like testimony at a trial.

I offered him [Nick] all those things and he bit and we worked for the next eight months. He came out here and I gave him access to everything, including my dad’s journals and diaries. Much to my surprise, he [Preston Sturges] held nothing back from his diaries. If he saw a girl he thought was cute he would mention it and things he’d like to do to her. At the same time, he would put in all his story ideas and notes of conversations he was having. That’s what I turned over to Nick to really try and make sense of, which I think he did. He did a heck of a job on this book. 

How did you strike a balance between the man and the filmmaker? 

The reputation is pretty much intact. He’s gonna be an esteemed filmmaker for all time. The more detail we could add to how that happened, that would be a good way to go. The other thing here is that this book, and why I think it’s so interesting and matters so much, is this is his life after all the good times. He had won his Oscar; he’d made all that money; he partnered with Howard Hughes, ran a restaurant, been on top of the world.

Our book, although it covers everything in his life, it really gets into detail starting in 1949 when he leaves 20th-Century Fox. [In] this ten year period he wrote eight screenplays; he wrote his autobiography; he wrote two plays, came up with a bunch of amazing inventions. He never stopped this creative process, but he couldn’t find a home for one of these projects and that’s the heartbreaking [part]. He kept on writing and pitching. That decade, 1949-1959, was the end of the studio system and the beginning of the television system. He embraced television. He thought it was genius and thought all the future was in television, but he couldn’t find his spot, unfortunately. 

It’s even harder to hear when so many say he just missed the classic film revival that started cropping up in the ’70s when his work would have been appreciated.

I don’t think he was living a healthy life, to be honest. He was smoking a lot, three or four packs of cigarettes a day. Drinking a lot, a couple of brandies before dinner and then wine and a cocktail afterward. His body was stressed by all that. It didn’t help that he was living without his wife and his kids. My parents had a slow-motion breakup and if you read these letters you get a sense of what’s going on; my mom says to him, “you only appreciate fidelity when somebody else is practicing it.” That’s a good zinger. My mom went toe-to-toe with him. I don’t think she cared that he had done all the things he’d done. The fact was they were husband and wife and they were trying to work things out.

Interestingly enough, my own life parallels his in such a way. He had three sons; I have three sons. He had one in his late ’50s; I had one in my late ’50s. The difference is he got married four times and sprinkled a number of girlfriends in and about all those marriages. I have been a very good boy, married twice, and I’m best friends with my ex. My ex and I talk most mornings. Thankfully my wife allows that. I see where our lives line up, but I also see that he didn’t believe in the good health that could have allowed him, as you say, to stick around long enough to be recognized and appreciated for these things that he did. 

He passed when you were three? 

Correct. And the last time I saw him I was one. 

With him passing when you were so young was there a moment you discovered “Wow, my dad’s really important?” 

That’s such a good question. There was a moment like that. It was freshman year at college and somebody from the school found out I was my father’s son and invited me to come speak at their film class. I showed up and there are all these people, bright-eyed and willing; ‘oh, we’ve looked at this film and read this book.’ I had nothing to say because I only had a couple of anecdotes; I remember my mom told me a funny story. I had little to say and said it and shut up. But I realized he was very important to a lot of people. I took from that that I had a responsibility to him, his legacy, his lifetime.

What I did was I, first of all, made sure every film was preserved. So when DVDs came out every film got on a DVD. The one film that I thought was a very important film, but the original nitrate master had been lost in a studio fire was a film he wrote in 1933 called The Power and the Glory. Pauline Kael and Peter Bogdanovich and a number of other people believe that had The Power and the Glory not been made that Citizen Kane would have not been made. You have the story of an industrialist who reaches the top and finds that it’s just as lonely there as when he was at the bottom; a theme my dad studied later in a film called Diamond Jim about Diamond Jim Brady, another beautiful little story. In The Power and the Glory, it’s narrated and it skips around in time and place and might have him as a child as soon as him as an old guy. The betrayal of those closest to him. It’s got so many similar elements, it’s really something. 

But they eventually found a copy, right? 

We got it preserved. The version I saw, I saw it at a film festival and part of it was in French and part of it was bright green. It was a disaster. I got 20th-Century Fox and UCLA Preservation Society to cough up the money and what we did, it was so interesting. We found in his papers at UCLA the original score. Based on the score we put the film back together and there was one scene called “The Signature.” That signature didn’t appear in any of the films but it was obviously a piece of music for this signature. We had the scene right before it and we had the scene right after it. Some people came to my office and they had a frock coat from the late-1800s and a quill pen that I could use. So they shot my hand; if you see the film you’ll see a guy signing a letter. That was 90 years later they filmed that little piece of film. It’s only 30 seconds but we found the music, created the music, and then created that bit of film to go in there. 

With access to classics dwindling it’s stories like that that give me hope.

I honestly think that things will shift, sooner or later, but people have to believe. It took me 15 years to find that film, putting ads in The Hollywood Reporter’s classified ads in the back saying, “I’m looking for an original print of The Power and the Glory. Call this number.” We donated all our stuff to UCLA. My dad’s collection is considered the most researched collection because it holds a window up to that time in history. 

You’ve created a huge career for yourself in music. What led you down that road? Did you ever consider film like your father? 

I had written a screenplay and submitted it to a woman who called me back and she said, “I’ve read your script. If your dad had written this it would have been fantastic.” I was like oh, God, that’s awful. That was the most awful thing anybody had ever said to me. What I realized was there would be an expectation on everything I wrote. Everything I wrote there would be this ‘oh, this is Preston Sturges’ son.’ By the way, if any of my children become filmmakers they won’t have that same expectation because he’s their grandfather. You’d expect Cary Grant’s son to be a great film actor. There’s no way around it. I took that to mean that it was going to be a long-ass road if I was going to be a filmmaker and no matter where I went I would be compared to my dad.

At the same time, I also was in love with music. I got a job by accident as a secretary at a music publishing company and saw a girl in the next office who got to have lots of meetings and listen to lots of music. I said, “What job is that?” Oh, she’s the song plugger. I’m like ‘what’s a song plugger?’ A song plugger hears a song he or she loves and sends it to an artist hoping they’ll record it. I said, “Can I do that?” I started doing that and started having a bunch of hits. I pitched a song called “Heart and Soul” to Huey Lewis and the News, big single. I pitched “We Belong” to Pat Benatar, that was a big hit. That became a passion of mine, finding a hit and finding a home for that hit. That grew into signing talented writers and I ended up signing Outkast and Goody Mob, the Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters. I became a discoverer of talent in others and left my own thing to the side. 

You’re doing the Q&A at Film Forum for The Lady Eve. It turns 78 this year. What’s that like to be talking about that film and representing your dad?

A) honored. B) testament to his genius and greatness. Promoting his life’s work has become my life’s work. You do a thousand things in your lifetime and one of them is to make sure the world has never forgotten my dad and here we are. This film is so quick and so funny. You know the scene where the two of them, they’ve just played cards for the first time? They’re shoulder-to-shoulder in a bar and Henry Fonda says, “You think they’re dancing anywhere on-board?” And she [Barbara Stanwyck] looks at him and says, “Don’t you think we oughta just go to bed?” 

It always reminds me of The Palm Beach Story where Claudette Colbert sits in Joel McCrea’s lap! Your dad was so inventive with the sauciness.

There’s an interesting thing in that film that I love so. Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert are not having sex. When they have that dinner and they get drunk she leaves. He’s morose and miserable but you can tell they had sex because he wakes up the next morning with a spring in his step; “Good morning, Toodles, how are you today!” His whole life is back in order because he was able to complete the rendezvous with his wife. 

And we can’t forget Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Trudy Kockenlocker! I can tell you how he pulled that off. Paramount was a factory of films. You had to shoot 2-3 pages a day and you had to submit the dailies. A film fell out; one of the stars broke their leg and suddenly there’s a hole in the production schedule. They were looking for something and my dad said, “I have a film, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” They only had 50 pages written. So he submitted the film to the Hays Office for their approval as an incomplete script. They didn’t actually know what the story was because it was a little muffled.

He’s shooting that film during the day and writing the script at night. Shooting 2-3 pages a day and then going back to the office with Jeanie Lovell, his secretary and lover, and staying up as late as he could to write these ideas. Can you imagine the flurry of creativity? Also, you can’t change it once it’s on film. His name is Norvell, too bad you can’t go back and change it! Her name is Trudy Kockenlocker, you can’t go back and change it! That’s why there’s a frenetic pace. A glorious film! 

I haven’t found a bad one of his yet! 

There’s one film late that doesn’t really hold up which is unfortunate called The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend. Not a good movie and the woman [Betty Grable], she had a great set of legs and a great body and they put her in all this Western gear. It’s crazy. He totally missed what he was supposed to do. Betty Grable was the number one pinup! Let’s put Cindy Crawford in a beekeeper’s mask! Really?

And unfortunately whoever was talking to him; he might have broken up with Jeanie Lovell by then. Jeanie Lovell was truly the visionary for him. My dad wrote by dictating. He could sit and do it at the typewriter but he liked to act out the scene and have the secretary capture it all. 

Find out more about Tom Sturges and The Lady Eve at Film Forum.

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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