Writers Who Became Directors: Whither Sturges?

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HerrSchreck
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#1 Post by HerrSchreck » Sun Jun 11, 2006 1:35 am

I recently picked up old faithful CC SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (o the glory), and while viewing PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN DREAMER, an unusual claim about Sturges is made: that he was the first screenwriter to become a director.

That's a pretty wild statement (especially for an Emmy-winning documentary script), and certainly so since Sturges was a dude whose inspirational qualities viz other artists requires no boost via dubious claims. His art was so orignal and perfect-- when at it's best-- that aggrandizement is rendered completely unneccessary. Old news of course, but for gods sake, SULLIVANS TRAVELS' first 15 minutes has enough twists & turns in it for 5 film scripts by any other director(s)... scripts, mind you, that would earn finger wagging by producers admonishing the writer "too busy; you'll lose the viewer with all this." All this being 1/5th of the first 15 minutes of SULLIVANS.

I wonder what McCarthy meant by his assertion that Sturges was the inspiration to others like Huston & Wilder as he was the first writer to become a director. Certainly Fritz Lang, Jean Cocteau, Carl Dreyer were very famous directors at the time who got their starts as writers & scenarists prior helming their own films.

Did he mean in Hollywood? Even so this is a dubious claim. Von Stroeheim started out hawking scripts around town, did do some bit parts (which grew a bit during WW1 playing the stereotypical Evil Sinister German in propoganda drek until the war ended & the well dried up) but got his real start in almost the identical fashion as Sturges w MCGINTY: EVS got up to see Laemmle on pure balls, pitched him on a script he'd written called THE PINNACLE and sold him on the idea of a great film no one else could make better than he himself the writer, who Laemmle could pay less than established directors (reminiscent of Sturges' alleged $1 salary which actually bumped up to $10)... thereby getting his foot in the door via the exact same strategy, getting the hit he anticipated, and the rest is history. Interesting footnote that since Laemmle was a gambler, and was in fact a hopeless pinochle addict, insisted the PINNACLE be changed to BLIND HUSBANDS-- his English was poor enough that the difference between pinochle and pinnacle absolutely eluded and therefore confounded him. Not wishing to draw attention to his uh pasttime, he changed the title behind EVS' back, enraging him, and leading him to take ads out in the trade papers protesting the change-- leading to full-page ad wars for a bit (that were priceless publicity) that launched the Stroeheim vs Universal (and studios in general) wars. Funny that afterwards, while Stroeheims star was busy blowing up larger than life and riding his one real crest of glorious studio A-list superstardom after the success of BLIND HUSBANDS and his 2nd (now lost) film THE DEVILS PASS KEY Laemmle says, "Hey Erich, why don't we make a film about gambling...?" whereby I'm sure EVS most have gagged on his own spit for a moment, remembering the 1919 paranoia over pinochle. The resulting film of course was the mindblowing FOOLISH WIVES.

Back to Sturges & writers-directors. DeMille wrote much of his own material from the very start in 1914. Hell even Clarence Badger (Clara Bow's legendary IT) was a writer/scenarist prior to directing. Tod Browning.

Preston Sturges was a true American one of a kind, one of the crown jewels of the Hollywood studio system's better face, completely inimitable (his films fall into a type I absolutely adore: they look & sound dated, because they are soaked thru & thru with chit chat & witticisms & of-the-time Americana of fashions, social ritual & impulses & pasttimes.. but their content & stories are forever fresh, will still sound brand new tomorrow). Yet because the attribution of "first writer ---> director" is so intertwined with auteurism (making it almost sound as if he were the first 'auteur', which was almost certainly, in a slightly impure sense Griffith, followed by the three-way tie of Murnau/Dreyer/Lang) I think the quote is at least worthy of closer examination.

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King of Kong
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#2 Post by King of Kong » Sun Jun 11, 2006 1:53 am

Well, John Sayles is a novelist-turned-director. It's not surprising - he's a great writer.

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HerrSchreck
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#3 Post by HerrSchreck » Sun Jun 11, 2006 1:58 am

Well, I'm talking about prior to Sturges-- exploring the assertion that Sturges was the first writer to become a director. GREAT MCGINTY , his directorial premeire, was 1940.

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#4 Post by justeleblanc » Sun Jun 11, 2006 9:59 am

HerrSchreck wrote:Well, I'm talking about prior to Sturges-- exploring the assertion that Sturges was the first writer to become a director. GREAT MCGINTY , his directorial premeire, was 1940.
I assumed this statement assumes Hollywood and Sound and possibly even Comedy.

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carax09
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#5 Post by carax09 » Sun Jun 11, 2006 10:12 am

Yeah, I was a bit befuddled by that claim as well. I think what McCarthy meant was that Sturges was the first well-established writer/scenarist of the sound era (in Hollywood) to go on to become a writer/director that we still talk about.
On a side note, how about that kiss-proof lipstick thing? That man was a freakin' genius. It's our great loss that the machinery chewed him up, but not before that incredible run.

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HerrSchreck
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#6 Post by HerrSchreck » Sun Jun 11, 2006 10:30 am

carax09 wrote: On a side note, how about that kiss-proof lipstick thing? That man was a freakin' genius.
Or Hughes "Aero-Dynamic Brassiere". What did he, fly in open cockpit planes with chicks whose tits flopped back over their foreheads?

Wonder how way too deliberately long-- and with far-too-many-"guinea-pigs"-- research & development went on for that kickass project.

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tryavna
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#7 Post by tryavna » Sun Jun 11, 2006 12:06 pm

Yeah, I think that critics and biographers can exaggerate Sturges uniqueness a little, but I think what they mean is that Sturges was the first significant writer to break into directing during the height of the Hollywood studio system, when the industry tended to pigeon-hole its creative talent into distinct compartments. As far as that line of argument goes, it's useful insofar as it helps contextualize the gaggle of writers who crossed over into the director's chair throughout the 1940s: Sturges, Huston, Wilder, Richard Brooks, etc.

So I've always read that sort of statement as a point about the Hollywood studio systme c. 1940 more than anything else.

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#8 Post by Agee B » Sun Jun 11, 2006 2:22 pm

Sturges was the first dedicated screenwriter in the modern conception of the role to become a fully-credited director. (Silent-film screenwriting was and is quite different from sound screenwriting in its demands and importance.) This is doubtless to what the claims made by McCarthy and other scholars emphasizing Sturges' importance to the developing film idiom were referring.

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Dylan
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#9 Post by Dylan » Sun Jun 11, 2006 3:18 pm

Federico Fellini wrote and co-wrote roughly twenty screenplays (including "Rome, Open City" and "The Flowers of St. Francis") and many radio plays before co-directing "Variety Lights."

There is also David Mamet, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter before directing "House of Games."
Last edited by Dylan on Mon Jun 12, 2006 1:26 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Gordon
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#10 Post by Gordon » Sun Jun 11, 2006 8:18 pm

The late, great, José Giovanni was a novelist and screenwriter before he started directing his own material in the late 60s and continued to write for other directors.

BTW: Un reglement de comptes, (filmed as Le Deuxième souffle bu Melville in 1966) is about to be filmed again, this time by Alain Corneau and starring Daniel Auteuil and Monica Bellucci. First Le Cercle rouge by John Woo, now this! Hmm. :-k

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HerrSchreck
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#11 Post by HerrSchreck » Mon Jun 12, 2006 1:10 am

Agee B wrote:Sturges was the first dedicated screenwriter in the modern conception of the role to become a fully-credited director. (Silent-film screenwriting was and is quite different from sound screenwriting in its demands and importance.) .
Could you expand on that a bit? I mean that seriously & without any facetiousness. I'm particularly interested in your take on the differences between the "modern conception of the role" (and it's predecessor, to arrive at the differences)-- and your take on how different were the 'demands and importance' of silent-film screenwriting.

I ask because certainly you take a guy like Carl Mayer who was a dedicated screenwriter in the perhaps the purest sense of the role (script after script after script and never a moment before the camera as an actor and no other form of writing left behind, not even a novel. From CALIGARI to SUNRISE to PYGMILLIAN & his later sound work with Czinner & Asquith & docs like Mjor Barbara & The Fourth Estate, this guy was the consumate dedicated screenwriter in any conception of the role. This may be my own crazy personal view but take a look at all the masterpieces under the guy's belt. It's insane. And as for the utility & demands of sound vs silent screenwriting-- remember, that simply because the dialog was not heard by the audience, there were you understand still complete scripts of course . The actor's mouths were indeed Speaking Lines From A Full & Complete Script, and those scripts were written out and had to be learned by the actors. (That's why Title Writing was a completely different vocation paling in comparison to that of screenwriter). Yet on top of that the silent writer, owing to the visual demands of the medium, elucidated much of the visual aspect of the film as well, on top of the "script". Read Mayer's scripts for example: complete mise en scene of the actors.. camera moves, superimpositions/double exposures, mood & lighting. Very very sophisticated stuff loaded with utilities not required of screenwriters today.

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Brian Oblivious
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#12 Post by Brian Oblivious » Mon Jun 12, 2006 4:41 am

I think the unmentioned elephant in the room is Orson Welles. It wasn't until after Welles signed his contract to write and direct two pictures for RKO in July of 1939 that any of the other studios' resistance to letting one of their writers into a director's chair was weakened enough to be surmounted by even a Sturges. It's not like he hadn't asked before. The fact that by the time Welles finished Kane Sturges had already directed and released three pictures obscures the fact that Welles had his deal inked first. (I can't remember offhand if it was a matter of days, weeks or months, but if you'd like I'll go check my notes).

I suspect this is where the statistic comes from. The Welles deal was such a big event at the time that it made anything that happened beforehand seem like it was on a miniature scale. And Welles wasn't a screenwriter getting promoted to director, but a theatre and radio guy who'd never worked in film before (Hearts of Age didn't count). Sturges was the first screenwriter in Hollywood to capitalize on the Welles deal, using it as leverage to become a writer-director. Somehow this got turned into Sturges being the first writer-turned-writer-director, or even the first writer-director (which I've heard somewhere too).

That's my theory anyway.

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