The Legacy of Hollywood Writer-director Preston Sturges Shines Brightly Through His South Bay-based Son Tom
The golden boy.
- Written byScott Sanford Tobis
- Photographs courtesy ofTom Sturges
Preston Sturges, the first Hollywood writer-director of the sound era and a raconteur with a gift for clever and witty dialogue, enjoyed a successful run of critically acclaimed and commercial films. These particular gifts have clearly been passed down to his son, Tom Sturges, a South Bay resident of more than 30 years.
Between takes of The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck
Born in Paris (one of only seven Americans baptized at Notre-Dame), Tom achieved considerable success in the music industry as an executive, signing such luminaries as The Smashing Pumpkins, Jack Johnson and 50 Cent. He is also an author with several books, including the soon-to-be-published A Good Divorce Begins Here.
Recently, the Manhattan Beach local has turned his attention to ensuring that his father’s achievements are not only recognized by the modern world but also preserved—including old celluloid prints that have languished in less-than-ideal settings.
Last year saw the release of his book Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director, co-written with Nick Smedley, as well as a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD of his father’s classic romantic comedy The Lady Eve. The latter included an entertaining roundtable (via Zoom, because that’s the way we roll these days) with Tom moderating a discussion between noted filmmakers James L. Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Shelton.
With Barbara Stanwyck improvising “Heart and Soul” during filming of The Lady Eve
In case the genius of Preston Sturges has somehow escaped you, here’s a primer. After a degree of success as a playwright on Broadway, he became one of the most respected as well as the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s, crafting works such as Easy Living, Diamond Jim and, most famously, The Power and the Glory (an inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane).
After watching some of his beloved screenplays fall into the hands of lesser directors, Preston decided to gamble and let Paramount Pictures have his latest script for a mere $1 (or $10, depending on which source you want to believe) if he was allowed to direct it. His 1940 movie The Great McGinty—a political satire involving, believe it or not, the timeless American topic of voter fraud—was quite successful. It garnered Preston the very first Academy Award for best original screenplay and established him as a powerful creative force in the film business.
But Preston was just getting started. His run in the 1940s as a writer-director of screwball comedies—a genre he pretty much invented—was unequaled. Working with the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Veronica Lake and a stable of gifted supporting players, Preston churned out seven hugely successful films, including The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story. All three were chosen by the American Film Institute as part of their 100 funniest films in American cinema. He was twice more nominated for best original screenplay.
Playing the lion to Harold Lloyd’s tamer for the Howard Hughes-produced flop The Sin of Harold Diddlebock
Preston’s artistic output at the time has rarely, if ever, been matched. The only other filmmaker that comes to mind is Francis Ford Coppola and his run in the 1970s.
Unsurprisingly, Preston’s undeniable talent came at a cost. Abandoned by his birth father as a child, he was forced into early adulthood by his mother, Mary Desti, who pursued a cosmetics career in Europe and took 3-year-old Preston along for the ride. He survived by developing his considerable gift for language, wit and an understandable mercurial nature. There’s also a fascinating and tragic tale involving his mother, a scarf and the renowned dancer Isadora Duncan; this would take an entire article to detail.
After his great success at Paramount, Preston struck out on his own with uneven results. One definitive classic, Unfaithfully Yours, debuted during this time. After forming an independent film company with the temperamental Howard Hughes that produced one less-than-stellar film, Preston headed to Europe in an attempt to find kindred spirits who appreciated his unique talent.
Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea take direction in the Owl Wagon scene from Sullivan’s Travels
Despite writing scripts and plays that often rose to the level of greatness we associate with his earlier work, he was unable to obtain the funding to get his work produced. Tragically, he seemed on the road to a career resurgence when he died in 1959 of a heart attack at Manhattan’s famed Algonquin Hotel—ironically, or not so ironically, while writing his autobiography, which he planned to title The Events Leading Up to My Death.
Preston Sturges has not been forgotten. He was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1960. In 1975 the Writers Guild of America (WGA) awarded him with the first posthumous Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement. His influence has been cited by filmmakers as varied as Pixar’s John Lasseter and the Coen brothers (their film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was a tribute to Sullivan’s Travels). In the ’80s, Paramount named the writers building on the studio lot The Preston Sturges Building. The WGA and Director’s Guild of America share the Preston Sturges Award, given to only a few distinguished writer-directors.
ABOVE: Grandview lads and Oscar: Jonny Herrouin, Kian Sturges, Dash Zenner, Tom Sturges, Matteo Rodriguez and Giorgio Marescalchi
I can personally attest to the continued relevance of his work, having attended a sold-out screening of a Preston Sturges double feature at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica not long before the pandemic hit. The packed crowd, varying in age from 8 to 80, roared with laughter throughout two films made before most people in the audience had even been born. It was an exceptional night.
In case you think Preston is old news, the writer-director-raconteur has surprising connections to the current scene. Born Edmund Preston Biden, he is likely a distant relative of President Joe Biden. Not only that, but his second wife was the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post—one of the founders of Mar-a-Lago, the “Winter White House” to the 45th president. Somehow Preston has always found a way to be relevant.
Locally, Tom makes sure his father’s life’s work will never be forgotten. For the past 20 years, he has hosted the Grand View Oscars in Manhattan Beach. Fifth graders dress the part of Oscar winners and parade down actual red carpet from the Academy Awards. Each gets to hold Preston’s Oscar in their tiny, excited hands as they give their acceptance speech. Students are also asked detailed questions about Preston Sturges as part of the ceremony, encouraging his legacy to live on here in the South Bay for generations to come.