Tuesday, January 21, 2020

"Flarme Up - Flame Out"

t is understandably frustrating to believe you have talent in your chosen field of endeavor yet you enjoy no critical acceptance or commercial success.

That’s bad. 

But consider now this:

You have spectacular critical and commercial success in your chosen field of endeavor and then, with your prodigious abilities still actively intact, the hot reception abruptly and permanently disappears.

It’s like, “What happened?  Did they forget I was good?”

The answer to that question, at least in one credible context, came to me in the Preston Sturges book, which I shall not complete because the writing is flat and the print is too small.

Fortunately, the stuff that interested me sufficiently to merit this post arrived before my eyes started to hurt, so I can quit on Page 23.

And not a moment too soon.

Though one of the great, admired, and respected Hollywood writer-directors of all time, Preston Sturges’s spectacular heyday began and ended in approximately two years. 

It appears inconceivable.  Before his “Big Break” it was, “They don’t know what they’re missing.”  And after those two years, it was, like, “They don’t know what they’re missing., and they just saw me do it, four pictures in a row!”

Although Sturges was notoriously poor in the Kindergarten category of “Plays well with others”, the book provides an interesting alternate reason for his meteoric rise and equally meteoric descent.

Both tumultuous changes in Sturges’s life can be explained by exactly the same reason:

Cultural timing.

And at that moment in history, the American culture moved fast.

Cultural timing informs the aspirations of all of us.  But not as dramatically as it did with Sturges.

Listen to this.


When Sturges’s first written-and-directed movie The Great McGinty came out, the book proclaims,

“Sturges’s new film made such an impact because it tentatively moved from the style of comedy prevalent in the more carefree decade  of the 1930’s {at least in movies}, and took steps towards the much more edgy, morally ambivalent filmmaking that was to characterize the 1940’s.”

In less words, the guy was ahead of his time, and, lucky for him, the times fortuitously caught up.

Three tonally similar films later, when Sturges’s follow-up outing The Palm Beach Story met with a weaker critical reception the book suggests,

“It may be that, by the time of its release in late 1942, America’s entry into World War II had created a more earnest mindset among the critics, and it appeared to be too superficial, almost too lighthearted for the mood of the nation.”

And there you have it.  “The Times” took the man up and, stunningly quickly, they brought him back down.  Sturges coasted on his previous successes for a while and then he was finished, though he still feverishly continued to pitch projects, believing he “still had it”, which he did.

It was just the wrong “it” for subsequent eras.  After World War II, positive Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House-type movies made Sturges’s challenging “take” on our cultural mores feel unwelcome and ancient.

I feel sad writing that.  Great work, adulation and commercial success, for a brief period of time.

And then, nada.

Though Sturges always believed he’d be back, suggesting his fueling “Recipe for Success” included a heaping helping of self-deceit.

Family friend Phil Bloom successfully sold “Men’s Hats” in Toronto, till the automobile companies lowered the roofs and hats no longer fit comfortably inside the cars.

I guess it’s like that.

You’re a big hit.

Till they lower the roof.

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