“I have always contended that in addition to talent, success depends on a little bit of luck, and my luck seemed to have run out, professionally at least.” –Preston Sturges, on the making of The French, They Are a Funny Race1
Preston Sturges made a career out of emasculated male protagonists who are frustrated both in their personal and professional lives. Though all but one of his films are technically “comedies,” darkness and despair lie just beneath the jocular surface and screwball banter. Success in his films is fleeting, accidental, and often double-edged. The pattern began with his first work as a director, The Great McGinty (1940), with Brian Donleavy playing a hobo who rises to political prominence on a lark. As Sturges’ career progressed, his male characters became progressively more distraught: recently fired desk clerk Harold Lloyd takes his first step towards alcoholism after a lifetime of failed professional and romantic opportunities in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947); and jealous orchestra conductor Rex Harrison spends almost the entirety of Unfaithfully Yours (1948) plotting revenge on his wife, only to fail when he tries to actualize any of his plans. By the time Sturges was to make The French, They Are a Funny Race (alternately known as Les Carnets du Major Thompson or The Diary of Major Thompson) in 1955, his own life was beginning to look like one of his characters. Between tryiing to please producers and audiences with a half-baked assignment and trying to kick-start his dying career, Sturges’ own desperation weighed heavily on the film. Though lacking the sustained polish and comic vitality of his early pictures, The French, They Are a Funny Race does have enough sprightly moments to remind us of Sturges’ singular capabilities. The personal tragedy embedded within the film, however, is all too plain to see. Afterward, no one would let him make another.
Despite the popularity of early films such as The Lady Eve (1941), success was short-lived for Sturges. By the time The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944) were released, Sturges had already left Paramount after irreconcilable conflicts with producer Buddy DeSylva. After only four years of directing (and many more as a writer), these would be his last bona fide hits with both critics and audiences: following would be fifteen years of frustration and failure, ending only with his death in 1959. The Great Moment (1944) was ineptly reedited and poorly marketed; The Sin of Harold Diddlebock was hacked up and shelved by producer Howard Hughes; Unfaithfully Yours fared poorly at the box office; and no one, not even Sturges himself, cared for The Beautiful Blonde form Bashful Bend (1949). He was fired from the independent company he formed with Howard Hughes, and after an unsuccessful run at Fox, he found he could not even crawl back to the studios that had once offered extravagant contracts. Whatever money and energy his failing restaurant-cum-theater didn’t eat up, he drank up.
By 1953, deep in debt and unable to find work in Hollywood, he left for England in hopes of making an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess for Katharine Hepburn; however, this turned out to be yet another project that failed to come to fruition. A family detour through France to show off his childhood stomping grounds landed Sturges lots of publicity, culminating in a much needed job offer from Gaumont for the writer/director: an adaptation of Pierre Daninos’ popular newspaper column (later collected into book form), Les Carnets du Major Thompson (The Diary of Major Thompson), the musings of a fictional Englishman on French culture.2
The resulting script revolved around Sturges’ typical dichotomy of work and home. At the office, Major Thompson (played by popular British entertainer Jack Buchanan, also one of the co-stars of Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, in his last film role) dictates his articles to a French secretary, ranging from handshake etiquette and restaurant policies to the never-ending conflict between drivers and pedestrians. Sturges also offers visualizations of these stories, enacted by Thompson’s frustrated French counterpart Taupin (then popular French comedian Noël-Noël). Meanwhile, at home Thompson struggles to retain his patriarchal authority in the face of his French wife Martine (Lola Montès herself, Martine Carol) and his son’s British governess, Miss Fyfyth. Both women continually subvert his authority: Miss Fyfyth takes over his study, while Martine sells off their bed and dining room table (highly symbolic items that reflect the dissolution of their family). When Thompson denies his wife’s request to fire Miss Fyfyth, Martine declares that either the governess goes or she and her child will.
Much like the magical, last-minute salvations of male protagonists in Christmas in July (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), Major Thompson lucks out and seemingly comes out on top. However, as usual with Sturges’ endings, the exaggerated deus ex machina functions to undermine the possibility of an entirely happy ending. (Penelope Houston rightly compared Sturges’ endings to the duplicitous grin of a Cheshire cat because nothing is ever as it appears to be.3) Here, Major Thompson’s “last stand” — a final attempt to reassert his masculinity by kicking out the governess and reclaiming his wife — is thwarted by fate. By miraculous good fortune, Miss Fyfyth comes into an inheritance that allows her to quit working for the Thompson household; and, with the governess gone, Martine decides of her own free will to return home. So desperate is Thompson for any remaining sign of his potency that at the news of his wife’s pregnancy he renounces his own nationality with an enthusiastic, “Vive la France!” So much for his former British pride, and so much for his fleeting masculinity — Thompson is now ready to join the skulls of lions, tigers, and other big game that line the hallway. He is but a walking trophy of death.
Finished in 1955 but not released in the United States until 1957, The French, They Are a Funny Race was not the hit Sturges hoped it would be. (A French version, shot simultaneously with the same cast and crew, fared better when initially released in Europe two years earlier.4) His Hollywood career was not revitalized, and the film’s lukewarm reception has only grown harsher in the passing half-century. Apart from Jonathan Rosenbaum (who says the film has “sweetness, gallantry, [and] wit”), few critics have ever liked the film.5 It also has the unfortunate distinction of being the only Sturges film to never receive a home video release (I was able to view a 35mm print from the Museum of Modern Art). During its initial theatrical run, The New Yorker called it “tepidly entertaining,”6 and Bosley Crowther lamented in The New York Times that it “is a generally listless little picture, without wit, electricity or even plot.”7 Time, which mostly liked the movie, tried to make sense of the finished product by comparing it to “the bladder farces of silent days.”8
While traces of silent slapstick are present to a certain extent, The French, They Are a Funny Race is much more under the influence of the early sound comedies of René Clair. The re-enactments of Thompson’s dictations and reveries are rendered without synchronous sound. Taking a hint from Clair’s À nous le liberté (1931) and Le Million (1931), Sturges deliberately uses artificial sound effects to give scenes a cartoonish flavor. Taupin’s trip to the spa (with suction cups and a rough massage) is violent enough visually, but Sturges distorts all the audio to enhance the grotesque comedy of the action even more. Regrettably, many other reenactments are spoiled by an excessive reliance on Thompson’s voice-over narration. Often it not only repeats what we see on screen, but also ruins the subtlety of Sturges’ direction.
While several sequences stand out as excellent — such as Taupin’s tussle with bureaucracy (he moves from office window to office window, recalling the conveyer belt catastrophe of À nous le liberté) — one scene in particular exemplifies Sturges’ once-masterful touch. Thompson is remembering his courtship to his first wife. He offers her a drink, not expecting her to guzzle it down so voraciously. She gives it back to him and he politely takes a sip. He offers it to her once more, and she again vigorously accepts. Thompson’s eyes grow continually wider as Sturges kicks up the soundtrack volume, accentuating his wife’s gulp-gulp-gulp to horrific (for Thompson)/comedic (for us) proportions. The dialogue-free, audio/visual repartee is a perfect distillation of their marriage, and indeed sums up many of Sturges’ males’ confusion over women. “Love is not the subject I know the most about,” says Major Thompson, “I should be more at home with lions.”
Taking into account the difficulties of shooting a dual-language picture (Jack Buchanan’s French was as limited as Martine Carol’s English) and the episodic, non-narrative source material of Daninos’ original column, Sturges-biographer James Curtis is rather apologetic about the finished product. “His work was more that of a skilled craftsman than an artist and his achievement was in getting the film done at all, rather than doing it well.”9 Curtis is too hard on the film, however. While Buchanan doesn’t have the charm of Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours and Carol lacks the graceful cunning of Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, they’re a more than capable cast. Whether deliberate or not, there is always an awkward distance between them — a subtle but omnipresent alienation, as though they never seem intimate or comfortable around one another. And Sturges’ script — despite its messy and slightly incoherent plotting (a far cry from his usual tight, economical scripts) — is inventive and entertaining, particularly in Thompson’s extended digressions. Whether it is a mother’s honeymoon wisdom to her daughter (“Close your eyes and think of England”) or Thompson admitting that he was only attracted to his wife in her riding outfit, the further Sturges gets away from Daninos’ story, the closer he gets to his own quintessence.
Though it wasn’t intended as the summation to his career, The French, They Are a Funny Race brings closure to many of the themes that had been running throughout Sturges’ work. When contrasting the British and French portrayals of Napoleon, one character says that, “The hero in one country is a butcher in the next.” This is a succinct distillation of Sturges’ own philosophy on the close relationship of comedy and tragedy, and how it is only perspective that differentiates the two. The deeper into Sturges’ body of work one goes, the more painful the humor becomes, and the more the characters’ eccentric and exaggerated behavior seem to be desperate attempts to hold onto the life they know and are comfortable with, regardless of how dissatisfying and disappointing it may be.
And then there is autobiographical element of the film, which comes across through Sturges’ close sympathy with Thompson. Both of them are expatriate writers living in Paris struggling to find success and maintain their own identities in new surroundings. When a defeated Thompson declares, “I am not an Englishman. I will never be a Frenchman. I am nothing,” it is hard not to think of Sturges who had himself just left England because he couldn’t find work, and who couldn’t go back to Hollywood for the same reason.
The French, They Are a Funny Race isn’t the swan song that Sturges deserved — but, then again, Sturges was never one to believe in happy endings. If he gave them to his characters, it was reluctantly, and always with obvious, cynical reservations. He made this movie to reignite, not end, his career; that it accomplished the opposite is an unfortunate irony. Glimpses of past greatness are to be expected this late in his career, but it is the moments of still untapped potential, of future greatness just waiting for an opportunity, that makes the words “The End” all the more bitter.
Special thanks to Charles Silver at the Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to view a very rare print of this film.
- Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990. 333. [↩]
- Sturges, 325-327. [↩]
- Penelope Houston, “Preston Sturges,” Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: Volume Two, ed. Richard Roud, New York: The Viking Press, 1980. 990. [↩]
- James Curtis, Between Flops, New York: Limelight Editions, 1984. 270-277. [↩]
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Film on Film: Documenting the Director,” The Chicago Reader, 3 May 1990. [↩]
- John McCarten, “The Current Cinema,” The New Yorker, 1 June 1957. [↩]
- Bosley Crowther, “Screen: Mellow Sturges; ‘French Are a Funny Race’ at the Baronet,” The New York Times, 21 May 1957. [↩]
- “Cinema: The New Pictures,” Time, 27 May 1957. [↩]
- Curtis, 272-274. [↩]