Archive for Preston Sturges

Taking the Curse off It

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by dcairns


“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ‘em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by dcairns


I finally decided to get myself a copy of Play-Making, a Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer — the book Preston Sturges read when he was laid up with appendicitis and which turned him into a creator of Broadway hits the moment he’d devoured the last page. Maybe it’ll do the same for me! (I think he also read Brander Matthews’ guide to writing plays too — and this book is dedicated to BM.)

It’s not hard to see why Sturges would respond to this text — it has a high-flown style which occasionally plunges into comedy to make a point, so that it not only expresses the dramatic principles which the great filmmaker would exploit, but it also occasionally touches on the tone he would use. You can see this in the following passage, I think. Like today’s better screenwriting manuals. Archer begins by establishing the pitfalls of any guide to the craft ~

“There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing, his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are about as valuable as those of Zadkiel and Old Moore.”


One could be mean and say that Robert McKee has in some ways gone beyond anything Archer dreamt of by combining pedantry with quackery (do you prefer the term pedackery or quackantry to describe this hybrid approach?).

I was startled by how familiar was Archer’s definition of drama (“Any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience in a theater”) — and then I realized that all the insights of Chapter III of Playmaking had been condensed into Chapter 12 of Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-Making. At least he gives credit, though — the chapter is called William Archer Revisited.


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