Thursday, April 9, 2009

An ode to Sturges and a lost treasure buried deep in an old file

April 9, 2009
Posted by Kristen

(When it rains it pours here at the Heritage Blog, and I find myself, for the second time in two days, in the enviable position of introducing another writer to the blog. Kristen Painter works as a cataloger and researcher in the Music & Entertainment Department here. Sounds like a rough job: handling amazing Hollywood and music merch every day, writing about it, not to mention that she works for Doug Norwine. If you know Doug, then you know what I’m talking about. Kristen has a columnist's knack for the hidden story, which makes her first blog post about one of her favorite screenwriters/directors, the always intriguing Preston Sturges, all the more appropriate as he was one of the best and most inscrutable of his day – and of his kind. Read on about a particular Sturges gem hidden in the June M&E auction. - Noah)

Preston Sturges, the creator of the most memorably sarcastic dialogue* in film history – any Barbara Stanwyck line in his 1941 masterpiece, The Lady Eve serves as further proof – was paid $5,000 in 1952 to help Billy Wilder on a screenplay tentatively titled A New Kind of Love. The film was slated to star Yul Brynner opposite Katharine Hepburn and was never produced, likely due to Brynner's binding contract with Rodgers and Hammerstein for the Broadway production of The King and I.

I know this, or more accurately, I discovered this while describing a set of Billy Wilder-related documents to be included in our upcoming Music & Entertainment Auction (June 5-7). The paperwork, hidden amongst the delicate yellowed documents, confirmed Sturges’ payment and writing schedule, as well as other fascinating tidbits from the unproduced project like “confidential” notes to Wilder on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s replacement choice for Brynner (it would’ve been Alfred Drake, if you’re curious), and Brynner’s insistence on partial payment upfront “for tax reasons.”

Hollywood is fickle, and directors are notoriously more fickle, so the film never made it past the initial stages of production.

Perhaps it was Wilder’s frustration with the limitations that the Broadway duo put on Brynner’s availability; or perhaps a Sturges/Wilder conflict that went unresolved. Both were perfectionists, though Sturges’ drinking had, by the point of this collaboration, taken a toll on his industry relationships.

What does remain from the production’s first stages are 12 pages of Sturges' handwritten story ideas, notes and stream-of-consciousness writing, including a random note on his friend Rupert Hughes:

"Upton Sinclair refused Rupert Hughes's invitation to dinner and added pointedly that he did not own a tuxedo."

Interesting, indeed, for a Sturges fanatic like me. Mingled in with more than 50 other pages of handwritten script (presumably that of Wilder and Julius Epstein, Casablanca screenwriter and Sturges’ replacement on the project) these pages stood out. The handwriting was on the wall, so to speak; small, yet open, flourished, and rounded. This find made my year. “Undeniably Sturges”, I thought to myself, hoping that I was holding in my hands something that had once rested in the lap of the daring, cynical filmmaker.

Sturges once commented: “When the last dime is gone, I'll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a 10 cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.”

True to his words, Sturges wrote the mystery treatment in pencil on 10 cent yellow ledger paper – though probably not curbside – adding doodles and depositing coffee stains here and there. I’ve pored over the treatment, confirmed the handwriting through our third-party authenticators, dwelled on the cryptic notes (what did he mean by this or that, and how the #%# would he be able to use it?), and then parted with it, hoping it finds a good and worthy home…

For more on Sturges, skip the biographies. Rent The Lady Eve and you’ll witness the essence of the ever-copied-but-never-surpassed, forever-sarcastic-but-also-romantic Preston Sturges.

Click here to check out the treatment.

*"In my humble opinion."

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