Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Christmas in July (1940) - Ironic Hijinks

[Quick Summary: A man wins a slogan competition, which causes misunderstandings and havoc.]

Bad news: This is not my favorite Sturges script. 

Good news: Sturges does write better ironic hijinks than most.

ex. The protagonist gets a telegram at work announcing that he's won a $25,000 coffee slogan competition.

He calls his mother and promises the world. [Ups the personal ante.]

The whole office cheers the good news. [Ups the professional ante.]

His co-workers Tom, Dick, and Harry laugh because they have faked the telegram. [Ups tension.]

The boss comes in to scold.  [Uh-oh.]

Tom, Dick, and Harry sweat as they see their joke go out of control.. [What will happen?]

The boss is so impressed by the win that he offers protagonist a bigger job. [More tension.]

Tom, Dick, and Harry try to confess, and are unable to. [Cliffhanger]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can see how Sturges is in control.

The hijinks serve his irony (rather than hey-what-story-can-we-fit-around-this-joke).

Christmas in July (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 19, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Great McGinty (1940) - How to Convey a "Message" Using Irony

[Quick Summary: A bum who becomes a corrupt governor learns his lessons too late.]

The Great McGinty has a message about danger in politics.

Boring, right?

Actually, no. 

The script's irony is so entertaining that I hardly realized there was a message.

ex. McGinty votes for a candidate in exchange for $2/vote.

1 - A predictable setup = We think we know where it's going.

"THE POLITICIAN IN THE TOOL HOUSE

He stands, watch in hand, talking indignantly to the cop outside.

POLITICIAN: Well, I ain't goin' to wait here all night...I got a right to eat, ain't I? The guy's had time to vote ten times! I'm goin' to eat. If you see him, you tell him I got somethin' better to do than...

McGINTY'S VOICE: Than what? ...."

2 - The payoff is exaggerated. Who expected five tickets?

"McGinty comes in, reaches into his right pants pocket and chucks five tickets on the table.

POLITICIAN (counting them with his hand): From the time you took anybody's think...."

3 - The 2nd payoff is hugely exaggerated.  This results in the opposite of what we expected (irony).

From his left pants pocket McGinty throws ten more tickets on the table. This stops the Politician right in the middle of his sentence. He watches goggle-eyed as McGinty throws ten more from his right coat pocket. He watches stupefied as McGinty extracts another ten from his left coat pocket.

POLITICIAN (in an awe-struck voice): Is that all?

McGINTY: Wait a minute. (He pulls two more tickets from his breast pocket) That's it.

POLITICIAN (muttering to himself as he counts the tickets): Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven...sixty-four bucks!

McGINTY: Seventy-four bucks."

4 - The message? People will find ways around the system. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For an ironic twist, exaggerate, then exaggerate even bigger. 

The Great McGinty (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 12, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Remember the Night (1940) - Minor Characters Aren't Small Parts

[Quick Summary: A prosecutor takes a female defendant to his hometown during Christmas break.]

You should know (if you didn't already):

1) Sturges writes brilliant minor characters. 
2) He doesn't waste any of them.

 ex. After the prosecutor (Sargent) sleeps in a field, he's brought to a judge for trespassing.

"SARGENT (very amiably): Good morning, Your Honor, I'm afraid there's been a little misunderstanding here all around. This gentleman... (He indicates the owner).....found my car parked in his field and naturally came to the conclusion.....

THE JUSTICE (interrupting): What's the charge, Hank?

THE OWNER: Trespass on posted property, wanton destruction of fence and petty larceny.

SARGENT (indignantly): That's a ga....

THE JUSTICE (interrupting): What'd they steal?

THE OWNER: They were milking one of my cows when I caught them."

Note how funny and well-rounded they are:
- The judge interrupts with confidence. He's in charge here.
- The owner isn't afraid to speak up. He's a complaining comic relief.

Also note how they move the story forward:
-  The judge treats Sargent (who is a lawyer) as a potential criminal.  He turns Sargent's world upside down.
-  The owner's accusations push Sargent and the defendant closer and work as a team.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I often forget to fully flesh out minor characters.  No more.

Remember the Night (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 5, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Easy Living (1937) - Screwball Speed Lies in Cause-Effect

[Quick Summary: A fur coat hits young woman, which begins her romance comedy.]

I love screwball comedies for their speed and slapstick.

But how do writers also keep it funny?

Sturges used this cause-effect combination in this script:

Fast actions in one room ----> Leads to unexpected, funny effects in the another room

ex. Mary can't afford a meat pie from the Automat, a vending machine.

The busboy Johnny sneaks her one, but is caught by the house detective:

"JOHNNY AND THE DICK - ON THE FLOOR . They are nearly buried in knives, forks, coffee pots, and crockery, fighting vigorously. The dick tries to get to his feet and in grasping for something, his hand pulls a lever.  [Cause: A fight in the kitchen]

A COUPLE OF BUMS STANDING AT THE TOOTHPICK TABLE. Behind them stretches a long vista of food compartments. With a loud click all the doors in view fly open and remain open, vibrating slightly. The first bum turns his head, then clutches the second bum and points excitedly.

THE FIRST BUM: Horace!  [Effect: Free food in the dining room]

THE DICK AND JOHNNY WRESTLING - IN THE DEBRIS. The dick's feet tangle up in a couple more levers. [Cause: More fighting]

THE BEVERAGE PANEL. Simultaneously, tea, steaming coffee, milk, grape juice and orange juice start hissing their way into the world. From a large spigot next to them blobs of ice cream come plunking out." [Effect: Geyser of drinks and dessert]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The strong cause-effect makes the slapstick read faster. 

[I imagine Sturges started building the cause-effect first, then laid over the slapstick.]

Easy Living (1937)
by Preston Sturges
Adapted from the story by Vera Caspary