1995 paperback, Saga Publishers / Folio Private"
About the Author
Glenn Lovell is the former film critic for the San Jose Mercury News. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Variety, and Columbia Journalism Review. He teaches film studies at De Anza College and other schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. He contributed to Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle.
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The Life and Films of John Sturges
By Glenn Lovell
THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PRESS
Copyright © 2008
The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.
Chapter One Sturges with a Blast of Rum
The man on the carport obviously had been a commanding presence. Now the six-foot-two frame was closer to six feet, the white hair short-cropped and sparse, like a victory laurel. The large hands were wedged in his back pockets, the eyes obscured by tinted aviator glasses. He wore a Western shirt, Levis, and moccasins-standard attire.
"You found us, good," he said through a smoker's wheeze (twelve years earlier he had been diagnosed with emphysema). "We just built this place. They finally ran me out of town. Did you know they mugged me? Beat me black-and-blue, hogtied me. So now we're here."
This was my introduction to John Sturges. It had taken three years of calls and false leads to track the director to San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast. He had always been just out of reach, wintering at a beach house in Baja, deep-sea fishing in Kona, living the Hemingway-esque existence of one of his heroes. But now the rugged outdoor life-and the picture making-was behind him.
During the first of several interviews, Sturges proved the consummate host, forthcoming and friendly. He did not get many visitors, he said as he draped himself over a chair. Reading his mind, wife Kathy arrived with the first of the day's ten rationed cigarettes. He sipped hot tea, spiked with "a blast of rum." Then he sat back, crossed his long legs, and began to recount his remarkable career, from lucky apprenticeship at RKO to angry exit from The Eagle Has Landed, his last completed film in 1976. Though he had trouble juggling the remotes, he screened the laserdisc of Bad Day at Black Rock, contributing live commentary on the film's genesis. He also set the record straight on a few things, including why he fired and rehired Steve McQueen on The Great Escape, why he walked off Day of the Champion and Das Boot, and why he indulged in an epic folly called The Hallelujah Trail-"a clear miss," he admitted.
He was living an almost Spartan existence. There was little about his ranch house (which he designed himself ) to suggest it was home to one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history. No awards on the mantle. No plaques on the wall. No signed photos of Spencer Tracy or Ethel Barrymore or Clint Eastwood. Just posters from The Magnificent Seven and The Satan Bug and an assortment of biographies and bestsellers, including Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and, a particular favorite, Guy Murchie's Song of the Sky. The opposite of a packrat, he was what Kathy called a "throw-awayer."
But he did tell the most wonderful stories. That's what drew Kathy to him. They met in Mulegé, Baja, where they were seasonal neighbors. Though half Sturges's age and just tolerated by the director's daughter, Kathy was good company and shared his love of all things nautical. The newlyweds looked for property and a slip in Santa Barbara-to berth the twenty-six-foot, twin-engine Cochinito (Baja slang for dolphin)-but everything was taken.
"We got fed up with the traffic, smog, and crime," he said. "So we came up here and lived temporarily in an old house, and then I built this one. It's a little isolated, but we spend most of our winters in Mexico, two-thirds of the way down the peninsula, on Conception Bay.... That's where we keep the boat."
Nine years earlier, Sturges had been living alone in Marina del Rey. He had a one-bedroom condo on the channel. It was there that he had been mugged and robbed. It was 8:30 at night, and people were milling about. He had been reading when he heard the glass door slide open. It was never locked. Two men came in. One pointed a gun at his head and said, "Don't move." The other guy pulled the curtains. They tied his hands and feet and took the television and expensive audio equipment. It was like a scene from one of his movies, only there was no hero played by John Wayne living on a nearby boat and getting the better of the assailants.
What Sturges remembered most about the ordeal was that the thieves, instead of reaching for the leftover nylon rope from his boat, had tied him up with a telephone cord. "Their knots slipped," he laughed. "If they'd known how to tie plastic knots, I guess I'd have been there for a good while."
He was trying to make light of it, but the indignation of being bound and gagged in his own living room was still eating at him. He was used to being in control, and though it had been fifteen years since he oversaw his last film, and he had pretty much lost touch with his friends in the industry, he still carried himself like someone who could marshal the troops.
He had never set out to retire, he said, but the last two projects-a Hollywood version of Das Boot and a Vietnam War drama-had fallen through, and all he was offered subsequently were formula pictures, the ones where a stranger faces down a hostile town or soldiers of fortune band together for a suicide mission.
Finally he said, "To hell with it-I'm not going to do a picture just to do a picture. I don't need the money; I don't need to keep stretching my career. I guess I proved I'm a pretty good storyteller."
A little more than a year later, the eighty-two-year-old Sturges would be dead from congestive heart failure. The obituaries, which heralded the passing of one of Hollywood's preeminent action auteurs, didn't appear until several days later.
"Johnny dead? NO! When did he die?" asked RKO colleague and sailing buddy Robert Wise when given the news. Wise, like the rest of the industry, had lost touch with Sturges.
Chapter Two Youth
Though he would spend much of his career cultivating the less refined image of rugged, hard-drinking outdoorsman, John Eliot Sturges sprang from Chicago blue blood and, on his mother's side, could trace his lineage to the Mayflower Pilgrims and, beyond that, to ninth-century Norwegian royalty, in particular Turgesius, son of the king of Norway. John's father, Reginald G. R. Carne, was an English-born banker who, after the crash of 1929, turned to real estate. John's mother, Grace Delafield Sturges, was one of five children born to Charles M. Sturges, a British-born, Harvard-educated corporate lawyer and future president of the Illinois Bar Association, and Ella Delafield of Tennessee. Grace and her siblings enjoyed a privileged childhood straight out of Booth Tarkington, except that they were not coddled. Grace, who aspired to belles lettres, graduated with honors from the University of Illinois, and sister Mary became one of the first women physicians in the United States.
Sturges's official studio biography would make selective use of this lineage. The director, it trumpeted, was from "a distinguished early American family whose history goes back to Fairfield, Conn., in 1636." Among his ancestors, the studio release said, were General Israel Putnam and the Puritan doctor Increase Matthews. "Most of the men in the family were Harvard-educated lawyers." But was John Sturges, as some assume, a distant cousin of the comedy director Preston Sturges? Their paths crossed at Paramount. Sandy Sturges, Preston's widow, said, "I remember Preston referring to John Sturges as related, but distantly-only through Preston's adoption. They were not blood relatives."
Reginald and Grace married in 1897 and settled in Oak Park, Illinois, in a large Victorian house with bay windows and front parlor. The census listed two live-in maids from Germany, a butler and chauffeurs, and a summer house by the lake. Sturges Delafield Carne, called "Sturge," was welcomed into the world in 1899, and Alice followed a year later. In the summer of 1909, Grace surprised the family by announcing, at thirty-seven, she was pregnant again. John Eliot was born on January 3, 1910. The family photos of a chubby baby with thick curly hair, smiling back from a shiny black pram and waving from atop a snow fort, suggest a typical, happy infancy.
Life in the Carne household, however, was anything but happy. Reginald, according to family lore, was "a rip-roaring drinking Irishman," and Grace, like her sisters, was a teetotaler who flaunted her sobriety. Reginald was not above dipping into his wife's future inheritance. She was from money and he was not, and this caused him to overcompensate, lavishing the children with expensive toys, including an ornate, pony-drawn cart. As the arguments escalated, the parents sought allies. Grace drew Alice and John to her; Reginald confided in Sturge, his eldest son.
In 1912, Reginald moved the family to Southern California, where he founded the Bank of Ojai and dabbled in real estate. Three years later, amid rumors of alcoholism and abuse, Grace divorced him. This was a bold move because, as Emily Dunning Barringer pointed out in her memoir Bowery to Bellevue (adapted in 1952 by Sturges as The Girl in White), "divorce in those days was considered a social disgrace." Grace was granted custody of the children; Reginald had visitation rights, until he fell behind on support payments. Grace further shocked family and friends by reclaiming her family name. Sturge, who at age nineteen would ship out to the war in France, remained a Carne; but John and Alice (who had changed her first name to Jean)-in a tacit us-against-the-world declaration-henceforth would be Sturges. Grace announced that she wanted all vestiges of Reginald and his family out of her life. She and the children would go it alone, or with the help of her sisters and brother. "Grandmother was a tough woman with real presence, a grande dame," said Deborah Wyle, the director's daughter. "She wielded a great deal of power in that family."
That same year, Grace moved the family to a small wood-frame house in Santa Monica. Though the family album does not chronicle apparent hardship or privation, Sturges would recall these days as "a long period of starvation" when the family ate bread dipped in bacon grease and walked to a nearby farm to pick lima beans. Still, the child beaming back in family photos appears happy mowing the front lawn in his cowboy boots, feeding an uncle's chickens, playing with his pit bull terrier, Milestone. A letter to Santa from the six-year-old provides detailed directions to a house with "a field on each side, not just one side." It goes on to ask for a tricycle, a stuffed gray elephant, and "a little train and cars, and switches to pull back." He then inquired, "Where do you get the steel to make them with down in the snow?" (A parenthetical to whoever took dictation: "Don't ask him for the tunnel. I know how to make one myself, I did out in our yard.")
Grace seldom saw her older son, who lived with his father, but she doted on John, dressing him like Little Lord Fauntleroy in sailor suits and knickerbockers. More important, she passed on to him her love of the outdoors. Indeed, she saw John as a "raw-boned backwoods boy, who knows every reach of his native waters." That idealized youth figured in Grace's unpublished story, "A Likely Spot," about a family hike up Hogback Mountain, North Carolina, to see the spectacular gorge and falls.
Grace's rhapsodic odes-with their "daring leaps of Whitewater" and "dazzling snowy plunges"-bespoke a genuine passion for nature and exploration. And John, who one day would film the Walking Hills of Death Valley and the jungles of Ceylon, came to share his mother's adventurous spirit. Clearly no "sissy," he made up for his precious attire with a hands-akimbo bravado. Among his interests: cowboys and the Wild West, underworld confidence games, and silent movies. He attended Roosevelt Grammar School in Santa Monica and, in a 1920 class picture, appeared taller and cockier than his classmates. While the other boys wore their hair neatly trimmed or slicked back, John's curly mop was a force unto itself. A typical Sunday outing took Grace and the children to Cawston Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena, where John in high-top shoes and wool cap fearlessly rode an ostrich or sat astride a muzzled alligator. He joined the Boy Scouts and rigged a makeshift wireless receiver. "Always be prepared for the unexpected," he repeated after his mother. (Even as a successful filmmaker, he would carry a canteen, sleeping bag, and first-aid kit in the trunk of his car.) His prized possessions included a pump-action BB gun and a soapbox racer. Scientific curiosity, a love of speed, and the rough-and-tumble life-the man that the boy would become was beginning to emerge.
At age ten, John learned what others already knew: just how controlling and vindictive his mother could be. Sturge, twenty-one, stopped by the house on his way to Ojai to see Reginald. John, of course, was excited by the prospect of seeing his father and jumped into the rumble seat of his brother's Model T. When Grace heard what had happened, she called the police. The brothers were intercepted as they started up the Santa Paula Pass. Sturge was ordered to turn around and take his brother home, which he did. Consequently, John would never reunite with his father, who died in 1930. (Sturges's press bio not only ignored the family melodrama but sanitized it, renaming the director's father Reginald Sturges.)
"He didn't talk about his father," said Kathy Sturges. "But I remember him telling that story. I don't know that he was upset about it, or regretted it. He just told the story, acted like it was no big deal. He held things like that in a lot."
In 1923, upon her father's death, Grace inherited a sizable fortune and moved the family to Berkeley. In 1924, John-now a studious, spectacled fourteen-year-old-entered Berkeley High School. Sturge and Jean attended the University of California at Berkeley. Sturge pursued his passion for design at the architectural engineering school; Jean, described as "a socialite" who liked to drive around town in a green roadster, majored in sociology.
How rich was Grace Sturges? "Money wasn't really a topic that ever got discussed, but she was very well off," said Deborah Wyle. "Grandmother was wealthy up until the Depression-a millionaire by some accounts," said Jon Stufflebeem, the son of John's sister, Jean. The inheritance was generous enough for the family to afford a gleaming-white Mediterranean-style home on Shattuck Avenue and a Model T sedan. John, already comfortable behind the wheel, taught his mother to drive, and they began a series of summer trips that eventually would take them to Alaska. In Lake Tahoe, John was photographed on snow-topped mountain ridges, showing off his limit in trout, and just mugging for the camera. "Drinking snowballs on Mount Ellis slope," Grace wrote on the back of a snapshot. "Note the thermos pitcher, which contained ice cream, which we ate at the top." Three days later, outside Tahoe City, "G-Man" John posed by a police car that had just come from a raid on an illegal still in Truckee.
In the summer of 1925, Grace and John, now fifteen, embarked on their most ambitious outing, a two-month road trip to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. By now John was over six feet tall, slim and athletic. He swam in the frigid mountain lakes and rock-climbed with the agility of a would-be Sir Edmund Hillary. At the coast they set up camp. As soon as the tent was pitched, John disappeared down the beach. Two hours later he returned with a huge smile-and enough crab for a feast.
Sturges would trace his love of fishing and the American West to these trips with his mother. He was never less than exhilarated when about to hit the road, he said, and this sense of excitement infused his early adventure movies, such as The Walking Hills (1949) and Jeopardy (1953). To quote Barbara Stanwyck in the latter film, "Vacation time in the United States means traveling, and traveling in the United States is wonderful. Fill your gas tank and hit the road. There is a turn-off to everywhere."
It was at Berkeley High that John became involved in theater. As a sophomore, he appeared in school productions as a pilgrim and King Tut's mummy, who, in harem pants and headband, looked more like Valentino in The Sheik. Later that same season, he played Richard III.
John's earliest movie memories were of silent Westerns and cliffhangers. His favorite stars were Tom Mix and Rod La Rocque, the mustachioed hero of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Shadow Strikes (1937). "The first screen star I can remember is La Rocque," he said. "I was a day-dreamer, which most directors are, and I would always think in theatrical terms. I liked movies, and I saw a lot of them when I was in high school. I'd think about them later, wonder how they were put together."
Excerpted from Escape Artist by Glenn Lovell Copyright © 2008 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1. Sturges with a Blast of Rum
4. War & Wyler
5. Columbia Years
7. A Walk in the Sun
8. At Sea
9. Gun for Hire
10. The Pack, Plus One
11. The Mirisch Years