The most important person in Sturges’ life was his mother, born into a humble Irish-American family in Chicago. Mary Dempsey’s delusions of grandeur and unfulfilled artistic ambitions compelled her to create her own identity as Madame Desti. She left her drunken, unstable first husband soon after their son was born in 1898, taking Preston all over Europe while she followed her close friend, the dancer Isadora Duncan, and various husbands and lovers. She attempted to run a cosmetics company in Paris and New York only to leave the business entirely in Preston’s hands when he was sixteen.
After the business failed, Sturges’ interest in the theater led him to playwriting and an enormous hit in 1929 with STRICTLY DISHONORABLE. Unable to duplicate this success, he turned to movies and quickly displayed even more skill in that medium. His desire for complete control over his projects made him force Paramount to allow him to direct THE GREAT McGINTY in 1940. After several more hit comedies such as THE LADY EVE (1941), he left the studio in a dispute over THE GREAT MOMENT (1944) and never had another success. He spent the last decade of his life mostly in exile in Paris unable to get work because he refused to collaborate.
Donald Spoto, who has written biographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams, is less interested in Sturges’ films than in the influence of his mother. His several failed marriages and love affairs can be traced to his inability to take women seriously, seeing them all in Mary’s flighty image. He wasted all his wealth on an ill-conceived Hollywood nightclub in an attempt to create an artificial home and family as a substitute for the one he never knew. Spoto portrays Sturges less as another wasted talent than as a lovable but exasperating character.