Sturges took the screwball comedy format of the 1930s to another level, writing dialogue that, heard today, is often surprisingly naturalistic, mature, and ahead of its time, despite the farcical situations. It is not uncommon for a Sturges character to deliver an exquisitely turned phrase and take an elaborate pratfall within the same scene. A love scene between Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve was enlivened by a horse, which repeatedly poked its nose into Fonda's head.
Sturges is often credited as the first writer to direct his own script, but this is not true: Charles Chaplin, for instance, was already writing and directing feature-length films by 1921. A few other major directors such as Frank Capra and Howard Hawks also preceded Sturges in making the leap from writing to directing, as did less celebrated figures. However, Sturges may have been the first celebrated Hollywood screenwriter to be promoted as having made the "leap" to directing for publicity purposes. Famously, he sold the story for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures for $1, in return for being allowed to direct the film. (The sum was quietly raised to $10 by the studio for legal reasons.)
Sturges' parents were Mary Estelle Dempsey and travelling salesman Edmund C. Biden; his maternal grandparents, Catherine Campbell Smyth and Dominick d’Este Dempsey, were immigrants from Ireland.
When Sturges was three years old, his eccentric mother left America to pursue a singing career in Paris, where she annulled her marriage with Preston's father. Returning to America, Dempsey met her third husband, the wealthy stockbroker Solomon Sturges, who adopted Preston in 1902. According to biographers, Solomon Sturges was "diametrically opposite to Mary and her bohemianism." His mother, ultimately known as "Mary Desti" through her fourth marriage, was famous for her friendship with Isadora Duncan, even giving her the scarf that led to Duncan's freakish death. The young Sturges would sometimes travel from country to country with Duncan's dance company. Mary Desti also carried on a romantic affair with Aleister Crowley and collaborated with him on his magnum opus Magick (Book 4). In his memoirs Crowley described the young Sturges as "a most god-forsaken lout", and Sturges returned the favor with a vituperative mention of Crowley in his own memoirs.
As a young man, Preston Sturges bounced back and forth between Europe and the States. In 1916 he worked as a runner for New York stock brokers, a position he obtained through Solomon Sturges. The next year Preston enlisted in the United States Army Air Service, and graduated as a lieutenant from Camp Dick in Texas without seeing action. While at camp Sturges wrote an essay titled Three Hundred Words of Humor which was printed in the camp newspaper, becoming his first published work. Returning from camp, Sturges picked up a managing position at the Desti Emporium in New York, a store owned by his mother's fourth husband. He spent eight years (1919-1927) there, until he married the first of his four wives, Estelle De Wolfe.
In 1928, Sturges performed on Broadway in Hotbed, a short-lived play by Paul Osborn,, and Sturges' first produced play, The Guinea Pig, opened in Massachusetts. A success, Sturges moved it to Broadway the following year, a turning point in his career. That same year also saw the opening of Sturges' second play, the hit Strictly Dishonorable Written in just six days, the play ran for sixteen months and earned Sturges over $300,000, a staggering amount at the time. It attracted interest from Hollywood, and Sturges had done his writing for Paramount by the end of the year.
Three other Sturges stage plays were produced from 1930 to 1932, one of them a musical, but none of them were hits. By the end of the year, he was working more in Hollywood as a writer-for-hire, operating on short contracts, for studios Universal, MGM, and Columbia. He also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges' reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, "The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession."
For the remainder of the 1930s, Sturges operated under the strict auspices of the studio system, working on a string of scripts, some of which were shelved, sometimes with screen credit and sometimes not. While he was highly paid, earning $2500 a week, he was unhappy with the way directors were handling his dialogue. This experience built his resolve to take control of his own projects, which he finally accomplished in by offering to sell his screenplay for The Great McGinty (written six years earlier) to Paramount for a dollar in exchange for the chance to direct it. Paramount's legal department subsequently upped the fee to $10. Sturges' success quickly paved the way for similar deals for such writer-directors as Billy Wilder and John Huston. Sturges said, "It's taken me eight years to reach what I wanted. But now, if I don't run out of ideas — and I won't — we'll have some fun. There are some wonderful pictures to be made, and God willing, I will make some of them."
Though he had a 30-year Hollywood career, Sturges' greatest comedies were filmed in a furious 5-year burst of activity from to , during which he turned out The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Half a century later, four of these films – The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek – were chosen by the American Film Institute as being among the American Film Institute's 100 funniest American films. Their inimitable combination of sentiment and cynicism has kept them fresh for today's audiences.
Sturges' rich writing style has been described as that of "a lowbrow aristocrat, a melancholy wiseguy." His scripts were almost congenitally unable to deliver a single mood. During a tender romantic lakeside stroll in Sullivan's Travels, a hanged corpse dangles from a tree, independent of the storyline and uncommented upon. Yet, in Hail the Conquering Hero, the series of lies, crimes, and embarrassments all somehow bolster the film's theme of patriotism and duty.
One of the sources of conflict was that Sturges liked to reuse many of the same character actors in his films, thus creating what amounted to a regular troupe he could call upon within the studio system. Paramount didn't especially appreciate this, fearing that the audience would tire of repeatedly seeing the same faces in Sturges productions. But the director was adamant: "[T]hese little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures.
Members of Sturges' unofficial "stock company" included George Anderson, Al Bridge, Georgia Caine, Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Robert Dudley, Byron Foulger, Robert Greig, Harry Hayden, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, J. Farrell MacDonald, George Melford, Torben Meyer, Charles R. Moore, Frank Moran, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, Emory Parnell, Victor Potel, Dewey Robinson, Harry Rosenthal, Julius Tannen, Max Wagner and Robert Warwick. In addition, Sturges re-used other actors, such as Sig Arno, Luis Alberni, Eric Blore, Porter Hall and Raymond Walburn, and even stars such as Joel McCrea and Rudy Vallee, who both did three films with Sturges, and Eddie Bracken, who did two.
The prolonged clashes between Sturges and Paramount came to a head as the end of his contract approached. He had filmed The Great Moment and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek in and Hail the Conquering Hero in , but Paramount was suffering from a surfeit of films, too many to release at one time. Indeed, some of the studio's finished movies were sold off to United Artists, who needed product to distribute. The studio held onto Sturges' three films, since he was their star filmmaker at the time, but did not immediately release them. Internally, studio heads expressed serious reservations about them, as did the censors at the Hays Office. Sturges managed to get The Miracle of Morgan's Creek released with only minor changes, but the other two films were taken out of his control and tinkered with by DeSylva. When the revamped Hail the Conquering Hero had a disastrous preview, Paramount allowed Sturges – who by that time had left the studio – to come back and fix the film. Sturges did some rewriting, shot some new scenes, and re-edited the film back to his original vision, all without pay.
Although he was able to rescue Hail the Conquering Hero from studio interference, Sturges was unable to do the same for The Great Moment. The historical biography about the dentist who discovered the use of ether for anesthesia ended up being Sturges' only flop during this period. More significantly, it marked the onset of a downturn that Sturges never really recovered from.
Sturges was a temperamental talent who fully recognized his own worth. He had also invested in entrepreneurial projects such as an engineering company and The Players, a popular restaurant and nightclub, and thus did not have the same financial worries as did most studio system employees.
Millionaire Howard Hughes, who had formed a friendship with Sturges, offered to bankroll him as an independent filmmaker. In early 1944, Sturges and Hughes formed a partnership called California Pictures. The deal represented a major pay cut for Sturges, but it established him as a writer-producer-director, the only one in Hollywood and one of only three in the world along with England's Noel Coward and France's Rene Clair. The status led, again, to widespread admiration and envy among his Hollywood peers.
However, this career peak also marked the beginning of Sturges' professional decline. While the startup California Pictures was being created and structured, it was three years until Sturges' next release. That film, a Harold Lloyd vehicle entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock for which Sturges had coaxed the silent film icon out of retirement, went over budget and far over schedule, and was poorly received when it was released. Hughes, who had promised not to interfere in the film's production, stepped in and pulled the movie from distribution in order to re-edit it. He took almost four years to tinker with the film, and Hughes' version, retitled Mad Wednesday, which he released in through the studio he now owned, RKO, was no more successful than Sturges' had been.
In the meantime, California Pictures had put another film into production, Vendetta. At Hughes' behest, Sturges had written the script as a vehicle for Hughes' protegé, Faith Domergue. Max Ophüls was hired to direct, but after only a few days of filming, Hughes demanded that Sturges fire Ophüls and take over direction of the film. Seven weeks later, Sturges himself was fired, or quit (accounts differ). The partnership between the two iconoclasts was dissolved, having fallen apart after just one completed picture. As Sturges later recalled, "When Mr. Hughes made suggestions with which I disagreed, as he had a perfect right to do, I rejected them. When I rejected the last one, he remembered he had an option to take control of the company and he took over. So I left."
Coming on the heels of the failure of The Great Moment, these further flops, disappointments and setbacks served to tarnish the once stellar reputation of the golden boy of Hollywood.
Sturges was left professionally adrift. Accepting an offer from Darryl Zanuck, he landed at Fox where he wrote, directed, and produced two films. The first of these, Unfaithfully Yours was not well received upon release by either reviewers or the public, though its critical reputation has since improved. However, his second Fox film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend was the first serious flop in star Betty Grable's career, and Sturges was again on his own. He built a theater at his Players restaurant, but the project did not pan out.
Over the next several years, Sturges continued to write, but many of the projects were underfunded or stillborn, and those that emerged did not approach the same success as his earlier triumphs. His 1951 Broadway musical, Make a Wish, underwent extensive rewriting by Abe Burrows and ran for only a few months. His next Broadway project, Carnival in Flanders, a musical which Sturges wrote and directed in 1953, closed after six performances.
Sturges was having no better luck in Hollywood, where his clout was gone. Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in the 1952 Broadway production of the George Bernard Shaw play, The Millionairess, got Sturges to agree to adapt the script and direct. But she could not get a single Hollywood studio to back the project.
A 1953 lien by the Internal Revenue Service, with whom he'd been having tax problems, cost Sturges the Players and other assets. Sturges put a brave public face on the situation, writing, "I had so very much for so very long, it is quite natural for the pendulum to swing the other way for a while, and I really cannot and will not complain." However, his drinking became heavy, and his marriage and many of his relationships continued to deteriorate.
Sturges began spending more time in Europe, as he had as a young man. His last directorial effort took place there when he wrote and directed Les Carnets du Major Thompson, an adaptation of a popular French novel. The film was released in France in and two years later in the U.S., under the title The French, They Are a Funny Race. It failed to register with critics or the audience.
Sturges made four brief onscreen appearances during his career: in two of his own films (Christmas in July and Sullivan's Travels), in the Paramount all-star extravaganza Star Spangled Rhythm, and, in the years of his decline, in the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday, which was filmed in France and would be the last film he worked on. Two decades earlier, Sturges had been a writer on one of Hope's earliest film successes, Never Say Die.
Sturges died of a heart attack at the Algonquin Hotel while writing his autobiography (which, ironically, he'd intended to title The Events Leading Up to My Death), and was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His book "Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words" was published in 1990 by Simon & Schuster. In 1975, he became the first writer to be given the Screen Writers Guild's Laurel Award posthumously.
Posthumously, Sturges received the Laurel Award for "Screen Writing Achievement" from the Writers Guild of America in . He has a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1601 Vine Street.