O brother where art thou? With any luck at all, catching the Preston Sturges film series at SAM

I can offer no greater proof of devotion than this: For the screen name on my personal e-mail account I took the moniker of a minor, but oh so memorable, character in Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July."

Sturges was an American original, a Renaissance man for the 20th century who - in between inventing kissproof lipstick, running a grand but money-losing Hollywood eatery and going into short-lived partnership with Howard Hughes just as that fellow American original took a definitive turn toward whacko - wrote and directed eight of the most remarkable movies ever released in a stretch of barely five years (1940-44).

Before that, he'd written several plays; a screenplay, the 1933 "The Power and the Glory," whose scrambled chronology and framing as the bio of a recently deceased tycoon anticipated "Citizen Kane" by eight years; a classic screwball comedy, the 1937 "Easy Living"; another distinctive comedy, "Remember the Night" (1940), which transmuted strikingly into dark romance in its final reels; and the scenarios and/or dialogue for more than a dozen other pictures. Afterward he'd write and direct the surreal Harold Lloyd comedy "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" (aka "Mad Wednesday," 1946); the comedy noir "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948); and only a couple of other movies before dying of a heart attack in 1959.

One other Sturgean milestone: In 1940, irked by what he saw as clumsy directorial interference on "Remember the Night," Sturges talked Paramount Pictures into letting him direct his scripts. Paramount probably hoped he'd crash and burn, then slink back to the writing cubicle. Instead, "The Great McGinty" - a hilarious, sardonic and bravely bleak comedy about politics - became a hit with critics and public, won Sturges an Oscar for his original story and threw wide the doors for such fellow aspiring writer-directors as John Huston, Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

"The Great McGinty" isn't part of Seattle Art Museum's "Christmas in July: The Madcap Movies of Preston Sturges," beginning July 7 and running for five consecutive Thursdays. Neither is "The Great Moment," a 1944 biography of the discoverer of anaesthesia that swings wildly from slapstick comedy to bitter personal tragedy and failure, and was never released in anything like the form Sturges intended. That leaves six titles out of the aforementioned remarkable eight. Collectively and individually, they amply reward the series-ticket price of $30 for SAM members, $34 others, and emphatically reward attendance for six Thursdays in Plestcheeff Auditorium, 100 University St., through Aug. 11.

"Christmas in July" (July 7), one of the most sheerly beloved films ever made, is a sardonic but big-hearted comedy about a young working-class couple (Dick Powell and the late Ellen Drew) who come to believe one topsy-turvy afternoon that they've struck it rich. It's all a practical joke whose destructiveness the pranksters realize only too late. Apart from his wildly pinwheeling plots, screwball dialogue and consistent success at getting offbeat performances from his leading players, the most distinctive thing about Sturges' filmmaking was the care he lavished on a legion of Hollywood character actors, people who were effectively anonymous in their many other movies yet became stars for him, leaning out of the background to deliver world-class lines tailored to their eccentric personalities. See/hear especially Raymond Walburn as coffee magnate Col. Maxford, Frank Moran as a beleaguered beat cop and William Demarest as the lone holdout in a panel assigned to pick a winning slogan for Maxford House Coffee.

Something has to be Sturges' most relentlessly side-splitting comedy, and that accolade is generally awarded to "The Lady Eve" (July 14). Barbara Stanwyck is merciless - and breathtakingly sexy - as a second-generation con artist who targets brewing heir Henry Fonda, a clueless amateur herpetologist who has spent entirely too much time up the Amazon. Their respective fathers are played by Charles Coburn and Eugene Pallette, character-actor demigods. But also savor Eric Blore as Stanwyck and Coburn's partner in crime, and Al Bridge's deathless line reading as an exasperated shipboard waiter.

On the other hand, there are people who name "Sullivan's Travels" (July 21) among the best movies ever made - and its narrative itinerary is so unique and unsettling that we just have to leave a great deal unsaid at this point. This much is safe to impart: Joel McCrea plays an immensely successful director of Hollywood comedies who, having decided he must make a social-consciousness allegory entitled "O Brother Where Art Thou?", sets off on a road trip disguised as a hobo, with starlet Veronica Lake for companionship. Look for Sturges himself in a quick Hollywood-soundstage scene about a minute before the end.

"The Lady Eve"'s greatest rival for funniest Sturges film is "The Palm Beach Story" (July 28), which dances a goofy tarantella all over the American obsession with wealth. There are a couple of dozen millionaires at large in this movie, every one of them insane: Robert Dudley as a comic deus ex machina known only as "the Wienie King," a railroad club car filled with Sturges stalwarts impersonating "the Ale and Quail Club," and '20s crooner Rudy Vallee ascending to character-actor sublimity as John D. Hackensacker III, the instantly devoted suitor of Joel McCrea's runaway wife, Claudette Colbert. McCrea and Colbert are not insane; but then, they're not millionaires either, which is the problem as she sees it. Now, about that unexplained, serial-cliffhanger-style chase at the beginning....

If you're keeping count, that leaves two, and they're tops in my book. They brought Sturges a pair of best-screenplay Oscar nominations in 1944. "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (Aug. 4) focuses on the inconvenient pregnancy of possibly married, but also possibly unmarried, small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), who went out one night with an in-transit serviceman whose name may have been "something like Ratzkywatzky." "Hail the Conquering Hero" (Aug. 11) focuses on the inconvenient lack of a war record for Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (the late Eddie Bracken), whose hero dad fell in WWI on the day Woodrow was born. Come WWII, Woodrow is supposedly off fighting in the Pacific but - discharged because of chronic hay fever, and ashamed to tell the folks back home - is working at a defense plant in San Diego. He crosses paths with some on-leave Marines who decide the guy should go home to Mom.

Each of these films is a comic masterpiece in its own right, each asking discomfiting questions about some cherished, arguably destructive American values, yet finding its own tortuous way to affirmation. They're also a fascinating matched set: both starring the bullet-nosed, pint-sized Bracken; both with showcase roles for the doyen of Sturges' character-actor crew, William Demarest (in "Miracle," as Trudy's cop dad Officer Kockenlocker; in "Hero," as Marine Sgt. Julius Heppelfinger); and shot virtually back-to-back on the same small-town set, lovingly mapped in long, traveling takes by Sturges and cameraman John Seitz. But it's "Hail the Conquering Hero" that casts a lingering spell, beyond satire. What a rich discovery to make some summer evening.

To purchase tickets, call the SAM Box Office at 654-3121. And to leave messages for me, e-mail bildocker@earthlink.net[[In-content Ad]]