Index Pages

Thursday 24 December 2009

Christmas in July (1940)

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Dick Powell and Ellen Drew
Utterly appropriate for a Christmas Eve night even though it has precisely nothing to do with Christmas, this is a Preston Sturges movie which automatically means I want to see it. He was the other Frank Capra, the two names always seeming to crop up together, because they both made fairy tale stories that had a real grounding and they play today like some of the most thoughtful yet most entertaining movies Hollywood ever came up with in their golden age. The thing is that Capra is generally pretty easy to see, his early silents notwithstanding, but Sturges is annoyingly obscure. He only directed twelve films but six years of scouring the TCM schedules has only landed me four of them thus far, all of them gems: The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Every time I find another one, it's a good day. It's like Christmas in July.

Like so many of these films, it's a life lesson wrapped up in comedy. Dick Powell is Jimmy MacDonald, a young man who works in an office and dreams about winning it big so he can marry his girlfriend and provide for her in a manner he sees fit. To make the money he enters competitions wherever he finds them, from peanut counting contests to missing word contests to limerick contests, but he never wins any of them, which doesn't bode well for the big one which he has an entry in. Maxford House Coffee have a slogan contest running with a $25,000 grand prize. His slogan sucks: 'If you can't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee, it's the bunk.' It's a pun, you see, because he's read some cuckoo theory that coffee actually sends people to sleep. He hasn't a chance in a billion, but he wins anyway.

The thing is that it's all a joke and he isn't in on the punchline. The Maxford jury is hung, eleven to one, with William Demarest gleefully playing the irascible standout, Mr Bildocker, so there's no result as expected on the Maxford radio show. Three of Jimmy's colleagues at E Baxter & Sons Coffee (named Tom, Dick and Harry, I kid you not) overhear him ringing Maxford House in the morning about whether the jury has come to a verdict or not and they play a prank on him. An envelope, some cut out words and a dab of glue later and there's a telegram on his desk to tell him he's won and he can go pick up his cheque. The catch is that the whole thing escalates, as such things have a tendency to do, and they can't tell him the truth until it's way too late.

Like the best of Capra and Sturges, Christmas in July is a simple story but it resonates with plenty of depth, way beyond, 'What would you do if you won $25,000?'. When Jimmy believes an entity as huge and important as Maxford House believes in him, he can believe in himself. Apparently it takes that much, such self confidence meaning that he trusts the Viennese doctor who thinks coffee makes people sleepy over his own experience and that of everyone around him. Then again everyone else has the same problem. When Mr Baxter, his boss, finds him on top of his desk with everyone in the office around him, he fires him, only to promptly change his mind once he finds out that he employs a winner. Suddenly he's invited in to meet the execs, with cigars and plenty of time to throw out his ideas. Later on when Jimmy lets him in on the news and asks if it makes a difference, Baxter explains that of course it does. He likes Jimmy's slogans because they sound good, but he knows they're good because Maxford House like them. Commercial insurance, he calls it.

The moral could easily be summed up in something my granddad used to tell me: 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' It isn't a difficult lesson but it's one that our lead character naturally doesn't learn until the end of the film, a mere 67 minutes away that feel more like 37. In the hands of Dick Powell, we're with him though, as he plays a likeable young man that we wish the best for even when he comes out with odd little cracks that were probably fine in 1940 but seem more than a little dated today. His girl, inevitably called Betty, is a delight, and Ellen Drew is as lovely a girl next door as Hollywood ever cast, something like a much softer Joan Crawford. No wonder she became the object of Vincent Price's passion in The Baron of Arizona. Yeah, OK, he was after the money but she's a heck of a backup prize. Really though it's the supporting characters that turn films like these from solid movies into joyous riots and Christmas in July benefits from a whole bunch of the best Paramount could conjure up.

Best of all is Raymond Walburn, who plays Dr Maxford, the man who runs Maxford House. He's a rambunctious bundle of energy who plays wonderfully off everyone he comes up against, whether that be Powell or one of his own employees, not just Demarest but also Franklin Pangborn as his radio announcer, Don Hartman. Walburn is like Guy Kibbee would be if he had ADHD and he steals the whole show with his tirades against whoever happens to be around at the time. Harry Hayden is utterly competent as Jimmy's manager, so good that he doesn't even appear to be acting, somehow as natural a background as the walls while always being noticeable. I don't know how he works that. Everyone else seems to be on top of their game too, right down to people I've never heard of like Ferike Boros and Julius Tannen, Frank Moran and Georgia Caine, Ernest Truex and Alexander Carr.

There's an energy that keeps everyone hopping that begins with Sturges as writer and director, and it's got me still hopping second time through. It's too engaging to only watch once, and after all it's only 67 minutes long. Watching this twice still takes up less time than Avatar once. Sturges had worked on twenty movies as a writer before being trusted enough to direct one of his own, titles that included The Invisible Man, Twentieth Century and Imitation of Life. His debut as a writer/director was The Great McGinty, successful enough and more importantly cheap enough to make him noticed. An Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay certainly didn't hurt either.

So for a follow up he went back to an old unproduced play of his called A Cup of Coffee and turned it into Christmas in July. He could have been nominated for this too and any one of at least his next half dozen movies, but he had to wait until 1945 for another nod, in which he got to compete with himself, nominated in the same category for both The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Surprisingly with such consistent quality, or perhaps because of it, he only directed an even dozen movies, if you don't count Vendetta which saw him fired by Howard Hughes and the whole thing redone. I now have five under my belt and there isn't a dud among them. Every one I see makes me want to see the rest. At least I now only have seven to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment