If there’s anyone who holds a special place in my classic film-loving heart it’s Preston Sturges. For someone who is well-versed in classic cinema, his name is probably one you would be familiar with. But about a year ago, I really had no idea who he was.
Therefore, I was totally missing out.
I watched The Lady Eve because it had two of my favorite actors in it, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, and it was on my instant play queue on Netflix. It was a fairly straight forward romantic comedy, but so well written and witty. It was love at first viewing.
Preston Sturges started writing for the stage before moving on to movie scripts in the 1930s. After writing scripts for a decade, Sturges offered Paramount his script for The Great McGinty for $1 in exchange for the chance to direct the picture. The film was a success, bringing Sturges a Best Screenplay Oscar.
The Great McGinty started a run for writer/director Sturges that is made up of seven incredible films: The Great McGinty, Christmas In July, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. It was a run that lasted only four years, but these films would be accomplishments in the resume of any director.
I’m sure everyone who knows the films of Preston Sturges probably has a favorite, as hard as it is to actually pick one. Mine is probably The Lady Eve, even though I’m pretty fond of all of these films. I don’t think Christmas In July gets talked about as much as some of the others, so I want to give it some time here.
The film begins with Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) listening to a radio broadcast with his girlfriend, Betty (Ellen Drew). The broadcast is to announce the Maxford House Coffee Company slogan contest winner, awarding $25,000 to the first place entry. Jimmy and Betty are both employees at the Baxter Coffee Company, working a thankless job crunching numbers all day.
Behind the scenes, selection of the contest winner is being held up by one member of the contest committee, Bildocker (played by Sturges regular, William Demarest), who refuses to agree with the rest of the panel. The broadcast ends without a winner being chosen.
Jimmy dreams of winning some contest somewhere, and finally having enough money to marry Betty. She doesn’t care about that, but it’s important to Jimmy that he is in good financial standing. Winning the contest would also prove to Jimmy that he has accomplished something. He believes his slogan entry is a winner, a witty one based on some scientific findings that state that coffee doesn’t make you tired: “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”
The next day at work, three employees (named Tom, Dick and Harry, no joke) overhear Jimmy calling Maxford House to see if they have announced a winner yet. They decide it would be a good practical joke to fashion a fake telegraph telling Jimmy he’s won the contest, so they do so and leave it on his desk. Once Jimmy reads it, he tells the entire room of workers, and they all begin to celebrate. The head of the company threatens to fire him over the disruption, but upon learning that Jimmy has won the contest, he promotes him to the ad department and allows Jimmy and Betty to take the rest of the day off.
Dr. Maxford, flustered over the previous night’s broadcast and the lack of a verdict among his contest committee, gives Jimmy the check for the $25, 000, thinking the committee went ahead and chose a winner without bothering to tell him. Jimmy and Betty go on a shopping spree, purchasing a fancy davenport for his mother, an engagement ring for Betty, and gifts for the entire block. However, Maxford soon learns of the mistake, and cancels the check. The department store employees soon show up to take back the gifts, and Maxford arrives to let Jimmy have it. Soon the street is mildly rioting, and the department store decides to allow everyone to keep their presents. Tom, Dick and Harry soon arrive to fess up to their prank and offer an apology.
Jimmy goes back to Baxter’s and sees his new office being prepared. Mr. Baxter, now understanding what happened, thinks about revoking Jimmy’s promotion, but Betty talks him into giving Jimmy a chance. Jimmy admits that winning the contest gave him confidence in his creative slogans, and now he doesn’t quite know whether he can succeed in creating advertising for the company.
Meanwhile, back at Maxford House, a winner has been chosen. Bildocker has been successful in convincing the other members of the committee that the best slogan is, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.” He tells a now hysterical Dr. Maxford that the winner has been informed.
Christmas In July satirizes institutions like many of Sturges’ films do by touching on consumerism, advertising and fame, but it also comments on how we sometimes measure our own self-worth by how others perceive us. Jimmy doesn’t believe he’s any good until seemingly winning the contest proves it to him. When that is all taken away again, he doesn’t quite know what to do.
I feel Sturges and Capra are very similar in that they explore these larger, institutionally-based themes as well as human themes in their films, usually through an everyman character thrown into circumstances beyond their control. But where I see Capra as the great idealist, known for his upbeat and sentimental films, Sturges can be a lot more pointed and cynical, but it is wrapped up in all that great wit.
Dick Powell, in his only collaboration with Sturges, is perfect as Jimmy MacDonald. Showing a more mature appearance than the babyface he displayed though his 1930s musicals, Powell looks right for the role of the guy disappointed with life and going nowhere, but that youthful exuberance that he had while starring at Warner Bros. is still there, helping round out a character who gets a new outlook on life after winning the contest. In a few years, that would be gone, replaced by the tough-guy persona. Ellen Drew puts in a nice performance as Jimmy’s loving and devoted girlfriend, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Sturges regulars like the aforementioned Demarest, George Anderson, Jimmy Conlin and Georgia Caine. Raymond Walburn is great as the overworked and confused Dr. Maxford.
Christmas In July may not be as laugh out loud funny as other Sturges films, but it still bears the great writing, timing and feeling of its writer/director. The film is a short 67 minutes, so it can be a nice little introduction into the fun world of Preston Sturges. Believe me, once you see one, it will be hard not to see the rest.
Preston Sturges’ Eleven Rules for Box Office Appeal:
1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything.