Why “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” Is My Favorite Preston Sturges Film
Tonight on Turner Classic Movies, starting at 8 pm, the station is running a tribute to Preston Sturges by showing six of his movies, starting with, as part of their “The Essentials” program, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Even though I own all the movies they’re showing, this is definitely a joyous occasion. Sturges is an important figure in Hollywood history because he was the first screenwriter to make the transition to director, thus paving the way for, among others, John Huston, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Billy Wilder, among many others. But if that were all he accomplished, he would merely be an interesting footnote. During his peak, from 1940 to 1948, Sturges also wrote and directed several of the best comedies ever made, and even the two films from that period that fall somewhat short of that peak – The Great Moment (1944), his one “serious” film from the time that was edited heavily by the studio, and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947, also known as Mad Wednesday), which teamed him with comedy legend Harold Lloyd – have a lot to recommend them. And as Andrew Sarris points out in his last book, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949, what distinguished Sturges from other writer-directors who immediately followed in his wake is, unlike them, most of his movies were original works, not adaptations (except for The Great Moment and The Lady Eve (1941); also, his final film, The French They Are a Funny Race (1955), though apparently, the less said about that one, the better), so he was truly an original talent. As I said, this is a joyous occasion.
So, naturally, I have to complain. In addition to Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, the other films TCM will be showing are The Great McGinty (1940), his first film as director, which also won him his only Oscar (for original screenplay), Christmas in July (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Though I rank The Great McGinty and Christmas in July slightly lower than the other four – he was getting warmed up – they are all movies I can watch time and again and always laugh. But there are two glaring omissions from that list. One is Unfaithfully Yours (1948), though that can probably be explained by the fact unlike those six films, it was made for 20th Century Fox, and so it most likely is shown exclusively on Fox Movie Channel. The other one is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), which, if I had to pick one Sturges movie I value above all others, this would be the one. Not only that, but since it wasn’t part of the box set several years ago of Sturges films (it was put out by Universal, and while they have bought much of Paramount’s back catalog, Miracle for some reason wasn’t one of them), it’s also a DVD that’s been allowed to go out of print. This, I feel is a crying shame.
Part of why I revere the movie so much is for its audacity; if you’ll pardon the expression, it was a miracle the film ever got made, let alone distributed. From beginning to end (tagged by a quote from Twelfth Night; “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” – italics are Sturges, which is either a perfect punchline or a rare case of Sturges gilding the lily), this is one long assault on the Production Code at the time (in reviewing the movie, critic James Agee remarked, “The Hays Office (which enforced the Code) has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep”). It was in fact made in 1942, but the release was held up for two years because of censorship problems. The central plot, not to make any bones about it, is of Trudy (Betty Hutton), a small-town girl (the town of the title) who goes to a party, gets “drunk” (more on that later), can’t remember what she did that night but has a vague idea she got married (“to Private Ratzkywatzky” is about all she can remember), becomes pregnant, and tricks Norville (Eddie Bracken), the man who’s been in love with her since they were kids, into marrying her. Not to mention it has certain parallels with the Nativity Story. And it’s a comedy. And yet, as audacious and brazen as the film is, it’s also one of the sweetest, most tender love stories ever made. This may be part of what some have called Sturges’ ambivalent nature (which some critics, among them Agee, Manny Farber, and to a lesser extent Richard Corliss, have found fault with), but if that nature can produce films like Miracle (along with his other films), you won’t find me complaining.
Part of that ambivalent nature is how Sturges always had competing comic styles in his movies, both the rapid-fire dialogue that was the hallmark of screwball comedy and the antic slapstick of silent comedies (and some sound comedies at the time – mostly in the Three Stooges films – though mostly done in animated shorts). The Marx Brothers also had both verbal comedy (in the form of Groucho and Chico) and slapstick (from Harpo), but it was compartmentalized, whereas Sturges often had both comedy styles going on at once, sometimes from the same actors. One reason he was able to get away with this at this stage in his career, of course, was he directed his own scripts, and while he was mostly known as a writer rather than director, his visual style was underrated. Take Miracle, for example; shot by John F. Seitz (whose long and distinguished career included two other Sturges films – Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero – as well as the classic Billy Wilder films Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard), it features several long takes of characters walking and talking, and yet it never seems showy and in fact provides a nice balance to the chaos of the plot. And Sturges and editor Stuart Gilmore (who edited all of Sturges’ films starting with The Lady Eve) knew just exactly when to cut for the slapstick humor to make the joke work.
But mostly, that ambivalent nature can be seen in the push-pull of the plot, the themes it brings up, and in Sturges’ method in telling the story. Every movie he directed seemed to be an exercise in exactly what he could get away with, on several levels. Obviously, in this case, considering what he was satirizing (again, the Nativity story), he was playing for large stakes here. It’s not like his films hadn’t featured innuendo before – one need only recall the train ride in The Lady Eve where Barbara Stanwyck, pretending to be her own illegitimate sister, tells a shocked Henry Fonda of her previous escapades while the train makes appropriate sounds – but Sturges never pushed it as far as he did in Miracle. There were places where he ultimately had to finesse the censors – instead of Trudy getting drunk, a soldier is a bit too exuberant in dancing with her, causing her to hit her head on a light, so she can’t really remember what happened that night – but basically, this is full-out assault. And again, the amazing thing is how much he got away with (that’s not even bringing up the possibility the babies Trudy has – “Six! All boys!” – may have come from different fathers that night). And yet, as much as Sturges may have stretched the envelope as far as content goes, what he does with form is just as important.
This was the first film Sturges had set in a small town since Remember the Night (which he wrote but didn’t direct), and while that was a loving portrait of small town cliches (albeit with more skill and less cheap sentiment than usual), this film finds Sturges taking a decidedly more jaded view; Norville is arrested and Trudy, along with her family, is forced to move out of town, basically for the crime of Trudy being pregnant and unwed, and Norville supposedly trying to marry her under false pretenses. And yet, as with all of his films, while he has fun with the worst impulses of his characters (and the places they live in), Sturges, as realistic (or as cynical) as he was, shows their good sides as well. He may on the one hand think love is a sucker’s bet, but he wants to believe in it. And therefore the characters will surprise you, like Trudy’s younger sister Emmy (Diana Lynn), who is the most sensible one in the family, and maybe the town (she’s the one who convinces Trudy to marry Norval anyway), and yet is still enough of a little girl that she wants to sit on her father’s lap. Her father, meanwhile, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), comes off as an overprotective father and basically snarls at people half the time. And yet, when he finally finds out what happened, he stands by his daughter, and even arranges for Norval to escape from jail.
Another hallmark of Sturges’ films is, of course, his stock company. Except for John Ford and Frank Capra, no other director got as much mileage out of using the same supporting cast over and over, and even Ford and Capra didn’t have as many people working for them as Sturges did (his stock comedy was once estimated as having almost 30 people in it). And while sometimes, the actors played similar roles in each movie – Brian Donlevy (McGinty, now Governor) and Akim Tamiroff (The Boss) reprise their roles from The Great McGinty, and Tamiroff even gets to repeat a gag from the earlier film – Sturges also had them play against type. Therefore, gravel-voiced Frank Moran (a former heavyweight boxer), though he looks the part of the Marine sergeant he plays, gets to lecture Constable Kockenlocker about being nice to people to get them to do what they want, and Alan Bridge can go from being the tough-minded sheriff in The Lady Eve and a weary conductor in Palm Beach Story to a lawyer here who tries to help, on separate occasions, both Trudy and Norval. Arguably Sturges’ most valuable supporting player is Demarest, who appeared in everything he directed at Paramount. While he of course appeared in other films before and after Sturges (and gained his biggest audience years later as Uncle Charley on My Three Sons), he was never used as well, and carries both weight and tenderness as the father. Sturges uses his character actors both individually and in a crowd, and yet is always keeping them busy, never as just part of the background, and they always suggest having an interior life.
It’s a peculiarity of Sturges’ career that while he had his stock company (in addition to Bridge, Demarest and Moran, there was also Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, and Esther Howard, among others), and worked with his major leading men more than once (Joel McCrea starred in three of Sturges’ films, while Bracken did this one and the follow-up, Hail the Conquering Hero), he never worked with the same lead actress more than once (unless you count Barbara Stanwyck, who not only starred in The Lady Eve, but also was the lead in Remember the Night (1940), which Sturges wrote but didn’t direct). And Hutton seems, in retrospect, an odd choice to play a Sturges heroine. All of the leading ladies Sturges had worked with up till that point were either “nice” (Muriel Angelus in McGinty and Ellen Drew in Christmas in July) or hid their devilish nature under an air of refinement (Stanwyck, Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels and Claudette Colbert in Palm Beach Story). Hutton, on the other hand, had enough energy for 10 other people, and often showed in on screen – we even see that early on, when she’s dancing in her room in anticipation of going out dancing that night. It’s to Sturges’ credit he’s able to get Hutton to channel that energy into the part, yet restrain it so, unlike some of her other films, it doesn’t overwhelm the movie (she reportedly once said Sturges was the only director to let her act).
That also applies to her co-star here, Bracken (with whom she had already appeared in three other films before this one). Pairing two actors of similar temperament and energy in a romantic comedy isn’t always the best idea (as in, for example, The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), which unsuccessfully paired together James Cagney and Bette Davis). And unlike Hutton, Bracken gets plenty of chances to go over-the-top; his character has been kept out of the military because of his high blood pressure, and every time he gets excited – which often happens around Trudy, especially when she tells him what happened to her and how she needs his help – he either stutters or he starts to flail around and see spots. And yet, Bracken also has his quiet moments as well, and his high energy is balanced by the sincere love Norval has for Trudy. There scenes together are some of the most heartwarming, as Trudy ultimately doesn’t want to play Norval for a sucker, yet Norval doesn’t mind. Of course, this is all wrapped inside Sturges’ assault on the small-town values almost always portrayed lovingly in movies at that time – the Governor ends up ordering the town officials to go to great lengths to make sure the “miracle” of the title ends up coming out in a way that doesn’t embarrass anyone – and yet, as I said, it still ends up being both a sweet love story and the most audacious movie Sturges ever made. This balancing act Sturges pulls off here better than he did in any other film he did, and that’s why this is my favorite Sturges film of all time.