14/12/2011

Christmas In July (1940)



A little more Dick Powell for you in Preston Sturges' underrated follow-up to the same year's The Great McGinty, based on a never-produced play the writer-director had drafted in 1931, A Cup Of Coffee. It may not actually have anything to do with Christmas but, hey, so sue me.

A real product of the Great Depression - think My Man Godfrey (1936) - Sturges' satire on consumer-capitalism concerns Jimmy MacDonald (Powell), a poor but earnest young clerk at New York's Baxter Coffee Company who enters a contest to compose the new slogan for rival firm Maxford House Coffee ("If you can't sleep, it isn't the coffee. It's the bunk"). Taking advantage of a delay in the announcement of the winner (William Demarest's Mr Bildocker causes it by anticipating 12 Angry Men (1957) and refusing to side with the majority vote, driving his fellow executives, including Robert Warwick and Jimmy Conlin, to distraction with his stubbornness), three of Jimmy's colleagues decide to play a prank on him by writing a phoney telegram in which he is declared the lucky recipient of the $25,000 first prize. When Jimmy's boss (Ernest Truex) gets wind of this triumph, he decides to hand the lad a promotion to the advertising department, where Jimmy immediately impresses. Having picked up his cheque from an unquestioning Dr Maxford (Raymond Walburn), Jimmy and his loving girlfriend (Ellen Drew) proceed to hit the stores to buy a wedding ring, a high-tech davenport for his mother and gifts for everyone on the block. However, when the truth is discovered, all hell breaks loose and a fish fight erupts between Jimmy's neighbours and the department store creditors trying to retrieve their goods, leaving the naive victim disillusioned and debt-ridden. Until...

There's some real pathos on show here in the desperate dreams of Sturges' protagonist of hitting the jackpot and selflessly delivering those around him from the poverty and desperation that has blighted their lives. Powell and Drew make for an adorable couple and her impassioned speech to save his job is a truly touching moment, as is the scene in which the trio of contrite jokers bring the MacDonalds a replacement couch for their pains. This is a fable as timeless as they come and as relevant now as when it was penned but, as a spoof of modern business culture, the hollow pursuit of material wealth and the illusory nature of success, Christmas In July is perhaps not as biting as it might have been. Still, Mr Baxter's rationale for thinking less of Jimmy when he learns he hasn't really won the competition has an enjoyably crooked logic - without the quantifiable endorsement of others, his ideas have no capital and are thus to all intents and purposes worthless, no matter how fine they may have seemed at first ("I didn't hang on to my father's money by backing my own judgement, you know"). There are also some splendid character turns to enjoy here, from the likes of Truex, an animated Walburn, Franklin Pangborn as a frazzled radio personality and Alan Bridge as an eccentric jewelry salesman. Not Strurges' finest but rather lovely all the same.

2 comments:

  1. I first came to know these movies when five of them were shown on the BBC at Christmas in the early 1990's, including my personal favourites 'The Lady Eve' and 'The Palm Beach Story'. Since then I have had to wait for the invention of the DVD, and then last year's Preston Sturges DVD box set, when at last I could check out the other three.

    Of those three, 'The Great McGinty' was the first movie to be "Written & Directed by Preston Sturges", and has to go into the GOOD rather than the BRILLIANT category. But for his first such project to be so good has got to be seen as a brilliant achievement for Sturges. I know how long he had to wait, and how hard he had to bargain to get that opportunity. He knew he had to succeed, not in his own terms but in those of his bosses at Paramount. In other words he had to bring in an economical movie that was conventional enough to be popular with audiences and critics alike.
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  2. Thanks for sharing Saidul, yeah I think Preston Sturges certainly had to struggle and take on a lot of hack writing jobs in his early days just to get started but it really paid off for him in the end. I agree with you about The Great McGinty and also The Palm Beach Story, which is probably my favourite, along with Sullivan's Travels. Thanks again for reading!

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