Friday, November 29, 2013

Christmas in July

Tonight's the last Friday in November, so we're reaching the end of the Friday Night Spotlight on screwball comedies. This week sees a couple of Preston Sturges movies from the end of the screwball era. Of them, the one I haven't recommended before is Christmas in July, which you can see at 9:45 PM.

Dick Powell stars as Jimmy McDonald, a good guy working in the accounting department of some big business, but not really getting ahead in the world. He's engaged to Betty (Ellen Drew), but still lives with Mother in an apartment building in the poorer part of town. Part of the problem is that Jimmy dreams of getting rich, in a way peculiar to the decade or so just before World War II: winning big money in a radio contest. (You'll remember a radio contest being a major part of the plot to The Magnificent Dope.) This particular contest has a grand prize of $25,000, which would have been several years' income back in 1940, and involves coming up with the best new slogan for Maxford Coffee. (Where's Mrs. Olsen when you need her?)

Meanwhile, we get to see the contest in action. Everbody's sent in their slogans, and now it's tim for the jury to select the winners, but there's a problem: the jury can't agree on which slogan ought to be the winner. One juror, Mr. Bidlocker (William Demarest) has one slogan in mind, while everybody else has a different one. With the contest at a deadlock, some of Jimmy's co-workers decide to play a cruel joke on him: they send him a bogus telegram claiming that his slogan has been selected the winner, and he should go see Mr. Maxford (Raymond Walbourn) to pick up his $25,000 check. Some co-workers. Jimmy goes, and because Maxford has been unable to get in touch with any of the jurors, he assumes that the incompentent jurors simply never informed him that they had finally selected a winner. So, Maxford actually cuts Jimmy a $25,000 check on the spot!

Being declared the winner of one of these big radio contests changes Jimmy in that it gives him more confidence, but it really changes other people's perception of Jimmy just as much. Jimmy's boss gives him a promotion, and retailers are more than happy to give Jimmy an advance on his check when he wants to buy an engagement ring for Betty and gifts for all of the people in his apartment building. It's only at this point that the other shoe drops, and Maxford discovers that the telegraph was a phony, and that the jury still hasn't selected a winner. Maxford understandably presumes that Jimmy is trying to con him, and stops payment on the check. What a PR nightmare.

Things look terrible for Jimmy, but this being a Preston Sturges comedy, you know it's going to have a reasonably happy ending for him and Betty. It's more a question of how the characters are going to reach the resolution that allows the viewers to be happy for Jimmy and Betty. In that regard, Christmas in July succeeds fairly well, although I'm not going to give away the ending.

Christmas in July was only Sturges' second movie as a director following The Great McGinty, so even though he had written quite a few screenplays, the full Preston Sturges style isn't quite here yet. Christmas in July isn't quite as zany as The Palm Beach Story or The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and it isn't as pointed in its criticisms of people in power as Sullivan's Travels or Hail the Conquering Hero. It's fairly gentle, but a nice gentle. And it's still Preston Sturges. Even his mess The Great Moment was worth watching. And Christmas in July is much more successful than The Great Moment.

The TCM shop lists Christmas in July as being available as part of a Preston Sturges box set. It did get a standalone DVD release a couple of years ago, at least according to Amazon, but I don't know if that's still in print.

No comments: