Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Film Review: Christmas in July

"Christmas in July"  *** (out of ****)

Comedy filmmaking legend Preston Sturges gives movie audiences an early Christmas gift with his comedy "Christmas in July" (1940).

"Christmas in July" is a comedy which would have been much more socially meaningful if it was released around five years earlier, sometime in 1935 or at least during the heights of the "Great Depression".

Mr. Sturges' story revolves around an office worker, Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), who has entered in the Maxford House coffee slogan contest. Jimmy and his girlfriend, Betty (Ellen Drew) are like so many other working class couples struggling to survive. They love each other but Jimmy perfectly explains, you can't get married when you don't have money. Love and marriage is a rich man's game. Poor people can't afford such luxuries in life. But, if Jimmy can win this contest, which has a first place prize of $25,000 Jimmy will be able to marry Betty and together they can live the life they always wanted, happily.

Jimmy firmly believes he will win the Maxford House contest with his slogan "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk". The way Jimmy figures it, each contest he has entered in and lost only doubles his chances for the next contest. So, according the Jimmy's logical, the law of average has to work in his favor. He has entered so many contest and lost now is his time to win.

Audiences during the "Great Depression" would have been able to perfectly relate to such a story. Get rich quick schemes were all people had to get them through the financial hard times they faced. When you have nothing in life, all you have are your hopes and dreams and the belief one day your ship will come in. The bad times can't life forever, right?

Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July" though was released in 1940. Times weren't as hard as they were in 1929 or 1932. In 1940 America wasn't involved in World War II either, however there is a brief acknowledgement of war in Europe. "Christmas in July" is a movie caught between two historic moments in history and as such feels a little out of place. That is why "Christmas in July" should have been released during the 1930s.

"Christmas in July" was based on a play Mr. Sturges wrote in 1931 called "A Cup of Coffee", which was one of the original working titles of the movie. Unfortunately it took so many years for Mr. Sturges to bring his story to the screen. "Christmas in July" was the second movie Mr. Sturges directed.

In addition to its "Great Depression" era sensibilities "Christmas in July" also takes jabs at advertising and the idea people don't really know what is a good idea or a bad idea. One of Jimmy's problems is he feels society views him as "a nobody". He has no value as a person because society has not told him he is worth something. A way to prove his worth is to win a contest. By winning a contest it proves someone else thinks Jimmy has good ideas which validates him as a person.

This leads to a funny sequence where someone explains to Jimmy they aren't sure if his ideas are good but if Maxford House selects his slogan, then it must mean Jimmy has good ideas. Which proves the point, the general public has no idea what is good whether it is good food, good music, good movies, nice clothes. The only way people have any idea if something is good or not is if they are told so by someone. If someone on television tells you something is good you believe it. Why? Because you were told so on TV. I don't know how many times I will talk to someone about movies and all they do is quote whatever they read a movie critic (sheep) write. I don't know how many times I'll talk politics with someone and all they do is repeat what they have on TV or read in a newspaper.

Preston Sturges was one of the greatest comedy filmmakers of all-time. His feature-length movies combined his brilliant gifts for verbal comedy and slapstick gags. Few filmmakers before or after Mr. Sturges have been able to write dialogue as witty and knew how to frame physical comedy and blend the two styles as effortlessly. Mr. Sturges may be best known for classics such as "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) and "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). It is only when comparing "Christmas in July" to other Preston Sturges comedies does the movie seem to fall short.

"Christmas in July" doesn't have as much physical comedy as you'd expect in one of Mr. Sturges' comedies. It has some nice dialogue but not as many zingers and one-lines as the best of Mr. Sturges' movies do. But, "Christmas in July" is enjoyable nonetheless. It is a slight, breezy comedy. The movie is only 67 minutes. As such, there is not enough time to ever be bored with it. In fact, one really wishes the movie was about 20 minutes longer. There is an additional conflict missing from the story and the ending isn't as satisfactory as I would have liked.

The comedies of Mr. Sturges or comedies of this specific kind, usually work by taking a simple idea and expanding upon it to the extreme. Mr. Sturges does this to perfection in "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) but in "Christmas in July" Mr. Sturges misses some opportunities. One of the best examples of comedic escalation occurs when there is a near riot in the street as Jimmy is accused of stealing toys from a department store.

Dick Powell was a nice casting choice to star in the movie. Mr. Powell got his start starring in Warner Brothers musicals, usually co-starring Ruby Keeler. Mr. Powell was even in a series of musicals called "The Gold Diggers", the first of which Mr. Powell starred in was "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). He starred in two more entries in the series released in 1935 and 1937. So, a comedy with Mr. Powell, as a guy down on his luck, hoping to strike rich, would only makes audiences think of the "Gold Digger" movies. Unfortunately at this time in Mr. Powell's career he was trying to move away from the movie musical and so there are no songs for Mr. Powell to sing here.

Ellen Drew didn't quite have the same lasting cinematic impact. She did though co-star with Jack Benny in "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940) and was in the Val Lewton horror movie "Isle of the Dead" (1945) with Boris Karloff. She was a pleasant personality on-screen and is especially nice to watch in "Christmas in July". Ms. Drew and Mr. Powell make a good on-screen couple and play off each other nicely.

As is normally the case in a Preston Sturges comedy, the supporting players nearly steal the show. This time around we have Frank Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, Al Bridge, Alexander Carr and William Demarest. Most of them would go on to appear in several other Preston Sturges comedies.

By the end of "Christmas in July" Mr. Sturges wants his audience to believe good things happen in life. All we have to do is believe in ourselves and a little luck doesn't hurt either. Again, this is a message more suited for audiences during the "Great Depression". However, it is a theme Mr. Sturges would like to leave his audience with in several comedies including "Sullivan's Travels" where a comedy filmmaker learns the importance of comedy and making people laugh. Mr. Sturges didn't make movies with unhappy endings. Mr. Sturges made movies which made audiences feel good about themselves and showed us the lighter side of life. "Christmas in July" fits into the broader context of Mr. Sturges' work.

Despite whatever flaws I may feel "Christmas in July" has it is smart and observant. Preston Sturges did write and direct it after all. The movie has something to say about society and our ideas of self-worth. It is about all of our desires to get rich and capitalism. Like any good comedy it takes certain universal truths and exaggerates them for comedic effect. "Christmas in July" is not one of Preston Sturges best comedies but it is an enjoyable one with some funny sequences and a brain. A comedy like that is worth seeing.