Unquiet Americans: Christmas in July, by Aaron Pinkston
Preston Sturges was one of the great American filmmakers, noted as the first successful writer-director. He brought a sharp, sarcastic wit to his scripts and was able to find actors that best meshed with his sensibility. Any retrospective on American comedy simply has to include Preston Sturges, and so it feels a bit odd to call him “transgressive.” Sure, many of his films explicitly challenged social ideas, but they often changed course quickly, confirming society. The most prominent example is Sturges’s most accomplished film, Sullivan’s Travels, which spends the entire plot with the premise of a filmmaker replicating poverty in order to deliver an important picture for the times. At the end, though, Sullivan comes to understand that the entertainment value of disposable comedies is more important to the huddled masses than the impact of prestige pictures. We see this kind of bait-and-switch many times in Sturges’s work. But is his exploration of social concepts like poverty only justifying the most base viewpoints?
Sturges’s second film, Christmas in July, is a breezy little comedy (a scant 67 minutes) that takes the wealth vs. poverty discussion to interesting new ground. Similar to last week’s film, Laughter, we see the differences between the haves and have-nots, but this time the dichotomy comes within the same characters. Christmas in July opens on young lovers Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and Betty Casey (Ellen Drew), lamenting over their relative poverty. Jimmy teases Betty that he doesn’t have the money to fully provide for her, especially if they end up married with children. But his hope in winning a popular slogan contest for the big brand coffee company could change all that. He is much more enthusiastic over his chances than Betty is — she doesn’t understand his slogan “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk,” questioning his idea that coffee doesn’t help you sleep as he seems to believe. Still, they dream over the $25,000 grand prize, cuddling up by the radio to hear the results.
At his menial office job (like the best workplace satires of the era, we have really no indication of what the employees actually do), a few co-workers decide to play a trick on the over-enthusiastic Jimmy by making a mock telegram naming him the grand prize winner. Suddenly, everything begins working out for Jimmy: his co-workers rally around him, the president of his company actually listens to his ideas, and gives him an on-the-spot promotion, and the general public looks at him like a hero. Of course, it’s all false, so when the truth comes out, his newfound status is immediately crumbled.
Throughout the film, there are speeches given by people in various positions of power with their ideas to the secret of success. The most prominent one is given by Jimmy’s manager, who says that success comes down to effort — it doesn’t matter if you’ve reaped financial benefit as long as you’ve tried, though ultimately, the harder you try, the better off you’ll be. This comes directly before the reveal of Jimmy’s big win, which of course turns out to be nothing more than posturing and pure luck. The beauty of Christmas in July’s sparkling script is how it plays these types of viewpoints directly off each other, providing impactful mantras and then quickly shattering them, almost making the idealistic look silly.
Christmas in July takes place in the gloomy shadow of the American Dream. It supposes that happiness may in fact determined by wealth and material possession, showing off the many great benefits of having wealth. Jimmy is basically the same person before and after his fortune, with the same ideas and attitudes, but the way others (even his best gal) perceive him is drastically different. Unlike many other harsh looks at the wealthy, money and notoriety don’t corrupt Jimmy. He doesn’t become greedy or self-centered, willing to spend his fortune on everyone else but himself. Ultimately, money solves Jimmy’s problems of being unnoticed and unable to provide for his loved ones without any ill effects. Being wealthy seems pretty great, actually!
As a comedy, the film is ahead of its time, much more like contemporary films where most of the jokes consist of people being mean to each other. Christmas in July perfects the now staple structure of an innocent, simple protagonist surrounded by the mean-spirited world. One prominent character, Dr. Maxford, owner of the important coffee company, is always snide and sarcastic, no matter the situation. He’s also the funniest character in the film, with a constant stream of put-down zingers. With this structure, Sturges also provides a perfect use of dramatic irony, a device often used in classic literature and theater, but had not yet been as prominent in film. Much of the film’s comedy and tragedy come from this irony, tweaking all of its apparent themes and sensibilities slightly askew.
Sturges’s views of wealth in Christmas in July strikes me as him just being realistic, which is absolutely transgressive when you think about it. In the 1930s and early 1940s, still in the shadow of the Great Depression, posh society was more often the enemy — see Laughter’s portrayal of the distant Mr. Gibson as a prime example. But, in reality, anyone who doesn’t have money worries about money. Sturges isn’t saying that the poor can’t be happy, but material things are worth something and can lead to a better life when good intentions are at one’s heart. Moreover, everything about Sturges’s voice comes a little bit from the corners of his mouth. Christmas in July seems joyful on the surface with two people living out their biggest (but fairly modest) fantasies, but it really feels pessimistic. This is a little difficult to pinpoint, but there is real pain in many of these characters, which is greatly realized in the script and direction. Despite being a shiny Hollywood film, there are characters here dealing with serious real-life issues and this is never forgotten.
Note: Next week’s screening is the great Howard Hawks comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I have written about in a previous series. You can see my look at the film in the 1950s context here: http://battleshippretension.com/american-film-of-the-50s-gentlemen-prefer-blondes-by-aaron-pinkston/