A few years back the films of “capitalist comic” Preston Sturges were released in a seven-disc boxed set, including four Sturges films on DVD for the first time. Terry Teachout recently revisited Sturges’s films in connection with his consideration of the vagaries of Sturges’s reputation in “Whatever happened to Preston Sturges” (subscribers only), an excellent essay for Commentary.
One of the newly released films was Christmas in July, a movie having nothing to do with Christmas. The film was both written and directed by Sturges, a director known for the subgenre of “screwball” comedies that he perfected with what his admirers came to call “the Sturges touch.” He is best known for The Great McGinty, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, the last of which received the homage of the Coen brothers in the title of their Depression-era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I love Sturges, but I had never even heard of Christmas in July when I originally saw it on Turner Classic Movies. The film stars Dick Powell as Jimmy MacDonald; Powell is outstanding. But the most striking thing about the film is its hilarious script. The opening five minutes (the whole movie is only 68 minutes long) consist of intense dialogue between Jimmy and his long-time girlfriend on a New York apartment rooftop. Jimmy and his girlfriend want to get married, but they can’t afford it on Jimmy’s paltry salary. The opening dialogue is full of love and hate, yearning and frustration, all hilariously true to life.
The story turns on Jimmy’s entry into a coffee slogan contest whose winner is to receive the then life-changing sum of $25,000. If he wins the contest, he can afford to marry his girlfriend and have a family. Made in 1940, the film powerfully reflects the Depression era in which Sturges wrote the play on which the movie was based. The movie is obviously of historical interest as well. In those days, you see, financial considerations exercised a serious constraint on marriage and family.
The slogan that Jimmy enters in the contest is “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee–it’s the bunk!” Powell’s enthusiasm for the slogan is another source of humor throughout the movie. By the end of the film, the slogan has become unforgettable.
Jimmy’s co-workers deceive Jimmy into thinking he has won the coffee slogan contest. The deception takes on a life of its own. It leads in turn to the inadvertent deception of the company at which Jimmy labors as a drudge, and then the sponsor of the contest, into believing Jimmy has won the coffee slogan contest. Jimmy’s employer promotes him to head of advertising, where his creative energies are unleashed. In fact, he has a previously unrecognized gift for advertising.
In Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, Diane Jacobs notes that Christmas in July was the film Sturges turned to work on as soon as he himself became successful. The theme of the play that Sturges adapted into his screenplay for the film was, Jacobs writes, “the contingency of talent — how you aren’t really good until others recognize you — and how brutally that recognition can be withdrawn. Its happy ending notwithstanding, this is the most cautionary of [Sturges’s] success-against-odds tales, and it is revealing that, when he was finally achieving success himself, it is the story [Sturges] picked to film.”