Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges is fairly acclaimed as a master of screwball comedy with a penchant for narrative experimentation in films like Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve (both 1941), but even amongst his oeuvre, it seems like Christmas in July, his second feature film as director, is underrated. Which is a pity because it has two qualities I greatly admire in a comedy: laughs; and a concise running time. A lot of filmmakers probably think their films need more of everything, but the 67 minutes of this film proves quite the opposite — though Sturges does cram his scenes with quite a lot of action and an abundance of plot.

We start, however, with our protagonists, Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew), sharing a NYC rooftop view while talking about Jimmy’s dreams of winning a contest, any contest — he habitually enters them in the hopes of making a fortune and a break for himself — though at the moment the film begins, he’s specifically focused on the slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. The couple live together, unmarried and in relative poverty, wondering at gadgets that make the most of a single-room apartment. In any case, things snowball from there, and the couple experience ups and downs, all borne along at the whim of those who have money, but exemplifying the caprice of capitalism and the way it confers moral authority on those who are presumed to be wealthy.

The film is a masterclass in tight narrative structure, conveying all kinds of details about their lives with great economy, revelling in the warmth of their extended tenement community, and poking fun at the self-important manager classes. It’s also, as is not unusual either for Sturges or for films made during this wartime period, partial to a bit of sentimentality. However, Sturges never wallows in it, and there’s always a sharp riposte even after a period of relative mushiness. And along the way, Jimmy repeats his absurd winning slogan so many times that it goes from being idiotic to maybe-actually-good-who-knows, proving the words of Jimmy’s boss that he hasn’t a clue whether any idea is any good unless someone else says so. So perhaps it’s because Christmas in July didn’t win any awards that it’s underrated? In any case, it’s easily worth 67 minutes of your time.

Christmas in July (1940)CREDITS
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on his play A Cup of Coffee); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 12 February 2016.

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Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood) | Cinematographer Sol Polito | Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent