Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)
Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003)
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.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Preston Sturges Retrospective
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