On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.
Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)
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