Published on June 11th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Oldie of the Week – Christmas in July
This week, Taylor gives us a taste of an underrated screwball classic–one of many hilarious satires in the filmography of the Hollywood legend, Preston Sturges.
Continuing from last week’s Buster Keaton discussion, this week I’m spotlighting another great comedic filmmaker by looking at one of Preston Sturges’ best and most underrated films, Christmas in July (1940). Sturges began as a screenwriter in the 1930s and after a string of successes (including another excellent comedy directed by William Wyler, 1935’s The Good Fairy) he finally was able to direct one of his own scripts with The Great McGinty (1940). This film began a prolific streak for Sturges, as over the next four years he wrote and directed six comedies that cemented his reputation for witty, rapid fire comedic dialogue with a sharply satirical perspective. While many of his films from this period are well known, including Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and The Lady Eve (1941), his creative hot streak truly began with Christmas in July, his second film as a director and his third script to be produced in 1940 (following McGinty and the Mitchell Leisen-directed Remember the Night). The film finds Sturges at the top of his game in this fast-paced satire of the American capitalist dream. It remains funny and relevant to this day.
Dick Powell stars as Jimmy MacDonald, a naively optimistic dreamer who seeks to rise above his working class conditions and provide a more comfortable life for him and his girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew). To achieve his dream of financial success, he frequently enters in contests put on by large companies which promise large cash prizes. The latest contest he’s entered is to provide a slogan for Maxford House Coffee, and he’s confident of his chances even though his entry is an awkward mouthful that doesn’t make sense. Over the course of a single day, his co-workers play a trick on him by making him think he’s won the $25 000 grand prize, and the prank gets out of hand as Jimmy ends up receiving the prize money he didn’t actually win, gets promoted and goes on a spending spree. Meanwhile, after Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), the owner of Maxford House, realizes he gave Jimmy the money by mistake, he scrambles to get it back.
There are a few key moments that get to the heart of the film’s take on capitalism. One comes early in the film, as Jimmy is taken in to Mr. Waterbury’s (Harry Hayden) office to explain his recent poor performance. After learning that Jimmy has been distracted by the prospect of winning $25 000 in the slogan contest, Waterbury explains to him that he too was once preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming wealthy as a young man, that he too thought he would be a failure if he didn’t attain $25 000. However, he eventually realized he was never going to have that much money, but that does not make him a failure, as “no system could be right where only half of one percent were successes and all the rest were failures.” If to be successful in America is to be wealthy, then virtually no one is successful. In other words, Jimmy shouldn’t waste his time dreaming for the wealth that an unjust system will never provide yet has him convinced is a prerequisite for his own self-worth.
Later, the film comedically underscores the vast gap between the rich and the poor, and the absurdity of extreme wealth being held in the hands of the few, when Dr. Maxford bitterly remarks that all these contests prove is that “You’re making too much money in the first place.” For the crowds of people gathered around their radios to hear the results of the slogan contest that we see in a montage at the beginning of the film, $25 000 is more money than they could ever hope to have in their lives. Jimmy tells Betty that he’s so set on becoming a success to make up for the difficult upbringing he had: his father died at 48 because he couldn’t afford a decent doctor. To someone like Dr. Maxford, however, even $25 000 is extraneous. Of course, even though Maxford admits he has “too much money,” he’ll stop at nothing to get his $25 000 cheque back.
Jimmy’s luck begins to change as news that his slogan won the contest helps to land him a promotion. However, once the truth is discovered that he didn’t actually win, his boss (Ernest Truex) immediately rescinds his previously given praise of Jimmy’s ideas. “I’m no genius,” he explains. “I didn’t hang on to my father’s money by backing my own judgement, you know.” Here the idea that success in America is based on hard work, determination, and merit is mercilessly mocked; the wealthy capitalist employer is shown to be a complete fool who only got his position through inheritance. In this film, success is a complete fluke, a trick of luck, birth, and circumstance–something given and taken away capriciously with no rhyme or reason.
In addition to providing space for Sturges to include some satirical jabs at the absurd inequalities of capitalism and the illusory nature of the American dream, the plot also allows for a typical Sturges situation of escalating comedic chaos: a misunderstanding spirals out of control, culminating in a frenzied scene of multiple characters colliding with one another. After Jimmy receives his $25 000 cheque, he takes it to a department store, buys all kinds of things for the people in his neighbourhood, and heads back home to surprise everyone on the block. Soon the three store owners arrive to recall their products after Maxford tells them his money was stolen, followed by Maxford himself coming to get his money back. The film climaxes in this messy crowd scene where Jimmy and Betty, Dr. Maxford, and the store owners, along with the mass of people in the street, argue and try to sort out the misunderstandings. Sturges excels at these kinds of scenes; the quintessential Sturges image to me is a medium shot absolutely bursting at the seems with jostling, bickering characters pushing in an out of frame as they try to get a word in edgewise in an onslaught of overlapping, rapid-fire banter.
In this film’s case, the sixty-seven minute runtime and compressed timeline lends a greater sense of urgency to the plot and keeps up the madcap comedic energy of scenes like the one discussed without ever having to slow down. Another mark in the film’s favour is the presence of some of the recurring actors that Sturges frequently collaborated with, including William Demarest, always a highlight of Sturges’ films. My personal favourite of the many recurring actors in Sturges stock company of comedic players, Demarest excelled at projecting ridiculously righteous fury combined with a kind of aloof nonchalance; to me, the best Sturges movies are the ones in which William Demarest does the most yelling. He’s hilarious here as Bildocker, the single holdout on the Maxwell House slogan jury who takes his job with ludicrous severity, and who helps set the plot in motion by refusing to select a winner for the contest. Raymond Walburn is also very funny in the role of the bloviating Dr. Maxford, playing a similar role to his small town mayor in Sturges’ 1944 film Hail the Conquering Hero.
Full of terrific performances, memorable dialogue, and a sharp satirical perspective that retains its bite and insight to this day, Christmas in July is a masterful work from one of Hollywood’s greatest comedic filmmakers–a criminally underseen and underrated film that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Sturges’ more popular classics.
Check out the trailer below. You can purchase the entire Preston Sturges Collection on DVD and Blu Ray from your local film/music store or (if you must) on Amazon.