Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"

His comedy dialogue dazzled the ears.  When he won the freedom to direct his own screenplays, you were dazzled at how he could combine and balance slapstick comedy, sophisticated comedy, social satire and sentimentality -- with a little sex.  Nominated for the Best Screenplay of 1944 Academy Award, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK was written and directed by Preston Sturges.  It's a classic I dig seeing every Christmas season.  It's fast. It's funny. It's a social satire and a story of redemption.  It takes elements of the Christmas legend and relocates them to Smalltown, USA.

Betty Hutton, at her best here, is Trudy Kockenlocker, the oldest and most rambunctious of the two daughters of Officer Kockenlocker, a crusty war vet and widower played by Sturges favorite, William Demarest.  Trudy is a sweet, selfish, All-American girl.  She wants to go out and have a good time and she will manipulate others so she can go out and have a good time.  One of those others is Norval, perfectly played by Eddie Bracken.  Norval is the lovable dork who's had unrequited love for Trudy since they were kids.  Norval wants to serve his country in WWII, but he flunked the physical when he tried to enlist.  Trudy tricks Norval into letting her borrow his car so she can go to a dance with some soldiers on leave.  She feels that to "kiss the boys goodbye" is her patriotic duty.




At the dance, she has some champagne before she hits the dance floor with a G.I. to "cut a rug" to some swing music.  She gets swung into the air and konks her noggin on a rather phallic-shaped ballroom ceiling decoration.  A bit of the bubbly followed by a bump on the head lead to amnesia.  After the soldiers have all gone off to fight in WWII, she discovers that she's pregnant.  She can't remember who the G.I. dad might be.  An unwed young mother may be celebrated in the Nativity Story but not in a Christian, All-American small town.  Back then, that was the ultimate shame.  The solution?  Norval as a modern-day Joseph to Trudy's Mary.


To me, that's the basic genius of this comedy.  Hitler, like a new Caesar, and his troops had to be stopped. Our G.I.'s were fighting a good fight to rid the world of his evil.  Trudy gets pregnant by a force of good we don't see.  When Christmastime comes, the Kockenlockers have been forced to leave town due to her scandalous situation.  It's the holidays, but Trudy has lost all hope of things working out.  Officer Kockenlocker, known for his firecracker temper, tenderly tells his pregnant daughter, "You got to have more confidence in the Almighty.  Or whatever it is that makes the wheels go 'round..."  He adds, "You might be waiting for the President of the United States.  You got to have more confidence."  Even though he's not the papa, Norval wants to take on the papa role to help the woman he loves.  By doing so, he has greatness thrust upon him due to a very historic birth that local politicians can use to the town's financial benefit.  Trudy learns to love Norval and to think of someone else besides herself.

I first discovered The Miracle of Morgan's Creek when I was a Catholic school kid growing up in Los Angeles.  It aired frequently on KTLA Channel 5.  Every time I saw it, I was more and more awed by how Preston Sturges could do a send-up of the Christmas Story yet also be so...well, so Christian in his basic message.  I bet if you asked writers of such sitcoms as Modern Family or Happy Endings to name their Top 5 Classic Comedies, at least one film by Sturges would be in each list.  Sturges also gave us the golden 1942 original screenplay Sullivan's Travels starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.  In that movie, McCrea plays a young, rich, successful Hollywood producer tired of making comedies and musical comedies.  Sullivan wants to film a bleak best-selling novel about the Depression called "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?"  Sturges influenced the Coen Brothers, who made a George Clooney movie of that very title, and Clint Eastwood.  The same year The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Sturges got another Oscar® nomination in that same category for Hail the Conquering Hero, a wartime comedy also starring Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.  If you see Bracken in those two comedies, you see the template for the character Tim Robbins played in The Hudsucker Proxy by the Coen Brothers.  On CNN, Clint Eastwood told Larry King that he watched Hail the Conquering Hero for inspiration when directing his WWII drama, Flags of Our Fathers.  Both films dealt with some of the same issues.

One more thing that always tickles the heck out of me in the classic Sturges-directed Paramount comedies from the 1940s -- the brisk pace and how he could give a bit player fabulous and memorable dialogue that not only crystallized the character but made it as memorable as the leads.  Trudy Kockenlocker's boss at the music store sounds like he's ready to star in a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof."  But his name is Mr. Rafferty.  He brings the poor Kockenlockers a bird to bake for holiday dinner.  I always wait to hear Mr. Rafferty say "I brrrought you a toi-key!" I love that line.  I love that character.  I love The Miracle of Morgan's Creek -- and hope you do too.

2 comments:

  1. Ha! I have never thought of them as Mary and Joseph; now the analogy seems obvious to me. How could I have missed that? You've given me something new to think about.

    Best,
    JAVA

    ReplyDelete
  2. My first blog comment! Thank you, JAVA. Happy Holidays.

    ReplyDelete