WEIRDLAND: Preston Sturges's zany Christmas satire: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Betty Hutton)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Preston Sturges's zany Christmas satire: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Betty Hutton)

In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) a small-town girl, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), attends a party held to entertain soldiers on leave. After a night of dancing and carousing, she remembers little, but later discovers she is pregnant. Her adoring childhood friend, Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), agrees to marry her. Her wisecracking teen sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), is her only other ally. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the film “audacious” and wondered how Sturges got the subject matter past the censors, while James Agee opined in The Nation, “The Hays office must have been raped in its sleep”, also calling the film “more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent, and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years.” Alongside a central character who confuses sex with his patriotic duty, Sturges also gives a nod to the birth of Christ by scheduling the delivery of Trudy’s baby on Christmas morning. To this he adds Emmy, a wily 14-year-old whose dialogue intimates more than she should know about such things, and a stammering boyfriend interested in helping with the cover-up: “Maybe we can say we had a flat tire. It’s old, but it’s reliable.”

The film’s chaotic method of presentation is also fascinating. The characters are rarely subdued, and are often shrill. Everyone emphasises their point by yelling and screaming, often bulging their eyes and flailing their arms as blatantly as the early Keystone comedians. There is also a scene where the girls subdue their irate father to the ground with a wrestling hold and restrain him until Norval gets away. Even a simple cutaway to Trudy getting ready for the party shows her fixing her dress with loud jazz blaring from the phonograph, her feet pounding the floor to the rhythm. These small-town characters are not the folksy types found in MGM’s family-oriented Andy Hardy series of the same era. They are not specifically of this world. These people are convulsive and flappable. Their shrillness is in perfect sympathy with the tense situations, and the film is peppered with crisp dialogue to keep this from being distracting or off-putting, even to modern day viewers.


The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a massive success on its initial release, and became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1944. Sturges’ script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the 1945 Academy Awards. The National Board of Review nominated it for Best Picture of 1944, while Betty Hutton was named Best Actress. The New York Times included it as one of the 10 Best Films of 1942-1944. The film’s legacy continues in the 21st century. It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation on the United States National Film Registry in 2001. “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” is one of the five favorite films by Peter Bogdanovich. Also, with an adjusted score of 91%, it's the #12 Best Christmas Movie by Rotten Tomatoes. 

In 1958, Frank Tashlin reworked Sturges’ film as Rock-a-Bye-Baby, a Paramount release featuring Jerry Lewis (in the character of Clayton Poole, a rewriting of Norval Jones). Lewis said: “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a Paramount property, and thus easy for us to do. Tashlin revamped it for me. When I asked him about taking the idea from a famous comedy, he said, ‘Well, at least we stole from the best’.” Although he did not actively work on the production, Sturges received screen credit in Rock-a-Bye-Baby for his original story. Source: sensesofcinema.com

As Alain Silver has observed in Film Noir Reader, Sturges incorporated into his comedies “noirish sentiments of meaninglessness and abject existentialism.” With their caustic and crackling dialogue, his comedies portray not winners, but losers, individuals who resort to absurd strategies to survive the day. Sturges’s protagonists refuse to accept “the hand of fate” as a controlling force of their lives, attempting to overcome insurmountable obstacles; that they seldom succeed is beside the point. Each character in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is an eccentric individual, not a type. Sturges reverses the prevalent images of the boy and girl next-door and inverts the meanings of masculinity and femininity, spoofing machismo as well as female domesticity.

Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is anything but the innocent or repressed small-town girl; assertive and manipulative, she loves the company of men. Trudy wants to have fun, always seeking to be the center of attention. In an early scene, she is seen singing to admiring male customers in her record store. Later, surrounded by soldiers, she drives Norval’s borrowed convertible. Trudy has boundless energy. “I never get tired,” she boasts to her sister, and Sturges shows Trudy going from one party to another. Trudy combines traits of the girl-next-door and those of the town’s popular girl.

In this picture, Norval (Eddie Bracken) longs for conformity to conventional middle-class values: Marriage and domesticity. Exempt from military service with 4-F, Norval says: “Every time they start to examine me, I become so excited, I get the spots!” Norval lacks control over his two main goals in life: to fight in the war and to marry Trudy. A bank clerk, he is an orphan living with the Johnsons, the town’s lawyer and his wife. Full of doubts, all of his fears materialize in the film, including going to jail. A helpless, yet sincere boy, Norval has the kind of romanticism that’s genuine and heart-felt. It is therefore ironic that, by sheer accident, Norval becomes the symbol of virility: the father of six boys. Norval is the ultra adjustable type, always adapting to the needs of others, aiming to please. As viewers, we are told that Norval “recovered and became increasingly happy.” And Shakespeare is used for the film’s coda: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Norval has greatness thrust upon him.

Trudy’s widower father, officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), is the town’s constable. Trudy’s sister Emma (Diana Lynn), a 14-year-old brat, defies her father’s authority, lacking any respect for him. “I think you have a mind like a swamp!” she tells her father. “No one’s going to believe something good if they can believe something bad,” says Emma, expressing Sturges’s view of small towns. “You don’t know what to expect in a town like this,” she explains, “a town that can produce schnooks like Papa, always suspicious and suspecting the worst in everything.” Source: emanuellevy.com

"When I'm working with jerks with no talent, I raise hell until I get what I want. I am not a great singer and I am not a great dancer, but I am a great actress, and nobody ever let me act except Preston Sturges. He believed in me." —Betty Hutton

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