Posted by David Kalat on December 21, 2013
OK. So Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July isn’t a Christmas movie. But it has Christmas in the title, and you know what? The Thing wasn’t a Christmas movie either, so there.
Christmas in July is however one of Sturges’ funniest films, and one where Sturges’ somewhat misleading and occasionally inconsistent philosophy really works.
Sturges, you see, was a dreamer. Like his protagonists, he was a restless soul, full of impractical ideas. He was one of Hollywood’s true geniuses, yet he often directed his energies away from his extraordinary films and onto less promising, far-fetched business ideas. Sturges lacked the ability to perceive the difference between his good ideas and his bad ones, and so he threw himself with gusto into every venture, no matter how absurd.
This was of course the key to his success, the source of his genius. It didn’t just take a visionary artist to make his greatest works, it took a madman who never gave a moment’s thought to the possible consequences. A person who played it safe, who shied away from potentially ruinous ideas, would never have made Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, or Hail the Conquering Hero.
But there’s a balance to be struck between clever risk-taking and recklessness. Not every risky idea is a great one, and a person who stakes everything on all of their long-shot fantasies risks losing everything.
Which is where we meet Dick Powell in Christmas in July. He’s an uneremployed file clerk who’s in love with co-worker/neighbor Ellen Drew. Marriage isn’t on the menu until their can achieve some financial stability—and to that end, Dick has pinned all his hopes on winning a radio contest. Maxford House Coffee is prepared to write a life-changing check to the listener who comes up with the best slogan.
This is as long-shot a long-shot can get. Thousands of people will be entering this contest—and even if you had a brilliant, ad-agency-quality slogan to contribute, the odds are not in your favor. But Dick is certain he has this thing locked.
He doesn’t just have a brilliant, ad-agency-quality slogan. He has the slogan, one so perfect its perfection will be undeniable.
Here it is:
“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”
Mind you, it doesn’t undermine his confidence that every time he tells someone this slogan, he is then roped into a protracted a defensive explanation: you see, it’s a myth that coffee keeps you awake. So if you’re a coffee drinker and you’re having trouble sleeping, it can’t be the coffee’s fault. That’s a myth. And bunk is a slang term for myth. Your sleeping problem must be your crummy bed—your bunk. Get it? It’s a pun. Oh, what do you know about quality, you philistine!)
Thanks to some contrivances, he comes to believe that no only will he win, but that he has won. And the same contrivances cause everyone else to be fooled, too, including the CEO of Maxford House, who dutifully writes the life-changing check. (If you want to see how this happens, see the movie.)
Once Dick gets the check, he goes on a shopping spree to buy gifts for everyone in his life—thus the title of the movie. But these fun material goods may make the day-to-day life of his friends and neighbors more pleasant, but that’s not “life-changing” in any meaningful sense. What gives this check it’s transformative power isn’t it’s dollar value, but what it represents—and affirmation of Dick’s bizarre, misguided creativity.
“I used to think that maybe I had good ideas and was gonna get somewhere,” he boasts, “but now I know it.”
You can hear Preston Sturges’ own plaint buried in the pain of those words. This is a film from a man who was himself unable to distinguish his good ideas from his bad without the external validation of box office receipts and honors that separated the ideas that made him rich and famous from the ones that impoverished and disappointed him.
As I’ve written here before, Sturges had a habit of giving the most sensible, level-headed thoughts to marginalized characters. His flamboyant main characters have dangerous and unstable worldviews, but their craziness is balanced by the characters who speak sense from the sidelines. That way the movies get their cake and eat it too—espousing one crazy viewpoint, while quietly whispering “don’t listen to that madness.”
Enter Dick’s boss, E.L. Waterbury (played by Harry Hayden). When he gets wind that his employee is sacrificing his paid job to spend his mental energies on cooking up a coffee slogan for a radio contest (never mind how nuts the slogan he thought up was), Mr. Waterbury offers these words of advice:
“Ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you—if you earn your living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”
Of course Dick Powell pays exactly zero heed to this advice, and barrels ahead on his ill-advised path, dragging everyone he knows with him into unintentional deception and certain ruin.
The brilliance of this film is the way it manages to convey the truth of Waterbury’s imminently sensible position while depicting its complete opposite.
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