christmas-in-july

Putting Christmas back in (the title of) Christmas in July

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!)

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

8 Responses Putting Christmas back in (the title of) Christmas in July
Posted By policomic : December 21, 2013 7:28 am

I don’t agree with your assertion that Waterbury’s position is “imminently sensible.” It’s a pathetic rationalization; the comment about how “no system could be right where only half of 1% are successes” is satirical (as is Mr. Baxter’s later speech about how he “didn’t hang on to my father’s money by backing my own judgment”).

Near the end of the film, Ellen Drew’s character pleads with Powell’s boss, Baxter (Waterbury is only his immediate supervisor) to give him a chance. All any of the young dreamers out there want is a chance, she says, though, “I know they’re not gonna succeed, at least most of them won’t, they’ll all be like Mr. Waterbury soon enough, most of them, anyway.” Waterbury isn’t the voice of reason, he’s the voice of “reason”–i.e., what passes for reason–in what Sturges sees as a corrupt and unfair world. Drew’s character is the real voice of reason, and she sees Waterbury as worthy of pity, as did Sturges. I’ve always found his little speech trying to convince himself that he’s a success, and that life just CAN’T be as unfair as it seems, a heartbreaking bit of black comedy.

As for Powell dragging everyone to ruin–huh? Yes, he’s naive. Yes, he’s fooled. But no one in the film is “ruined” by his actions, which are generous and loving (like Norval’s, or Sullivan’s, or any of Sturges’s dreamer protagonists). The children get to keep their toys, Powell gets to keep his new office, and he even ends up REALLY winning the contest. The dreamer wins, precisely because he avoids turning into Mr. Waterbury.

Posted By Tom S : December 21, 2013 7:41 am

What? How on Earth is Waterbury a satirical character? A satire on people who live humdrum, productive lives with which they are satisfied? That would be a perfectly marvelous way to alienate, you know, everybody- and it would be pretty shockingly arrogant, to boot.

Waterbury’s the voice of a form of complacency, I suppose, but he’s also the voice of a person who’s capable of being satisfied without a longshot chance that the movie goes as far out of its way as possible to emphasize is ridiculous and a thing only a crazy person would rely upon. The ultrahappy ending isn’t played as a joke, per se, but it’s clear that Sturges wants us to recognize that it takes some fairly ridiculous events to get to it- and as the creator of Unfaithfully Yours, one must assume that Sturges was willing to have characters be successful despite being totally wrong about everything.

Posted By David Kalat : December 21, 2013 2:13 pm

All I can say is Waterbury voiced what I personally believe to be a sensible position–if you earn your living and pay your bills, you’re a success. Powell doesn’t need to win a contest to validate his ideas, because the fact is his ideas really are terrible.

Back when my kids were younger we used to watch American Idol, and I remember being appalled how many people seem to believe they can only validate their existence if they win this singing competition and become a flash in the pan pop star. But many of them are surrounded by people that love them, bosses who willingly give them time off to pursue their dreams, and enough passable talent that they could probably have a very happy hobby of semi-professional singing or something creative–all of which sounds like a pretty good life to me. But the contestants seem to think all of that is worthless if they don’t win–and just was Waterbury says, nearly all of them don’t win.

Posted By Doug : December 21, 2013 3:41 pm

Haven’t seen “Christmas In July” but I did read a biography on Sturges which pointed to what David said about his inability to judge whether his ideas were good or not.
In the book it noted that while filming Sturges would keep silver dollars in his pocket. If he were stuck, needing a piece of comic business, he would open the floor to suggestions-actors, grips, camera operators, etc and whoever came up with a good bit would get a silver dollar tossed at them.
In the exchange of comments above I would say that Sturges didn’t put sarcastic advice in Waterburys mouth-Sturges knew that what Waterbury said was ‘right’ in that most of the audience would agree with that sentiment in the real world.
In a Sturges movie the real world doesn’t matter; Sturges’s cock-eyed hero would prevail simply because he, Dick Powell, WOULD be that happy half of the one percent that would succeed. Which we normals would cheer.
Saw a Sturges cameo in “Star Spangled Rhythm” the other night, one of those “Let’s put on a show for the troops!” shows from during WWII.

Posted By Jack Favell : December 21, 2013 4:37 pm

It’s fascinating to me that you picked out Harry Hayden’s Mr. Waterbury as a character worthy of mention in your post. He is my single favorite character in a film full of incredibly great characters.

Is it not possible for Mr. Waterbury to be both the warm, sensible voice of reason AND a man who is rationalizing a life path he never really wanted? I think Hayden manages to encompass both the pathetic and the strong in his outstanding, multi-layered performance. It’s probably the best role Hayden ever got, and I thank God that Sturges gave him the opportunity to play it. I say Hayden brings both emotions to the role, and Sturges wisely lets the viewer decide which is the proper view of him at any given time, watching this film.

Posted By policomic : December 21, 2013 5:35 pm

At the risk of repeating myself: Drew’s speech to Baxter specifically uses Waterbury as an example of failure and defeat. Everything in the movie argues against accepting his view of the world, “reasonable” though it may be. That doesn’t mean Powell’s ideas are good–clearly, they’re not. But Sturges–like any satirist–has a tragic view of reality. He doesn’t think the world Waterbury has talked himself into accepting is fair. It may reflect things as they really are, but satire doesn’t endorse the status quo, it rails against it. If Sturges felt the Waterbury view was the right one, Powell would be punished for his foolishness, instead of rewarded with a happy ending (a happy ending that reflects a wished-for reality, not a “realistic” one). And Waterbury’s name would certainly not be used the way Drew uses it in her speech.

I don’t think Sturges dislikes Waterbury. He’s a sympathetic character, and I agree that Hayden brings a lot of warmth to the role. But given the way his name is used, and the (to me) pretty transparent rationalizing he does in his speech to Powell, I think Sturges sees him as a tragic figure.

Viewers are not bound to agree with this point of view. Sturges himself, as you point out, hardly exemplified a life of carefully considered decisions and good judgment. Most people would probably be happier following Waterbury’s example than riding the roller-coaster of a life like Sturges’s. You are free to agree with Waterbury’s view.

But to argue that THE MOVIE endorses Waterbury’s view is, to me, like arguing that the message of “Wall Street” really was that “greed is good.” It misses the point.

Posted By Rob Farr : December 21, 2013 7:34 pm

We watched this at our Christmas party a couple of weeks ago. What amazes me about this film is the way Jimmy is introduced to us in that rooftop scene at the very beginning. He’s a total jerk, belittling his fiancée when she doesn’t get his slogan and then demonstrating complete indifference when she stumbles and gets a nasty gash n her leg. How Sturges thought that audience sympathy could ever overcome this scene is beyond me.

Posted By robbushblog : December 23, 2013 5:27 pm

Everyone makes great points concerning Waterbury. Is it not possible that Sturges felt, and also knew, that both types of people, the solid citizen and the dreamer, were both necessary and that those who work at jobs at which they had not intended, those who pay their bills, prop up society for those dreamers who continue to dream long past the time that they should? The dreamers are necessary for innovative ideas, while the solid citizens are needed to make sure that society and the economic system continue unabated.

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