If Preston Sturges had been a pro athlete, he would have won the MVP in 1944 when two of his screenplays won Academy Award nominations. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was one of them, even though it was written on the fly as it was being filmed.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the new Preston Sturges film, seems to me funnier, more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent, and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years. Yet the more I think of it, the less I esteem it. I have, then, both to praise and defend it, and to attack it.
The essential story is hardly what you would expect to see on an American screen: a volcanically burgeoning small-town girl (Betty Hutton) gets drunk and is impregnated by one of several soldiers, she can’t remember which; her father (William Demarest), her younger sister (Diana Lynn), and her devoted 4-F lover (Eddie Bracken) do all they can to help her out; the result is a shambles, from which they are delivered by a “miracle” which entails its own cynical comments on the sanctity of law, order, parenthood, and the American home—to say nothing of a number of cherished pseudo-folk beliefs about bright-lipped youth, childhood sweethearts, Mister Right, and the glamour of war. Sturges tells this story according to a sound principle which has been neglected in Hollywood—except by him—for a long time: in proportion to the inanity and repressiveness of the age you live in, play the age as comedy if you want to get away with murder. The girl’s name, Trudy Kockenlocker, of itself relegates her to a comic strip world in which nothing need be regarded as real; the characters themselves are extremely stylized—a skipping little heifer, a choleric father, an updated Florence Atwater, a classical all-American dope; and the wildly factitious story makes comic virtues of every censor-dodging necessity. Thanks to these devices the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.
Having set up these formalized characters, each in a different comic key, and this thin-ice version of the story he is really telling, Sturges has just begun. He also doubles the characters on their own trails, into sharp pathos, into slapstick (some of which falls flat), into farce as daftly unsettling as being licked to death by a lioness, to the edge of tragi-comedy, and into moments cf comedy which could emerge only from their full quality as human beings. He plays every twist of his story for sharp realism as well as laughs; his small-town doctor, banker, lawyer, and, most notably, Porter Hall as a justice of the peace are bits of comic realism finely graded against the chameleon-like principals. Above all, Sturges carries farther than he has ever done before his bold blends and clashes of comic and realistic angles of attack. In a typically fine scene on Christmas Eve, when Trudy’s pregnancy has developed the comic-emotional portentousness of a delayed action bomb, he manages to sustain an atmosphere of really tender pathos and, at the same time, (1) to cue in ‘Silent Night,” (2) to show irate Constable Kockenlocker hammering the bell out of a recalcitrant Christmas star, (3) to let him comfort his restive daughter with the noble reminder (deleted the second time I saw the film) ‘You may be waiting for the President of the United States,” and (4) to cap that, for Bethiemayhem, by having young Emily inquire, gently, what that cow is doing in the kitchen
Besides resonating many traditions of comedy against a firm basic realism, the film rests on an apparently complex emotional and philosophic base which seems to me not really complex but simply mature, being—on its smaller scale—at once as nihilistic as Celine, at least as deeply humane as Dickens, and at all times inviolably, genuinely, and intelligently gay. Excepting a few moments when Sturges forces everything too far, the film is also beautifully played, especially by William Demarest, whose performance stands with Paul Lukas’ in The Watch on the Rhine among the finest I have seen.
But you may, I have to realize, disagree with me. I have incredulously heard some people dismiss the show as ‘comedy”; they should stick to something really vital and serious like Zola. Others feel it is too frantic and too rough; it has enough mental, creative, and merely brutal energy for a hundred average pictures. Others object to various errors of taste, mainly connected with making laughs out of pregnancy. Here again I partly agree; but I would rather see pregnancy remain a subject for questionable laughter than see it become taboo against any laughter at all. Still others dislike the film for its multiple attack, its shiftiness of style; but if you accept that principle in Joyce or in Picasso, you will examine with interest how brilliantly it can be applied in moving pictures and how equally promising, as against the lovely euphonies René Clait achieved according to the same principle, astute cacaphony can be. For barring Chaplin’s this seems to me the largest American attempt, on the level of full consciousness, to stir up from the bottom the whole history and possibility of moving pictures into one broth; to draw, like Clair, on the blackloam, instinctive genius of the Mack Sennett comedies; and to amuse and excite the simplest at once with the most complex customers. In fact, in the degree that this film is disliked by those who see it, whether consciously or passively, I see a measure less of its inadequacies than of the progress of that terrible softening, solemnity, and idealization which, increasing over several years, has all but put an end to the output and intake of good moving pictures in this country.
Yet the more I think about the film, the less I like it. There are too many things that Sturges, once he had won all the victories and set all the things moving which he managed to here, should have achieved unhindered, purely as a good artist; and he has not even attempted them. He is a great broken-field runner; once the field is clear he sits down and laughs The whole tone of the dialogue, funny and bright as it often is, rests too safely within the pseudo-cute, pseudoauthentic, patronizing diction perfected by Booth Tarkington. And in the stylization of action as well as language it seems to me clear that Sturges holds his characters, and the people they comically represent, and their predicament, and his audience, and the best potentialities of his own work, essentially in contempt. His emotions, his intelligence, his aesthetic ability never fully commit themselves; all the playfulness becomes rather an avoidance of commitment than an extension of means for it. Cynicism, which gives the film much of its virtue, also has it by the throat; the nihilism, the humaneness, even the gaiety become, in that light, mere postures and tones of voices; and whereas nearly all the mischief is successful, nearly every central and final responsibility is shirked. Of course there is always the danger, in trying to meet those ultimate human and aesthetic responsibilities, of losing your gaiety; but that never happened to Mozart—or to René Clair at his best.
I mention Clair again because Sturges has so many similar abilities so richly—and because there is such a difference between the two. Whether or not he ever makes another film under favorable circumstances, and up to his best, Clair is one of the few great artists of this century. Sturges, in his middle forties, is still just the most gifted American working in films, vividly successful in the kind of artful-dodging which frustrates Clair; hollow and evasive at those centers in which Clair is so firm. I suspect that Sturges feels that conscience and comedy are incompatible. It would be hard for a man of talent to make a more self-destructive mistake.