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