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Not as well known as "The Lady Eve" or "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," "Christmas in July" was an unusual film for the writer-director Preston Sturges: it's more wistful, less frenetic. Though it's filled with a myriad of those wonderful character actors that Sturges loved to use to fill the frame (including Franklin Pangborn and William Demarest), it's touching in its regard for the struggling young couple (played by Dick Powell and Ellen Drew) who get swept up in the idea of winning a slogan contest ("If you can't sleep, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk!"). The romantic mood seems to be set in the Depression era, reminiscent of the scripts that Sturges wrote for those Depression comedies "The Good Fairy" and "Easy Living": innocents get swept up in mistaken identities and come out winners anyway. Maybe it's not as manic as his classic romantic comedies, but it has its share of hilarious moments and it's full of charm.
Could this be one of Preston Sturges's most profound comedies?
In addition to being one of the funniest and most underappreciated. In "Sullivan's Travels," Preston Sturges has the
Joel McCrea character speak admiringly of fellow director Frank
Capra. In "Christmas in July" possibly Sturges was trying to teach
Capra how to handle sentiment without falling into sentimentality --
the scene where Dick Powell is handing out presents to his
neighbors, and he gives a doll to a crippled girl in a wheelchair --
a remarkably tender moment in the midst of a hectic scene -- done
with just the right touch, One of my favorite lines occurs when
bug-eyed Raymond Walburn sarcastically tells contest-winner
Powell, "I can't wait to give you my money!" Sturges also shows
that you can have plot complications without resorting to villains --
no Capraesque class warfare here -- rich and poor are equally
lovable -- even gruff William Demarest.
This may be my favorite Preston Sturges film. It's as well written and
crafted as anything he made after it. Sturges had a knack for creating
unique characters and throwing them into even more unique situations.
Jimmy MacDonald is absolutely determined to make money the easy way; by winning a contest. A few of his coworkers, aware of his desperation to win an upcoming contest, decide to send him a telegram in order to make him believe he's won the recent contest, along with the enormous cash reward. What begins as a cruel little joke (to find out how Jimmy would react to winning) becomes something much bigger. It wouldn't make sense for me to explain the plot any further; much of the enjoyment in watching the film comes from how it unpredictably unfolds.
"Christmas in July" is rather unusual in comparison to some of Sturges other movies, namely his two most famous films, "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story". It contains more pathos and less sexual innuendos, but it never becomes cheap, manipulative melodrama. It's also quite short in comparison to his other movies, but it's all the better for it.
Joyous dose of whimsy from writer-director Preston Sturges, who always managed to wring both sentiment and cynicism from a fairy tale premise. Here, Dick Powell is a working-class guy who's under the impression he's won $25,000 in a coffee-slogan contest. Short at 70 minutes, but sharp as a tack, this is a wonderful stroll through Hollywood's Golden Era. Powell is terrific and Ellen Drew is equally good as his sweetheart. Watch it and enjoy! ***1/2 from ****
Short and sweet, bright and breezy, but not without pith, this early
Preston Sturges feature helped further establish his "wonder-kid"
reputation in the early 40's before his great classics "Sullivan's
Travels", "The Lady Eve" and my favourite "Hail The Conquering Hero".
The simple premise of a hoax win in a national coffee-slogan competition for ordinary average nice-guy Powell is the springboard for a light morality tale along the lines of "he who does good has good things happen to them" - although not without the usual series of ups and downs, just as you'd expect.
Of course nobody here is really bad, even the duped killjoy Mr, no make that Dr Maxford of the sponsoring coffee company or Mr Shindler of the too-trusting department store from whom Powell buys gifts for the whole neighbourhood on the strength of the phony winning telegram placed on his desk by his prankster work colleagues. Even when he finds out that his win is bogus, Powell can't get angry at the tricksters, so it's no real surprise that his homeliness, honesty and humility wins everyone over, including his feisty girl-friend, played by Ellen Drew, with the predictable twist in the last reel that Powell's slogan wins anyway.
Powell is very likable in the lead, although Drew is a little too high-pitched in delivery for my taste as the film develops. There's the usual troop of madcap eccentrics which peoples almost every Sturges comedy, with some nice little cameos, I particularly liked the actor playing the deadpan cop, not above making some contemporary allusions to Hitler & Mussolini to stress a point.
The dialogue of course is mile-a-minute vernacular and I got a kick out of Sturges' Dickensian word-play over triple-barrelled lawyer's names (along the lines of "Swindle Cookum and Robbem!"). Right from the start, we get the "screwball comedy" template of a poor Joe and his girl, dreaming of something bigger waiting for something extraordinary to happen, with Powell and Drew's extended night-time scene on their New York apartment roof-top, and succeeding entertaining scenes including Powell's reaction to "winning" the competition and best of all the frenetic crowd scene when Maxford tries to get his money back only to cop a batch of rotten fruit ("Don't throw the good stuff" admonishes one parent to a tomato-wielding youngster), it's all good clean fun and ends up happily ever after. And get a load of that "zoom" shot back into Maxford's office at the end - it certainly got me out of my chair, not the last time Sturges employed camera tricks of this type - remember the memorable stop-start sequence to "The Palm Beach Story".
The movie celebrates community, the little guy who dreams of making it big and how to meet disaster with alacrity, in short a feel-good movie with a big heart, well worth an hour and four minutes of anyone's time.
On the surface this effort from the brilliant Preston Sturges looks
like a standard sugar coated feel good movie, but strip away the outer
skin and you get a delightful collage of comedy, romance, satire,
drama, and nudge nudge observations about hunger of wealth and all the
spin offs that wealth creates.
I don't deem it unfair to state that the films core plot of frivolity may not be to everyones taste, but to me personally it ticks all the boxes for a joyride with more at its heart. The pace of the film is more in keeping with screwball comedies of the great era, but that is not to say that the film doesn't shift down a gear for poignant reflection, because it does , but ultimately the film is full of hilarity from many quarters, that is acted out accordingly from a sparky cast, and of course directed by a deity .
A joyous winner that prods you in the ribs and gives a cheeky wink along the way 9/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As the follow up to "The Great McGinty" Preston Sturgis returned to an
old play of his that was written in 1931 and called "A Cup Of Coffee".
Sturgis, for all of his cynical slant in his comedies and screenplays,
had a pretty accurate view of the American Dream. In "Christmas In
July" the hero is trying to make it to fame and fortune overnight - by
winning a jingle/slogan contest on the radio. And the truth of the
situation is far more complicated than we credit it in being.
Powell has entered every contest he can, figuring that the law of averages will eventually come to his assistance and win him the big prize. He doesn't stop to think that the same viewpoint is held by everyone else who is competing against him. He also does not like the regular hard work ethic that is pushed by his office manager (Harry Hayden) to concentrate on his job and you will be a success - not spectacular but one who meets his debts and looks the world in the eye. Powell is not opposed to hard work, but he hates being one of the herd of numberless drudges like most of us.
He has gotten three of his office friends so fed up with his constant sweep-stake fantasies that they decide to send him a fake telegram that he has won the Maxford House Coffee sweepstakes. He has a slogan "If you find you can't sleep at night, it is not the coffee, it's the bunk!" Cute (a pun of course), he keeps explaining it to everyone who couldn't care less. But the Maxford House Radio show which was supposed to find a winner is unable to reach a timely decision (William Demerest is trying to convince them to favor one that he thinks is a snappy slogan, and Robert Warwick wants a more formal and dignified short slogan). Taking advantage of this impossible tie situation, the trio send their false telegram - and Powell and his girlfriend Ellen Drew go crazy.
But that's just it - everyone goes crazy. Powell's boss Ernest Truex, who has rarely given him a second glance, when he hears about this thinks Powell is a business genius and starts considering promoting him. The staff of his accounting firm and various businessmen all bow and scrape to him. The three friends who play the joke find it has gotten so out-of-control that they can't stop it (they don't dare to). The joke even is pulled over the coffee company owner, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn, who almost steals the film from Powell). Maxford is disgusted by the way the slogan jury under Demerest won't do as he orders, and he is totally prepared to accept the fake telegram as proof that the same committee didn't even bother to notify their employer first!
The film is pretty funny throughout, as Powell enjoys the height of glory and the depth of despair as the truth about the telegram hits Maxford and the people from whom Powell has been buying goods (gifts for his family and friends - since it is summer the title of the film makes sense). But in a society that worships success, should it penalize someone who innocently seemed to be successful but wasn't? The conclusion of the film suggests that some trial and error is required, but Sturgis still finds that the hand of fate may be necessary to allow someone to show his or her full potential.
Sturges's directorial effort is astonishingly funny. He creates such winning characters, and then does such terrible things to them! It's amazing how he is able to walk a tightrope between satire and sentimentality. The Sturges company is in place already, watch for Walburn as Dr. Maxford, everything he says is a marvel of pomposity! Powell and Drew make an appealing working-class couple, yearning to be together, but lacking the funds to get married. You will laugh, and you will be sucked into Jimmy's plight! Modern comedies could learn from Sturges, Stevens, Capra, et al.; it's fun to laugh at, and with, people that we like...
I'm a film buff...I watch movies of all sorts all the time. But Christmas
July may well be my favorite film of all time. It is well-constructed,
tightly executed, and just plain hilarious. I've never laughed harder at
film then I did during the seen where Dr. Maxford gives Jimmy the
As always Bill Demerest is great. The entire cast shines in this film. I'd advise anyone striving to become a writer/director of films to study this film. This is how it ought to be done.
"Christmas in July" (Paramount, 1940), the second feature entirely
written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges, following his
initial success of "The Great McGinty" (1940), ranks the director's
most mellow comedies, compared to his future efforts as "Miracle on
Morgan's Creek" 1944). In spite of his reputation for his wild and
crazy plots, along with his familiar assortment of bizarre characters,
"Christmas in July" could understandably be mistaken for a Frank Capra
film, a theme not so much on how a good fortune changes the common man,
but how much the common man unselfishly changes the lives for the good
The plot is relatively simple: James MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his fiancé, Betty Casey (Ellen Drew), sit on the rooftop of their New York City apartment building listening to the radio where the name of the contest winner for the best slogan is to be announced. Wondering about the delay, Maxford (Raymond Walburn), president of Maxford House Coffee Company, heads over to the room where he finds the jury (consisting of Sturges stock players of Dewey Robinson, Arthur Hoyt, James Conlin and Robert Warwick), headed by its foreman, Bildocker (William Demarest), unable to decide upon the winner. With time running out, Maxford has the very nervous Donald Hartman (Franklin Pangborn) go on air to postpone the name of the winner until further notice. Because he had entered many contests in the past, Jimmy is confident that his slogan,"If you can't sleep, it isn't the coffee; it's the bunk." to be a sure winner. The following morning, Jimmy reports to his office clerical job to find a telegram on his desk naming him as winner of the Maxford contest. Overly excited, Jimmy stands on top of his desk where he makes his announcement to his fellow co-workers. Not only does Mr. Waterbury (Harry Hayden), his supervisor, grants him time off to collect his $25,000 prize, but he is immediately promoted to vice-president under Mr. Baxter (Ernest Truex) as a reward for his good fortune. After Jimmy collects the check from Maxford, who's unaware and confused why he hasn't been informed of the jury's decision, Jimmy takes Betty to Schidel's Department Storewhere where he buys her an engagement ring, and using the rest of the check to purchase gifts for everybody in his neighborhood. The Christmas in July celebration comes an abrupt end when Maxford, realizing his error after finding Bildocker still unable to come up with the decision, to arrive at the scene, accompanied by Mr. Schnidel (Alexander Carr) of the department store, to take back everything, including the check, and expose Jimmy as a fraud. A neighborhood riot ensues before Jimmy and Betty are confronted by three of their co-workers, Tom (Michael Morris), Dick (Rod Cameron) and Harry (Jarry Rosenthal) who confess to what was originally intended as a practical joke. Now that reality has set in, what's Jimmy to do? Will he be working a lot of overtime hours to pay for his purchases? Will Maxford sponsor more contests? Will the judges get to come up with the winner before next Christmas?
A Christmas story that's not necessarily about Christmas nor the 4th of July for that matter, but how it is more blessed to give than to receive every day of the year, not just on Christmas. While "Christmas in July" is at best when poking fun of the current trend of radio contests, the story simmers down only when centering upon the poverty-stricken couple Jimmy and Betty, yet, in true Preston Sturges tradition, throws in surprises here and there to hold interest and keep his audience laughing and completely satisfied in how everything is resolved. As much as Sturges could have selected good-natured actors as Gary Cooper, James Stewart or Henry Fonda in the leads, Dick Powell, former crooner of Warner Brothers musicals from the 1930s, making his Paramount debut, turns out to be a fine choice, particularly at this point of renewing his screen image. Aside from the plot it development of its leading characters, Jimmy being an average guy, engaged to a nice girl, living with his widowed mother (Georgia Caine) in a tenement apartment whose ambition is to succeed, Sturges also does a remarkable job with his assortment of neighbors of different ethnic background gathered together in the neighborhood sequence to appear very much true to life. He adds a touch of sentimentality with a memorable bit as Jimmy awards Sophie (Sheila Sheldon), a wheelchair bound girl, with an expensive doll she can call her own. Surprised as well as speechless, she looks up to Jimmy before hugging the gift like a new born baby, which is enough thanks any giver can ever receive. And thanks to Sturges for such a fine motion picture leaving us with something to think about, "If you can't sleep, it isn't the coffee; it's the bunk."
This seldom revived comedy gem that says it in 67 minutes made it to video cassette in 1985 at a high price of $59.95, followed by several cable television presentations, such as the Disney Channel (1991-1996) and Turner Classic Movies where it premiered in 2002. It's 2006 availability on DVD will assure renewed interest for both movie and the comedy films of Preston Sturges. (***1/2)
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