Bouquets of Faces: Christmas in July (1940, dir. Preston Sturges)
Of all the imageries of summer—cool, lapping waves on umbrella speckled beaches; picnics in green park paradises; cookouts beneath ravishing Fourth of July fireworks—my favorite is what opens Preston Sturges' Christmas in July (1940): people trying to stay cool in nighttime, hair mussed, irritated with the heat.
Looking back at this most Christmassy of summer films and most summery of Christmas films (take that, In the Good Old Summertime), I realize that's not quite how the opening scene plays out. True, it's night; true, it's July; and true, the first characters we see do have mussed hair and are irritated. But Sturges doesn't quite play up any late-night heatstroke or sweat-drenched denizens. And yet, when I remember its opening scene, even now, after being corrected, I'm still reminded of my own late night experiences in July with no A/C, sweating all to hell and watching black-and-white films like Christmas in July.
The film begins as Sturges' name and credit fades out, to the New York city skyline at night, before panning down to our heroes, Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew), average New Yorker office employees. This synechdochous shot sets up swiftly the rest of the film: in the move from the big-picture, "eight million stories" of New York City to the specificity of Jimmy and Betty, Sturges sets front and center the relationship between individuals and groups, which will indeed continue throughout the film. Jimmy and Betty are arguing, but it is apparent that Jimmy anxiously attends a radio beside him, which ultimately interrupts the argument with the Maxwell House Coffee Hour. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment we have all been waiting for. We are about to give you the results of the $50,000 Maxwell House New Slogan Contest," reads off radio announcer Don Hartman (Frank Pangborn), at the Maxwell House skyscraper, gaudy and bright neon lights advertising it to all. Away from the microphone sits, looking deceptively pleasant, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), "our founder and president." Don Hartman calls Dr. Maxford to the microphone, to list the winners in "that well-known voice of his."
Unfortunately, Dr. Maxford's secretary has just gotten a call, and rushes in to pull him away and inform him that the jury deciding the fates of Jimmy and millions of other contestants (who, echoing that idea of individuals in a city sea of people, are shown in a efficient montage as Don prattles on) are deadlocked, 11-1. As Don Hartman tries, now nervous, to stall the broadcast until a verdict can be reached, Dr. Maxford rushes down to the deliberating room where a belligerent and indignant Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest) faces off against the rest of the jury, "I'm gonna vote the way I think is right if it takes ten years!" As they argue, the broadcast is brought to a necessary end, and Don apologizes to all the listeners, as Maxford berates all the jurors.
And we're back to Jimmy and Betty, all in less than ten minutes. The film, in its entirety, is only 67 minutes, and yet feels full, complete. The Road-Runner of the great screenwriters, incredibly economic (and yet also hopelessly logorrhea-loving), Preston Sturges, if given the reigns to Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind, would've cut all the desert and all the war and made 90-minute pictures that felt just as big. Like, Shakespeare, his size comes from his characters, who always overfill the brim and flood the space of his films, like the ocean contained in a water bottle. And Sturges' camera truly does cram them in there, peopling his compositions as if each head a flower, into one big bouquet, in the best, emphasizing individuals amongst the groups (see Hail the Conquering Hero for his greatest achievement in composition cramming).
These characters, who fill the rest of the film, all deserve as much as can be writ on them: Ellen MacDonald (Georgia Caine), Jimmy's overworked mom who desires nothing more than her son's happiness and a new davenport that turns into a double bed; Tom, Dick, and Harry (Adrian Morris; Rod Cameron; Harry Rosenthal), the three prankster co-workers at Baxter & Sons Coffee who, overhearing anxious Jimmy's premature phone call to Maxwell House, decide to play a joke on him and forge a congratulatory telegram which sets the rest of the plot a-reelin' (and too soon discover their guilty-consciences); Mr. Waterbury (Harry Hayden), Jimmy's stern and stiff overseer who nevertheless warmly encourages him to consider himself a success regardless of the outcome of the contest; Mr. Baxter (Ernest Truex), the president of Baxter & Sons, who initially throws a tirade at Jimmy upon finding him celebrating (unknowingly) on top of a desk with Betty as the rest of his co-workers all bask in his glory around him, but then upon coming to an understanding thanks to Waterbury, congratulates him and offers him a better job, with better wages . . .
I could go on. But there's still Mr. Shindel (Alexander Carr)! and Mr. Hillbeiner (Al Bridge)! and that sweet secretary at Maxwell House—isn't that just the way it is with a Sturges picture? No plot summary for his films are needed, just include a character list, and indubitably you will not only have a rich and varied ensemble, but also the plot of the movie, for his characters are the instigators of the plot, rather than pawns in some elaborate scheme. And, as Bosley Crowther noted in his original review, Preston's "performers are directed to perfection."
Note how his characters act. The modus operandi of all characters in this film (aside from Dr. Maxwell and a few minor ones), is to move from roughness, rudeness, to kindness, charity, consideration, and friendliness. Not two minutes after Tom, Dick, and Harry see Jimmy's uninhibited happiness do they recognize the great fall and disappointment they have set him up for. Although Mr. Waterbury at first seems a sarcastic, business-oriented run-of-the-mill overseer, he proves himself to be at his core a man who cares very much for his underlings, who will even stand up to his own boss Mr. Baxter who when he fires Jimmy is unconcerned for the reason, and declare, in one of the most unsentimentally sweet moments in the film, "These children are part of your family. And anything that’s happening to them, is happening to you." Compare Baxter & Sons with its predecessor office in The Crowd (1928) or its successor The Apartment (1960). Baxter & Sons is more lived in, the people more distinguished, the sense of life less oppressed, despite that most oppressive of places.
Even at the climax of the film: Mr. Shindel and his employees are trying to take back all the gifts that Jimmy and Betty have selflessly given based on the credit of the check which Maxwell has rescinded. When he comes to realize that Jimmy too has been duped, and that the problem must lay with Dr. Maxwell and his impersonal big-business (compared to what seems to be a much smaller business in Shindel's), he buys all the children ice cream to go with their toys. Everyone, even Dr. Maxwell, have their own reasons, as Renoir pointed out. Dr. Maxwell is no common villain, flimsy and without motive. His great sin is not that he wants his money back, nor that he's greedy at all, but rather that he doesn't care about other people's feelings, and does not, indeed cannot see in Jimmy any less greed than he himself contains.
Dr. Maxwell does not see (will not see) the gifts that Jimmy has purchased with the money, for Betty, for his mother, for friends, for everyone but himself. He does not understand what is made clear in Powell & Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going (1945)—one character, in response to the incredulous, "I thought you didn't care about money [...] I thought you were happy without money," says, "Who says so? [...] But money isn't everything." And to, Jimmy and Betty, it isn't. It's the chance for validation, for success.
And we're back to Jimmy and Betty, after an entire review where the main characters feature in as little more than periphery. Dick Powell gives a career-best performance in this film. Sandwiched essentially in between his 30s career as sweet-faced musical star, and his 40s career as straight-faced noir lead (which, to me, he never quite fit as), here he has both the charm, kindness, and charisma of those early performance in perfect blend with the cynicism, weariness, and conflict his later films would smother him with.
Ellen Drew, his equal (although the film's slightly dated vision of 1940s everyman success keeps the everywoman down as Brian Henderson notes in his introduction to the script in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges), just as devotedly plays his weary girlfriend. Although they spend most of their first two scenes quarreling, even then we see why they're together. She's skeptical just as he's skeptical. That's why, in the end, when she pleads with Mr. Baxter to give Jimmy a chance to succeed, it's so gratifying: we have seen a change in her from the first scene, and it isn't sentimental mushiness. Betty believes in Jimmy, even in that first scene, she just doesn't agree that "If you can't sleep at night, it isn't the coffee, it's the bunk," is a particularly great slogan. And how wonderfully refreshing is that?
All of Sturges' films are filled with the dilemma between idealistic romanticism and crummy realism. Betty's final speech to Mr. Baxter imploring him to give Jimmy a chance comes as a midpoint between the two: between her downtrodden cynicism on the rooftops at the beginning, and that unrestrained hope and happiness that blesses her face in a close-up when she hugs Jimmy after he receives the check. She begs not for some fantasy of invulnerability to consequences, but rather for the opportunity to suffer those consequences, to be allowed to fail—but also allowed to see. And, another unsentimentally sweet moment, when she points out that his name's already on the door, and convinces Mr. Baxter.
The final irony, that Jimmy actually did win the prize after all (and that Bildocker was championing him all along), plays like a great final twist in a Hollywood Rom-Com, but we do not end with Jimmy and Betty's re-rejoicing over the news, but rather their returning home, unaware of what awaits. They are not jubilant over Jimmy's scaled-down victory, but neither are they morose. Sturges gives the audience two options: sympathize with them now, with their melancholy and what it means that they're knocked down but not out, or enjoy the sentimental swell of music that leads the movie to its end. What we are, is back to the beginning of the film: to the two, atop the roof, awaiting the future success that they're not entirely sure is coming: that perfect middleground, which is Sturges' idealistic realism. No better place is that idealistic realism exhibited than in the walk across the roof an hour earlier. Both silent, both frustrated with the other. And yet, we know they're in love, the way they say "Night"—over and over again, wanting something more from the other. It lets us know everything we need to before they even kiss.
Works Cited/Further Reading:
Crowther, Bosley. "'Christmas in July, a Captivating Comedy by Preston Sturges, at the Rivoli." The New York Times. The New York Times, 6 Nov. 1940. Web. 23 June 2017.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1987. Print.
Jacobs, Diane. Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges. Berkeley: U of California, 1992. Print.
Pirolini, Alessandro. The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
Spoto, Donald. Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges. Boston: Little, Brown. 1990. Print.
Sturges, Preston, and Brian Henderson. Five Screenplays. Berkeley: U of California, 1986. Print.