Christmas in July

Dir: Preston Sturges, 1940. Starring: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr. Classics.
Christmas in July

Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.

Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.

When some of his co-workers get fed up with his constant bragging of how big he is going to make it some day they play a really funny, really cruel joke on him – convincing him that he has won a slogan contest for the coffee company they all work for. That the slogan makes no sense seems proof of its genius and suddenly the pseudo success is a really big success and Powell becomes a hero to his girlfriend and their entire neighborhood. But fortune and glory are an easy come, easy go proposition for the inhabitants of Sturges’s world and soon the truth of the prank reveals how random and subjective our traditional concept of success can be and what fools the experts can be as well.

Elements of the basic plot seem to have come from King Vidor’s masterful silent drama The Crowd. That movie also features a frustrated, big talking protagonist who wants to somehow make a name for himself and who ends up winning a slogan contest (and wins for real). But whereas The Crowd is a lyrical drama of the bittersweet ups and downs of an unremarkable life, Christmas in July is a raucous comedy premised on the same thing. But Sturges, like Vidor, has real affection for his characters. His real target isn’t the foolish dreamer, but the inherently pretentious silliness of the dream itself.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 18, 2013 4:51pm
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