Not nearly as revered or even remembered as Sullivan's Travels or The Lady Eve (both 1941), Christmas in July was nonetheless a classic Preston Sturges comedy. Only his second film as writer/director (The Great McGinty (1940) was his first), it sparkles with charm and wit just as his other films but unlike them has been lost to the viewing public over time.
Dick Powell stars as Jimmy MacDonald, a small time office clerk who has big dreams in winning a $25,000 slogan contest for a national coffee company. His contest contribution ~ "If you can't sleep at night, It isn't the coffee, It's the bunk" ~ makes its way around the film often. As a gag, some of his none too bright co-workers send him a fake telegram stating that he has won the much coveted prize. Based on this misinformation, Jimmy announces to the whole office that he has won and takes his best girl, Betty (Ellen Drew) out for a shopping spree like the town's never seen, including a diamond ring and fur for Betty and a brand new dream davenport (ie sofa) that unfolds into a double bed for his unsuspecting mother. Also, gifts for every man, woman and child who lives on his tenement block (25K went ALOT farther in 1940 than it does today!). His boss even gives him a large promotion to the company's advertising department based on the false document! Hmm, hmm, hmm.
Jimmy and Betty take the telegram to the coffee contest company and the befuddled curmudgeon of a company president (Raymond Walburn) coughs up the 25 thousand simoleans. Jimmy is treated like a king everywhere he goes, including his poor neighborhood, where based on his new found fortune (so he thinks), everything is a free for all, food, fun, dancing in the streets. Then the mistake is realized by those in the know at the "Maxford House Coffee Company" and chaos ensues. As with so many films of Preston Sturges, his theme in Christmas in July is based on the common man. Like Frank Capra, he extols the values and virtues of those honest men and women who are trying to pull themselves up and retain their dignity under less than perfect circumstances. However, Christmas in July isn't sappy or saccharine, it's a very genuine film.
Powell is very likeable as Jimmy MacDonald, as he was in most of his pre- Murder, My Sweet (1944) roles. This was one of his first films under a new contract he had signed with Paramount, after leaving Warner Brothers, where he had spent years playing juvenile leads in that studio's "backstage musicals" 42nd Street, Dames, et al. The supporting cast is spot on as well, with William Demarest particularly notable, especially in the films humorous and ironic ending.
I wouldn't say Sturges' classic is underrated because I don't believe enough people have seen it to have an opinion. Like many films that make their way around the Yuletide schedule, Christmas in July, though not set in December, offers all the charm and warm feelings of human kindness as any other. Better than that, it can be viewed January thru December.