Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Christmas in July: Sturges' Forgotten Gem

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.


  1. Rupert, I absolutely agree with your assessment of "Christmas in July" as "a forgotten gem." I saw this for the first time a couple of years ago, and I immediately asked myself why it isn't better known. It is possibly the most Capra-like of Sturges' films, but more satirical and as you say not sappy or saccharine, as it might have been if Capra had made it. I watched "Sullivan's Travels" the other night, and at one point somebody criticizes Capra to Joel McCrea (who plays a movie director). "What's wrong with Capra?" he asks. The difference between Capra and Sturges is that Capra too often drowned out the comedy with his sledgehammer messages, whereas Sturges always kept the comedy and the comic predicament of his characters up front, and you can sure see that in this movie. I hope your apt summing up of "Christmas in July" will inspire people who haven't seen it to seek it out. It's a comfort to know that even if you think you've seen all the major movies of a major director like Sturges, there still might be a little-known gem like this lurking somewhere.

  2. Great choice for a review. Even though Sturges would go on to write & direct other more complex classics, this one holds up very well. I like the Capra/Sturges comparisons too. Both men tell tales of the "common man" with Capra taking a more overt reverential tone. Sturges make take a satirical route & portray his characters as buffoons but in the end they are held in high regard --just like Capra.

  3. This is a movie that I always wanted to see totally all the way through. I have always seen bits and pieces of it and not all of it, probably a half hour or so in all. Not through fault of my own. I always wanted to see it and now with your review I want to see it even more. Sturges the Lady Eve is one of my favorite movies and there are a few others of his movies I like Sullivan's Travels, Palm Beach Story, etc. I think this is one of the next movies on my list, thanks for the great review.

  4. I completely agree with this assessment, Rupert! Definitely a film to warm the heart, but with the ingenuity of Sturges to keep it from being stodgy.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful little gem that passed under my radar. I can't believe I did not know about it. I'll definitely be looking for it on TCM. Thanks, Rupert.

  6. Sturges only made great films and greater films and this is one of the great ones!!! And how much did Dick Powell change after the war when you see him in this film and then later in films like To the Ends of the Earth.... excellent review Rupe!!!



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