Preston Sturges’ Off-Season Yuletide Homage

For many people the Christmas holidays wouldn’t be complete without a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol whether it features Reginald Owen, Alastair Sims, Mr. Magoo or Bill Murray. But there’s no reason why Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) shouldn’t become an annual seasonal favorite as well. Granted, it doesn’t take place in December, contains no wintry, snow-covered landscapes or appearances by Santa Claus but like the Frank Capra and Charles Dickens favorites it conveys the spirit of Christmas, one of selfless giving and generosity to those less fortunate than you. It also reaffirms the importance of family and friends over the materialistic traps of the world but accomplishes it with wit and high style in a breathlessly paced sixty-seven minute rollercoaster ride. 

Ellen Drew & Dick Powell play a young newlywed couple struggling with financial issues in Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940).

Beginning with the frosty title credits and frenetic opening music, we are immediately plunged into the middle of a conversation between a young couple on a rooftop overlooking New York City at night. Betty (Ellen Drew) is trying to interest her fiancee Jimmy (Dick Powell) in an affordable plan to compartmentalize a one-bedroom apartment. He can only see increased financial worries if they marry and start a family while trying to support their elderly parents. Jimmy is convinced that the only way he’ll ever break out of the working class rut is to win the $25,000 cash prize (a lot of money for 1940) in a slogan writing contest for a Coffee company. It doesn’t matter that Jimmy has a history of entering and losing contests like this. He’s convinced he has to win eventually even though Betty fears each rejection is another blow to Jimmy’s self-esteem.

Set in what appears to be an Irish tenement (every character seems to have a slight brogue), Jimmy and Betty are not much different from a lot of other young couples who are struggling for better lives. But Jimmy’s burning desire to win and Betty’s unswerving loyalty to him is so moving that we are want them to triumph over impossible odds.

Dick Powell (on phone) becomes the brunt of a practical joke run amok in Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940), co-starring Ellen Drew.

And Christmas in July sweeps us along in an exhilarating rush of events as Jimmy, who holds a lowly desk job at a coffee company, thinks he has won the grand prize in a rival coffee company’s contest. A fake telegram from Western Union sent by three co-workers as a practical joke sets in motion a scenario that results in Jimmy getting engaged, being quickly promoted to his own office and embarking on a monumental spending spree – all in the course of one day!

Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell, far right) takes his girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew) shopping for jewelry in Christmas in July (1940), directed by Preston Sturges.

Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Sturges’s film walks a tightrope between euphoria and despair, building incredible suspense as we wait for the terrible moment when Jimmy and Betty realize they’ve been the brunt of a practical joke that went haywire. Yet the sequences of Jimmy’s uninhibited spending spree that both delight and fill us with dread are also the core of the film and demonstrate Jimmy’s true character. He becomes intoxicated by the ability to buy gifts for his hard-working mother, his future in-laws, and the less fortunate families in his neighborhood, telling Betty, “We better work up one side of the street and down the other, that way we won’t forget anybody.”

Dick Powell & Ellen Drew go on a wild spending spree in the Preston Sturges’ comedy, Christmas in July (1940).

When he and Betty arrive at the tenement with a caravan of cars bearing gifts, the resulting distribution of presents provides some of the most touching moments in the film such as a wordless shot of a young girl receiving a doll (probably the first one she’s ever been given) and her response to it is one of those little cinematic moments that you never forget.

A scene from the 1940 Preston Sturges’ comedy, Christmas in July starring Dick Powell (right) and Ellen Drew.

Sturges also invests this sequence with class and ethnic observations as the department store owner arrives with his managers to renounce Jimmy and take back the gifts. He shouts to the local Irish cop, “I want all of those people arrested,” referring to Jimmy and his neighbors. “Who do you think you are, Hitler?” the cop responds and then defends Jimmy, stating “I know that kid since he was knee-high to a cockroach. What’s he supposed to have done?” A riot ensues as the haves try to take back their merchandise from the have-nots but what’s bracing about this climatic moment is to witness the solidarity of these tenement dwellers and their fierce loyalty to one of their own.

Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) deals with a near riot situation when authorities arrive to take back Jimmy’s gifts to his tenement neighbors in Christmas in July (1940).

Christmas in July (1940) was Preston Sturges’ second feature film and was completed just before the director’s career entered the fast track to success with his subsequent feature, The Lady Eve (1941). In many ways the film shares key similarities to other Sturges’ films with its sharp satire of American materialism and its love for eccentric characters, but the tone is closer to the movies of Frank Capra and straddles a fine line between sunny optimism and hopeless pessimism.

Writer-Director Preston Sturges

Sturges began adapting Christmas in July for the screen while working on his debut feature, The Great McGinty (1940). The script was based on his original three act play, A Cup of Coffee, which was originally purchased by Universal; it was the project that first brought Sturges to Hollywood. Luckily, Paramount was able to secure the rights from their rival studio and Sturges went to work writing specific parts for his favorite characters actors, an ensemble that included William Demarest, Harry Rosenthal, Byron Fougler, Arthur Hoyt, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, Raymond Walburn and numerous others.

Raymond Walburn (on left) & Franklin Pangborn co-star in Christmas in July (1940), directed by Preston Sturges.

During the course of its filming, Christmas in July went from the title A Cup of Coffee to The New Yorkers to Something to Shout About before its final naming. The filming went fairly smoothly, but according to writer Rob Edelman in MaGill’s Survey of Cinema, “Paramount…went to great expense to produce a still photograph that hangs in a wall moulding in Betty Casey’s apartment. The shot is of Hester and Essex Streets circa 1900. A group in period dress (including character actors Richard Denning, William Frawley, Jean Cagney, Lillian Cornell, and Douglas Kennedy, who are not in the film) is pictured in and around a gasoline buggy. It took an entire morning to shoot and cost Paramount a day’s salary for more than a score of actors and technicians. Also, Sturges uses an Alfred Hitchcock trick when he plays a bit part in his film, as a man having his shoes shined at the beginning.”

Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell, far right) and his tenement neighbors receive an unpleasant visit from the cops in Christmas in July (1940), co-starring Ellen Drew (in mink coat).

The director did run into a little trouble with the censors at the Hays Office over some dialogue in his script of Christmas in July. They demanded that several lines be omitted or revised; “God rest his soul” (uttered in the film by an Irish mother) was changed by Code administrator Joseph I. Breen to “May his dear soul rest in peace” and “schlemiel” was substituted with “schnook” in an attempt to avoid what is now known as racial profiling. Sturges did manage to have the last laugh though. In Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, author Donald Spoto wrote that the director managed “to retain an amusing shot in the early part of the film, an intercut from Powell and (Ellen) Drew on the rooftop to two snuggling rabbits in a corner cage. This particular visual allusion had been attempted by filmmakers and rejected by censors so often that virtually no director bothered to try to include it any longer. At the preview screening, however, someone nodded and it remained, to the censors’ later chagrin.”

Ellen Drew & Dick Powell play young lovers who become the target of a practical joke that escalates into near-disaster in Christmas in July (1940).

When Christmas in July went into general release, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. The Hollywood Reporter labeled it “a ten-strike for Sturges as a writer-director.” Time magazine wrote, “As director, Sturges converted this unpretentious plot into a happy, slightly noisy comedy with a Chaplinesque background of pathos….A good dramatist, Sturges kept his characters credible by the simple but neglected technique of letting them act like people.”

A frequent member of Preston Sturges’ stock company of actors, William Demarest has a colorful supporting role in Christmas in July (1940).

Christmas in July was, in many ways, a breakthrough role for Dick Powell. No longer the boyish singer/dancer of such Warner Bros. musicals as Gold Diggers of 1937 and The Singing Marine (1937) and not yet the tough, unshaven private eye of Murder, My Sweet (1944), Powell was in career limbo, struggling to redefine his screen persona when he made this. And you can see the beginnings of a new style emerging, one that balances his naive, all-American wholesomeness with bitter self-doubt and cynicism. Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald is just as memorable and iconic as James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and perhaps Christmas in July will one day become a Yuletide viewing favorite.

Ellen Drew & Dick Powell (center) star in one of Preston Sturges’ lesser known and underrated comedies, Christmas in July (1940).

Christmas in July was first released by Universal on DVD in November 2006 as part of the box set Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection. It was not available as a single title until May 2011 when Universal released a no-frills DVD of it under their “Cinema Classics” series which is still available from some vendors.   Other websites of interest:

Vanity Fair article on Preston Sturges

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/05/sturges-201005

Dick Powell

http://www.dickpowell.net/2012/11/biography.html

Ellen Drew obit

http://articles.latimes.com/2003/dec/06/local/me-drew6

Trailer for the film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm1vY7HRgSw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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