Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in July

"Christmas in July" (Preston Sturges, 1941) James MacDonald (Dick Powell) lives a life of pretense and dreams. A bean counter for a coffee company, he's just won the $25,000 prize in the slogan contest for rival caffeine-pushers, Maxford House. The winning entry: "Can't sleep at night? It's not the coffee. It's the bunk."

Well, it is the bunk and the pretenses are false ones. MacDonald didn't win any contest. It's all an impractical joke played on him by co-workers, that manages to sneak under the radar due to a contest SNAFU.
But by the end of his perfect day, he's got a promotion, a new raise and an office, and bought presents for everybody on the block without spending a dime yet. You've got to have good luck to get good luck it seems, but it all comes crashing down when the check and everything with it bounces. Jimmy almost loses his new job because, let's face it, he only got it because he won the contest and, his boss, liking sure things and having made a ton of mistakes himself, needs to have something he can count on. Now that he can't count on MacDonald being a proven winner, well...

That twisted logic—the very basis of our banking credit system (You can only get money if you don't need it) forms the curvature of the spine of Sturges' short (68 minutes) winning second film. Another moral, Sturges-style is a familiar one, except in Hollywood: No good deed goes unpunished. MacDonald buys presents for everybody but himself and ends up humiliated in front of his neighbors. But at least he gets to keep his new job if he succeeds at it because "it's one thing to muff a chance once you've had it... it's another thing never to have had a chance."

Powell does measured work far subtler than his musical gigs and ingenue Ellen Drew is delightful. But the stand-out amond the Sturges stock company in this film is Raymond Walburn as the perpetually frustrated and passive aggressive Dr. Maxford, head of Maxford House Coffee. Usually these big business CEO's are played with comedy bluster, but Walburn fumes and fusses as if its as part of his everyday routine as a cup of coffee, roasted and aged. The entire movie has a fresh comic timing that's a bit off-kilter, and the results are hilarious. It's Frank Capra turned on his ear, but far more cynical and with less of a "reach" at the end.

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