Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, William Demarest.
"The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is so filled with violence, disorder and misunderstanding that I have know people to emerge from it trembling"--David Thomson quoted in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, by James Harvey
Miracle of Morgan's Creek satirizes the wartime idolatry of soldiers and the innocent, faithful girls left behind. Trudy Kockenlocker feels it's her patriotic duty to dance with departing G.I.s before they ship out and is dismayed to discover one hung-over morning that she has apparently (according to the evidence of a curtain ring on her finger) married a private whose name she can't exactly recall. Twenty one year old band singer Betty Hutton and former child star Eddie Bracken spoke bolder dialogue that had been submitted to the censors since the Production Code was enforced in 1934. One excised speech made explicit Sturges' moral lesson: the unfortunate confusion of promiscuity with patriotism.
Preston Sturges was in the news in 1998, both because of his 100th birthday, and because he was bumped from the the American Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest Films. The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero spilled out in a manic burst of energy between 1940-44, any one of which would have been a sterling addition to AFI's list. He was the first screenwriter to direct his own scripts, blazing a trail for everyone who dreams of the credit: written and directed by....(and you can put your own name here).
He brought much of his own unique life experience to his screenplays. No one he knew as a boy had the slightest notion of marital fidelity. All families were makeshift, and his films show a particular fondness for a single parent with a child of the opposite sex, like young Preston and his mother. Born Mary Dempsey, she had recreated herself as Mary Desti, an imaginary part of an aristocratic Italian family. The man he considered his father, Solomon Sturges, probably her third husband, was a prosperous Chicago stockbroker. Sturges spent much of his youth being shipped between the proper world of his father, and the European Bohemia of his mother, who packed away his tailored suits and dressed him in Greek robe and sandals. Wildly unconventional adults, actors, dancers, artists, Europeans and Americans of every stripe, businessmen, millionaires, wastrels and gamblers populated his life, and later his screenplays. Mme. Desti was Isadora Duncan's best friend and supported herself intermittently with a cosmetics firm Maison Desti, whose best-selling product was a youth creme called "Secret of the Harem." Sturges assumed Maison Desti would be his career, and while stilll a teenager, created for Maison Desti a kiss-proof lipstick, Red Red Rouge. He dabbled in other careers, too. He was an amateur inventor with a patent on a diesel engine and later ran a popular restaurant in Hollywood, The Players.
He fell into playwriting; "Strictly Dishonorable" was the big comedy hit of 1929 and it made him a ton of money. Separated from his second wife, Post cereal heiress Eleanor Hutton, Sturges was lured to Hollywood. He wrote many freelance screenplays during the 1930s, primarily comedies, but also a drama, The Power and the Glory, that many (including Orson Welles) considered a blueprint for Citizen Kane. But, he realized the director was the boss on a movie set, and longed to direct his own screenplays. Paramount studios was the most accommodating to creative spirits in the team-oriented studio era, and they bought a screenplay that became the Oscar- winning The Great McGinty, for $1.00 and the promise Sturges could direct.
Miracle of Morgan's Creek came near the end of his run of great comedies. As diverse as his life experiences had been, he was a stranger to small-town American life as idealized in the films of Frank Capra. Sturges was described as the anti-Capra by French critic André Bazin. His small towns are not the pie-baking heartland. The inhabitants are diverse and irritable, not noble, kind or understanding, and show the turmoil beneath the facade of a placid rural life.
Nowadays, the idea that unwed motherhood brought terrible disgrace seems rather quaint. But, at the time, the censors were just as upset that Sturges was making fun of the war effort, as much as that an unmarried pregnant girl was the heroine of his movie. Imagine, a GI getting a girl pregnant and leaving the parenting to a draft reject! But the hero and heroine illustrate one of Sturges most firmly held beliefs, that a father is not the person who gives life, but the person who gives love. The censors insisted on numerous changes, including "In view of the Government's rubber-conservation program, it will be necessary to eliminate the screeching of tires, when dubbing". But, for all the tampering, the basic idea, that Trudy got drunk and slept with a soldier came across loud and clear. And, even as it was abhorred by the Catholic Legion of Decency, they had to admit," it was very funny...from a strictly entertainment standpoint."
The film begins with characters from The Great McGinty and flashes back to the story of Trudy Kockenlocker. Betty Hutton plays Trudy. She had been a rambunctious Big Band singer since her teens and went into a series of musicals, starting with Panama Hattie on Broadway. Eddie Bracken played her devoted beau, Norval. He had been a child actor in Our Gang comedies and had already made 3 pictures with Hutton. He didn't want to work with her again, because he felt her musical numbers upstaged him, and he had no comparable opportunity to show off. Sturges soothed his ego, promising that there would be no songs, and he would be the star of the picture.
Sturges wrote the part of Papa Kockenlocker for William Demarest, who gave the finest performance of his career. He's an instantly recognizable actor, as vivid in the one silent film I've seen him in, as he was as Uncle Charlie on tv in My Three Sons in the 60s. Diana Lynn is delightful as Trudy's tart-tongued sister.
Diana Lynn celebrates Christmas for the fan magazine readers.
.James Agee thought Sturges played comedy as if he wanted to get away with murder. The mayhem here is committed upon formula Hollywood conventions of patriotism, motherhood and romance. "The only amazing thing about my career," Sturges once said, "is that I ever had one at all."
(Illustrations from scribbled-up flea market find, Whitman Publishing, 1951, and an anonymous 1952 movie star scrapbook.)