Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) has a slight problem. Our unlikely-named heroine is a young, pretty, slightly empty-headed girl, and all the handsome young men are headed off to war. They invite her to a dance; she accepts. But her stern father, the town constable (William Demarest), forbids her to go. Undeterred, Trudy calls up her childhood friend Norval (Eddie Bracken) and asks him to the movies, and once they escape the house, she reveals her true intent: to go to the dance without Norval, borrow his car, and come back to pick him up at the picture show at 1AM. While it’s a nice plan in theory, and while lovesick Norval reluctantly goes along with the scheme, everything goes to hell when “Victory Lemonade” and a low-hanging chandelier combine to give Trudy one doozy of a hangover … as well as a wedding ring on her finger and a bun in the oven to boot.
So begins Preston Sturges’ increasingly frenetic 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a film that should not even exist, given the time period in which it was made. But this is no ordinary movie, and Sturges no ordinary writer/director. During a time of war, when it seemed every other filmmaker in Hollywood strove to perpetuate the American ideal, Sturges, with an almost tangible sense of perverse delight, set about skewering the virtues that the country held dear. And in the process, he presented us with one of the funniest and most unexpected comedies ever conceived.
Of course, he had to dance lightly around the Production Code in order to make it work. Few directors in Hollywood were as adept at blurring the line of generally-accepted moral decency as Sturges, and with Miracle, he deliberately set out to write a film that would challenge practically every stricture laid out in the Code. He succeeded to the point that most of the original script was either thrown out or heavily modified to garner the film a Code seal of approval, and in fact, Sturges was still writing the film when shooting began in the fall of 1942 (when the film was finally released in 1944, Sturges received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for this movie–as well as another he released that same year, Hail the Conquering Hero).
Changes were made to make Trudy’s predicament more acceptable–according to the final version of the script, Trudy was not drunk; she was merely hit on the head, causing temporary memory loss, and the idea of the quickie marriage was thrown in to allay any concerns about premarital sex. But Sturges cleverly finds a way to imply the “true” cause of Trudy’s wild night by showing her indulging in a glass of “Victory Lemonade” and making a face when swallowing (presumably from the lack of then-rationed sugar, but we can infer otherwise), then stumbling about the next day with what amounts to a serious hangover. And when she denies to Norval that she’s drunk, there’s a note of strident insistence in Hutton’s delivery that belies Trudy’s insistence that she’s “never had a drink” in her life.
Hutton and Bracken make a charming pair in the film, and though Hutton is the focus, Bracken’s bumbling, nervous Norval steals the show when they are together onscreen. That was largely by design on Bracken’s part; as he would later reflect in interviews, he deliberately infused his character with mannerisms and tics that would draw focus during his scenes with Hutton. Bracken went on to play another nerve-ridden Sturges lead in the wartime comedy Hail the Conquering Hero, which also features regular Sturges character Demarest.
Miracle arguably represents Demarest’s best performance in a Sturges film, for it’s a perfect example of the actor’s ability to be gruff yet accessibly hilarious. Take, for instance, the scene in which his Officer Kockenlocker cleans his guns on the front porch while talking to an antic, hysterical Norval about the latter’s intentions with Trudy. The idea of a father subtly threatening his daughter’s boyfriend with bodily harm has become a cliche over the years, but Sturges takes it to outlandish heights here. As Norval gives several high-pitched, nervous laughs, Kockenlocker stares at him pointedly. “There isn’t any idiocy in your family, is there?” he barks, while Norval shakes from head to toe, eyes locked on the pistol in Kockenlocker’s hand. When the gun accidentally goes off, Norval dazedly walks into the house, shattering the glass door as he walks through it, while Kockenlocker just stares at him in disbelief for a moment before going back to his business on the porch.
The most effective performance in the film, however, comes from Diana Lynn as Trudy’s younger-but-wiser sister, Emmy. It’s similar to a role Lynn played in a film just prior to making Miracle, 1942’s The Major and the Minor with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. It’s certainly a type of role for which Lynn was well-suited, for she plays a teenage smart-ass with unparalleled verve and bite. Lynn gets the best lines in the film, and she delivers them with a flair of insouciant disregard for how her words may be received. Her repartee with Demarest is especially fun to watch, as Emmy quite capably baits her father, resulting in any number of empty threats (“Listen, zipper-puss, some day they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an ax someplace. Nothing else”). The interaction between the two actors is palpably warm, with a decided twinkle of good humor.
The film features some fine slapstick work from all involved, from Hutton’s drunken careening to Bracken’s nervous meanderings to Demarest’s multiple pratfalls while trying to kick her daughters’ behinds (literally). Demarest in particular works hard in Miracle: whether he’s sliding down fire poles, falling out of trees, getting in some punches, or being conked on the head by Emmy during a vain attempt to secure Norval’s freedom, Demarest throws his body around with abandon–impressive for a man of fifty (at the time).
But the slapstick-y elements are only a small part of the satirical whole, for the real meat of the comedy comes from the underlying implications of the film’s plot. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek takes the American ideal of hearth, home, and family and turns it on its head, poking holes in the traditional “first comes love, then comes marriage” notion (yes, Trudy is technically married before she gets pregnant, but the absence of her “husband,” who may or may not be named Ratzkiwatzki, calls into question the validity of that story, just as Sturges intends it to). By the time Norval prepares to step into his ready-made family in the wake of the titular “miracle,” the government has gotten involved just to make sure that all of the legalities are nice and proper. That those legalities are “fixed” by the overtly corrupt duo of McGinty and The Boss (Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, hilariously reprising their fast-talking roles from 1940’s The Great McGinty) only drives home the idea that the entire affair is a farce of epic proportions.
Labeling the film’s big ending surprise a “miracle” pushes boundaries even further, for at times Sturges deliberately equates Trudy with Mary from the Bible, even transferring the action to a farm by the end of Trudy’s pregnancy (though she ultimately gives birth in a nice, clean, all-American hospital instead of the barn). And just to drive the parallel home, Trudy goes into labor at Christmastime. Though Trudy is far from the virginal Mary, there is nonetheless a decided “innocence” projected onto her pregnancy, as she cannot even remember her supposed wedding night. At the same time, that innocence is highly suspect, as Trudy was undoubtedly trashed that night.
Sturges’ point in all of this was, as he later stated, that he wanted “to show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and confuse patriotism with promiscuity.” Indeed, the film displays a contemptuous air towards the “heroic” soldiers who squire Trudy on the dance floor and ultimately take advantage of her naivete. Sturges continually focuses on one drunken military man who repeatedly proposes that they all “go get married;” Trudy later explains that she vaguely recalls being told to give a false name to the Justice of the Peace so the marriage wouldn’t “count.” In the end, the only guy to do the right thing by Trudy is the one who’s been 4F-ed (that is, not accepted into the military because of a health problem–in Norval’s case, uncontrollable hives that pop up when he’s nervous). The military, it seems, is simply no place for heroes, and the “gentleman soldier” is a thing of myth.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek has been out of print for some time now, and is the only film from Sturges’ prolific 1940-1944 heyday not included in the Preston Sturges DVD collection that was released in 2006 (the rights to Miracle have long been held by the original studio, Paramount, while the rest of the early-40s Sturges classics were sold to Universal). But earlier this month, Warner Archive reissued Miracle as a manufacture-on-demand DVD, and what’s more, the DVD retains the extras that were available on the previous Paramount DVD release! (If you’re a regular customer of WA, you know that extras are a rarity with the MOD releases.) The DVD boasts two featurettes: one on Sturges and the making of the film, the other discussing the film’s issues with censorship from the Production Code office. Both featurettes include interviews with the film’s star, Bracken.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek truly is a miraculous comedy–a hallmark of the screwball genre, and a master class in how to construct mayhem while gleefully deconstructing sacred cows. It’s a bit of satirical brilliance, funny and thought-provoking all at the same time; like the best of Sturges’ films, it speaks to us on multiple levels.
And still we marvel–how DID this film manage to get made in 1942?