Christmas in July

(Preston Sturges, USA, 1940)


About 20 minutes into Christmas in July, Preston Sturges’ second feature as a writer-director, a Mr Waterbury (Harry Hayden) – office manager of the film’s Everyman hero, Jimmy (Dick Powell) – delivers a crucial monologue. He anecdotally recalls the dreams of his youth, similar to Jimmy’s: to have $25,000 (presumably by winning it), for everything that would enable him to do. In fact, Waterbury confesses, he thought he would “be a failure if I didn’t get hold of it”. But this dream did not materialise, and disenchantment later transmuted into cracker barrel wisdom. Waterbury claims to have realised that:


I’m not a failure, I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works, but no system could be right where only one half of one per cent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure, I’m a success – and so are you, if you earn your living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.


What a superbly scripted speech this is. It asserts an all-American lesson, but in pure double-talk. There’s a shadow of doubt in the way Waterbury has to tell himself not once but twice: “I’m not a failure, I’m a success”. As the late Brian Henderson (editor of the invaluable Sturges screenplay volumes published by University of California Press) pointed out, the logic of this discourse is mighty strange. It first indicates an evident, structural failing of the “system” – since this system favours “one half of one per cent”, indeed! – but then overrides that quasi-Marxist insight (or indictment) with a blind, individualist, perfectly contradictory affirmation: “I’m a success”. Moreover, this affirmation gets transmitted to Waterbury’s co-workers: “And so are you”. It’s ideology in action!


The exclusionary, privileging capitalist logic of this American society – Waterbury says it himself, and again he turns it over twice in his short address – “wouldn’t be right”. But its citizens have to convince themselves it’s right. The mental and emotional contortions involved – contortions that are very much the central subject of Christmas in July – have an undeniably psychoanalytic ring: it’s a matter of denial, displacement, foreclosure, sublimation – whatever gets these everyday characters through the night. As Henderson (who had a keen insight into such psychic distortions of reality) elaborated, Waterbury “thereby suppresses his minor premise that he and millions like him are not successes by prevailing standards”. Bear in mind, by the way, that 40 minutes later in Christmas in July (which is only 67 minutes long in total), Jimmy’s fiancée, Betty (Ellen Drew), will evoke the sad, typical fate of most office workers: “They’ll all be like Mr Waterbury soon enough”.


Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful planet of Preston Sturges. His richly hilarious films are well loved – some of them, at least, such as The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels (both 1941) – but they may not be so well understood. I am writing this review on the day in late 2019 that Spanish TV is awash with mainly one thing: a delirious celebration of those lucky few who have just won the national lottery. It is a day when TV hosts and reporters, broadcasting live, grotesquely pretend to be minutely interested in the lives of “little people”, from the winners to the owners of those shops or kiosks that sold them the tickets. Tomorrow, it will be back to Trump, Greta Thunberg and national pop star Rosalía. But for now, it’s what we might call the populist spectacle, in all its hysteria and flimsiness. Sturges’ best films, including The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1944), exhibit or perform a passionate belief in this “mass” of ordinary (and almost always eccentric) people – while, at the same time, laying bare all the ways they can be whipped up by delusion on a grand scale. His work is always dancing on the knife-edge of this ambiguity; right inside the Hollywood system, and yet managing to turn its core values inside out – for, at least, a few remarkable, iridescent moments.


“Christmas in July” signifies a miracle of good fortune, perhaps dependent on skill (Jimmy imagines himself a dab hand at composing advertising slogans), perhaps purely on a throw of the dice – and that vacillation is already a social contradiction. The deluded dreams of the characters in Sturges’ film tie the notion of “getting a hold” of sudden wealth (as Waterbury described it) to a kind of divine, privileged destiny. But it takes very little for this fragile house of ideological cards to crumble. More than any other Sturges film, Christmas in July is at once hilarious, disquieting and melancholic; the pervasive tone of sadness – desperation, even – comes from the Depression-era setting. Jimmy is Dick Powell, past the blush of his youthful days in Busby Berkeley musicals; the character believes he has won a well-paying competition with his brilliant advertising slogan. But what he doesn’t know is that this triumph is the result of a prank. Jimmy’s luck (an early departure from his narrative point-of-view coolly tips us off to this) is all a trick, a lark perpetrated by three workmates (Tom, Dick and Harry, to be precise).


And in one of the most devastating scenes later on – Sturges was never afraid to investigate what Henderson rightly called the “nonlaughing other side” of Hollywood comedy – Jimmy confronts his boss, Shindel (Alexander Carr), with what seems an irrefutable bit of logic: even if he didn’t really win the slogan contest, aren’t his brilliant ideas, pitched earlier in the day, still just as brilliant? Shindel swiftly kicks that dream in the guts: never trusting his own judgment, as he splutters in self-rationalisation, he depends entirely on outside validation! What a world, and what a pitiless portrait of it: ordinary people swallow massive delusions, their cowardly bosses tow the line, and the system grinds down everybody.


There is an intriguing paradox in the appreciation of Sturges’ genius. Although he achieved heady success during wartime in the 1940s – indeed, he was among those few directors whose auteur name could help sell a picture to the general public – and despite contemporaneous acclaim from James Agee, it took the post war commentary of Manny Farber and William S. Poster (“Success in the Movies”, 1954) to really start digging deep into the complexities of mood and tone in his work. Other strains of film criticism, in that era and since, have expressed enjoyment in Sturges’ output, but found him (like Billy Wilder or Joseph Mankiewicz) wanting at the elevated level of mise en scène. What rot!


The Kino Lorber “Studio Classics” Blu-ray of Christmas of July (released late 2019 in a handsome 4K master) will be beneficial to film culture worldwide if it prompts close attention to the truly virtuosic way that Sturges worked with all the elements in tandem: speech, movement, performance, setting, mood, rhythm. He defined for himself not only a unique content but also a unique form. Crystalline moments in his work – such as the early two-shot of Jimmy and Betty up on the roof, or the camera movement that then tracks along with them as they walk – have remained inscribed in my brain since the first, teenage viewing of them on a small, domestic TV set.


There’s always a poignancy – a very modern poignancy, moreover – in the pared-down economy, the pressing fragmentation of Sturges’ style. People are always crowded, herded into his frames, even when there’s simply the air or the night of the city around them; everything is just on the verge of flying apart, flying away. It’s that lingering chill of the Depression era, etched deep here in the memory-banks of Christmas in July.


The Kino Lorber release also reflects the depressed and splintered state of the DVD/Blu-ray market, come 2020. In the age of streaming, only specialised fans are investing in films they can have and hold. As I see it, the companies producing these discs are now desperately trying to please a range of sub-groups that may overlap, but also exhibit some sharp differences. There are cinephiles who want some meaty, intellectual, analytical content; “cult film” types (from the world of magazines such as Diabolique or the now defunct Video Watchdog) who like solid information leavened with displays of enthusiasm; and “old Hollywood” nostalgia buffs, who just want to wallow and have fun with all the glamour and spectacle. This Christmas in July disc is light on supplements: a few trailers plus an audio commentary by Diabolique associate editor Samm Deighan, billed as a “film historian” (then again, so is anybody who shows up babbling on a DVD commentary these days). She is among the better critics in her set, and the presentation is smartly delivered and well prepared. But it is telling that her range of references, while including Donald Spoto’s spotty Sturges biography, Alessandro Pirolini’s 2010 book The Cinema of Preston Sturges (McFarland) and reviewer Stephanie Zacharek, do not stretch (at least in this instance) to Brian Henderson, Marc Cerisuelo’s Preston Sturges ou le génie de l’Amérique (2002) or even Farber & Poster.


That creates a cognitive dissonance for this listener: while Deighan demurs that Christmas in July follows a conventional three-act pattern – which seems to me a simply wrongheaded observation, and hardly in tune with the ten-minute block construction that Sturges always used in his screenwriting practice – I recalled Henderson’s more fruitful conjecture that the film, in its structure, “resembles the modern notion of mania depression”, and is “not in the least classical”. Likewise, Deighan’s repeated assertion that Sturges’ predominant attitude is one of “cynicism” does not, for me, really strike to the heart of the giddy turnabouts and ambivalences in the texture of Christmas in July. More generally, for all the contextual insights that Deighan provides here – and despite her endless protestations of love for this film, for some imaginary masterpiece titled All Hail the Conquering Hero, and for Sturges – I missed any careful, detailed attention to the construction of any one moment or scene in the movie. Sturges’ legacy still demands, and deserves, a closer look.


In the week that I’m writing this, apart from the lottery in Spain, the musical Cats has been widely released. A cat – ominously black – also features in the closing scenes of Christmas in July. In another superb and sardonic upending of popular wisdom, Jimmy and Betty – trundling sadly through a darkened work office – ask the black cleaner, Sam (Fred “Snowflake” Toones): “Is it good luck or bad luck when a black cat crosses your path?” Sam replies: ‘That all depends on what happens afterwards”. What, in fact, does happen afterwards is one of those crazy, last-minute reprieves so characteristic of Sturges’ cinema – a cinema that is determined to be, in the end, optimistic at any cost. Luck (or, as Deighan names it, coincidence) wins the day, alright. But rewind that Blu-ray back for a moment and linger on Sam’s wise words. Henderson was right to read into them a bitter truth, as he rephrased it: “Luck has no meaning or effect at all”.

© Adrian Martin 22 December 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search