Like other directors, Preston Sturges also made movies about small towns during the World War II. However, compared with most of Hollywood’s war products set in small towns (“Tortilla Flat,” 1942; “The Human Comedy,” 1943; “The Fighting Sullivans,” 1944; “A Medal for Benny,” 1945), in their theme, wit, and style, Sturges’s films seem to have been created in another country and another era. Sturges’s brilliant style combines sparkling narrative situations with witty dialogue, mixing farce and slapstick with a subtle and sophisticated brand of American comedy.
In similar vein to Orson Welles and Hitchcock, who were both intrigued with exposing the darker, invisible facets of small-towns, Sturges confronted his subject matter in an original mode, turning upside down the established conventions of Hollywood’s portraiture of small-town life. The eccentricity of Sturges’s characters is meant to demonstrate the more multifarious, resourceful nature of small-town folks, who only appear” to be plain and ordinary.
Sturges’s comedies, beginning with “Sullivan’s Travel” (1941), reflected the influence of film noir on every genre at the time, including screwball comedies. Along with Billy Wilder, whose directorial career began at the same time, Sturges embodies in his films a cynical view, exposing the downbeat side of “normal” American life. As Allan Silver has observed, Sturges incorporated into his comedies “noirish sentiments of meaninglessness and abject existentialism.”
With their caustic and crackling dialogue, his comedies portray not winners, but losers, individuals who resort to absurd strategies to survive the day. Sturges’s protagonists refuse to accept “the hand of fate” as a controlling force of their lives, attempting to overcome insurmountable obstacles; that they seldom succeed is beside the point. Moreover, unlike the typical noir heroes, his are not weary or beaten by life, always hoping that life would turn out better for them.
In “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (both in 1944), Sturges expresses ambivalent emotions toward basic American values and institutions. “Hail” centers around an army reject who is accidentally thought to be a war hero, whereas “Miracle” is a satirical folktale, spoofing just about every sacred mores, including motherhood. Indeed, in his review of “Miracle,” Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 20, 1944) wondered how Sturges “ever got away with such a thing, how he persuaded the Hays Office he wasn’t trying to undermine all morals.”
Truth to tell, the film’s release was delayed for several months because of censorship problems, but the approved version was most satisfactory to the director. A young girl goes out with a soldier, and the next thing she knows, she has a wedding ring and is pregnant, lacking the slightest idea as to her husband’s identity or whereabouts. In despair, she turns to her childhood friend who always loved her, “trapping” him into marriage. But at the end, she “redeems” herself by marrying him and giving birth to sextuplets, all boys.
The film acknowledges humorously its political context. A montage of international newspapers shows the reaction of the two Fascist leaders, Hitler and Mussolini, who seem to jump off the front pages upon hearing about the sextuplets.
Some viewers were apparently outraged by the film’s plot device. “Many letters have been received here,” wrote Sturges, “including bitterly denunciatory ones from analphabets who believed the sextuplets were the result of the heroine having been promiscuous with six different men. Education, though compulsory, seems to be spreading slowly.”
No issue or profession is too sacred for Sturges’s biting sting, least of all politicians. The Governor (Brian Donlevy) initially doesn’t even recognize the town’s name. “What was the town again Is it in my state I never heard of it.” By contrast, believing that Morgan’s Creek will be the most famous town in America, the newspaper’s editor asks for “State Police, food, water, beds, and blankets.” “You got a flood or did you strike oil, or something” inquires the governor. “Get a map of the State and make sure Morgan’s Creek is in it,” he instructs, “If it isn’t, we might be able to persuade them to move over or something.” He then advises the political boss (Akim Tamiroff): “You better get down to Morgan’s Creek and buy up a few choice corners–some hotel sites maybe, and the bus franchise will be very valuable.” At this point, the Governor announces: “This is the biggest thing that’s happened to this state since we stole it from the Indians.” “Borrowed, not stolen,” the boss corrects him.
Each character in Miracle is an eccentric individual, not a type. Sturges reverses the prevalent images of the boy and girl next-door and inverts the meanings of masculinity and femininity, spoofing machismo as well as female domesticity.
Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is anything but the innocent or repressed small-town girl; assertive, she loves the company of men. Trudy wants to have fun, always seeking to be the center of attention. In an early scene, she is seen singing to admiring male customers in her record store. Later, surrounded by soldiers, she drives Norval’s borrowed convertible. Trudy has boundless energy. “I never get tired,” she boasts to her sister, and Sturges shows Trudy going from one party to another. Trudy is also manipulative, repeatedly abusing Norval’s trust. Trudy combines traits of the girl-next-door and those of the town’s popular girl (most small-town films separate between the two types).
In this picture, it’s the boy, Norval (Eddie Bracken), not Trudy, who longs for conformity to conventional middle-class values: Marriage and domesticity. Exempt from military service with 4-F, Norval says: “Every time they start to examine me, I become so excited, I get the spots!”
Norval lacks control over his two main goals in life: to fight in the war and to marry Trudy. A bank clerk, he is an orphan living with the Johnsons, the town’s lawyer and his wife. Full of doubts, all of his fears materialize in the film, including going to jail. A helpless, yet sincere boy, Norval has the kind of romanticism that’s genuine and heart-felt. It is therefore ironic that, by sheer accident, Norval becomes the symbol of virility: the father of six boys.
Trudy’s widower father, officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), is the town’s constable. He’s a severe man whose favorite recreational activity is to clean his gun on the front porch. Trudy’s sister Emma (Diana Lynn), a 14-year-old brat, defies her father’s authority, lacking any respect for him. “I think you have a mind like a swamp!” she tells her father. Contemptuous of his coarseness, Emma wishes he would be “a little more refined.”
Her father’s aggressiveness is both verbal and physical, kicking Emma around, telling her she has “ladder legs,” etc. But every once in a while, when both are in a quiet mood, Emma enjoys sitting on his lap. Emma is brighter and more sophisticated than Trudy; she is the type of girl who in a more conventional movie would leave town for the Big City. It’s Emma who gives Trudy the idea to marry Norval–to save her face. “He was made to be a patsy,” says Emma, “like the ox was made to eat, and the grape was made to drink.”
When a soldier asks, “which church is giving the dance tonight” the father’s angry response is, “How many churches you think we got” It is one of the film’s few direct references to the town as a whole. Shot on the studio lot, there are not many outdoor scenes. The town, shown when Trudy and Norval stroll along, is clean-looking with white picket fences and large yards; the residents like to sit on their front porches and observe the scene. The town’s landmarks are the typical institutions: the movie house, the drugstore, the gas station, the pool hall.
However, even here, Sturges deviates from conventions. Trudy and Norval go to the movie house, not to watch a film or to “neck” in the dark. She drops him there, so that she can borrow his car and have fun with other men.
There is, of course, gossip, especially when it concerns courtship and love, but the gossip is not malicious. The bank’s president, Mr. Tuerck (Emory Parnell) tells Norval he heard about his engagement to Trudy from Mr. Shottish, the neighbor who spotted Norval in the morning, after presumably a wild night on the town (ironically, Norval spent the night by himself, waiting for Trudy to come back). “It is none of his personal business,” Mr. Tuerck says, “what time you get home in the morning, or how drunk you are when you do get home,” but “it’s the bank’s business. A man in a bank is like a fellow crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, he cannot be too careful.”
Desperate over her pregnancy and with no solution in sight, Trudy says she will jump into the river. Norval’s objection to her idea is rational: It won’t work because “there’s not much water at this time of year.” Trudy then suggests gas poisoning, but this is also unacceptable. “What’s the matter with bigamy” he asks.
At the end, trapping Norval into marrying her, Trudy becomes a legitimate mother. “You’re a papa now,” she says, before specifying his new obligations: “The papa gives love and protection.” Norval is the ultra adjustable type, always adapting to the needs of others, aiming to please. As viewers, we are told that Norval “recovered and became increasingly happy.” And Shakespeare is used for the film’s coda: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Norval has greatness thrust upon him.
“Miracle” debunks many prevalent myths of small-town America. The town’s normal state of being is not order, but disorder and chaos. The residents crave to achieve celebrity status, do anything” that would alleviate them from humdrum lives. Sturges takes the most basic events, marriage and birth, and turns them upside down, showing their comic and even horrible effects. “No one’s going to believe something good if they can believe something bad,” says Emma, expressing Sturges’s view of small towns. “You don’t know what to expect in a town like this,” she explains, “a town that can produce schnooks like Papa, always suspicious and suspecting the worst in everything.”
In both “Miracle” and “Hail,” Sturges’s style is hyperbolic and the pacing rapid. His camera moves fast, recording people always on the move; there are many pratfalls. An example of Sturges’s touch is the hospital sequence in Miracle, with the nurse running in panic in and out of Trudy’s room, bringing a blanket for the first baby, then another blanket, and another….
The hectic speed of “Miracle” and “Hail” reflects the notion of life in constant motion, of dynamic reality, even in small towns. In “Hail,” and to a lesser extent in “Miracle,” Sturges uses the basic paradigm of balance, followed by disruption and imbalance, and then back to balance. However, Sturges’ small towns never seem to be in total balance or equilibrium.
Sturges’s vision of small town life is richer and more complex than Capra’s, stressing inherent tensions, contradictions, and ironies. In Capra’s message films, appearances are deceiving and one has to dig deeper to reveal the genuine human essences buried underneath (most women in Capra’s films begin as deceivers, but later reveal themselves to be honest). In contrast, in Sturges’s work, appearances have their own reality and logic, and as such, they are just as important as the presumably “deeper essences.”
Oscar Nominations; 1
Original Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Oscar Awards: None
Preston Sturges was a double nominee in 1944, scoring a nomination for Hail the Conquering Hero, but the winner was Lamar Trotti for the screenplay of Wilson.