Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Easily one of the funniest sound comedies ever made and Savant's favorite among Preston Sturges'
string of nigh-perfect pictures, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek still has the ability to
surprise an audience thanks to its hilariously wicked toying with the Production Code. By
sticking to the letter of the rules and masking its wild ideas with subterfuge and disarming
hilarity, this crazy tale of an unmarried mother and a 4-F sad sack broaches touchy subject
matter that would have been turned down cold if presented to the Breen office in any normal way. As it was, its release was held up for more than a year!
Preston Sturges' wonderful picture is set in a unique moment in American history, right in the middle
of the WW2 homefront. It doesn't need any explanations or excuses; this miracle of a movie is
just as funny -- and heartwarming -- as the day it opened.
Small town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) wants to go dance with the
soldier boys that she disobeys her protective father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest)
and talks her meek and malleable boyfriend, 4-F washout Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) into
providing a cover for her. Unfortunately, she gets both drunk and dizzy (from a konk on the head)
and stays out all night, making explanations to Pa a bit tough even with savvy younger sister
Emmy (Diana Lynn) running interference for her. All seems okay until Trudy starts remembering
odd details about her wild night - like possibly getting married, for one. The name of her phantom
husband, now off fighting in some other corner of the world, could be something like Ignatz
Ratskywatzky, but she just can't remember. Trudy hopes the whole incident will just go away, until
she turns up in a terrible fix a few weeks later ... she's pregnant!
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek starts off faster, gets up higher and stays flying longer than
any of Preston Sturges' celebrated Paramount comedies. It also gets away with more racy content --
all of it in perfectly good taste -- than any Golden Age studio film Savant has seen. The comedy
here is verbal, visual, contextual, cultural and just plain old slapstick. William Demarest makes a
character evolution from stern clown to sentimental grandfather with plenty of verbal insanity
in between. His best mouthful of perfectly-coined Sturges dialogue has to do with the predicament of
a father trying to raise two girls when the town is filled with lonely soldiers earmarked for
the war front: "They're a mess no matter how you look at 'em, a headache 'til they get married,
if they get married and after that they get worse. Either they leave their husbands and come back
with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole
kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around
the house like Spanish Moss and shame you into an early grave."
Sturges plunks his story in the middle of the chaos of small-town life in WW2, where men not in the
service are considered shirkers and the nervousness of the time put young people into an emotional
tailspin. Trudy gets the goofy idea that real patriotism means partying with the servicemen, even
though her true interest is in the partying part of the equation. In her fluffy party dress and big smile, she looks like
easy pickings for the first Joe in a uniform who can get her drunk. And her patriotic fervor somehow
translates into hoodwinking her dad and manipulating her poor faithful local boy Norval into playing
the patsy/absent chaperone for her wild night with the boys.
Trudy's home life is pushed in farcical directions, thanks to the inspired deadpan-meets slapstick
intersection of Demarest and younger sister Emmy, played wonderfully by Diana Lynn. Emmy handles
the smart comeback lines better than anyone ever did on television sitcoms. She knows to
deliver her punch lines while exiting, so that Dad's retaliatory kicks miss, causing him to to do half
back-flips while falling on his tail. As Demarest is no spring chicken, these are pretty impressive --
even Buster Keaton knew when to start taking it a little easy!
Sturges also pegs small town atmosphere, with picket fences and neighbors who all know each others'
business. Everybody walks and everybody observes - Trudy and Norval have a couple of extended walking
scenes (one-take wonders, if we'll excuse an optical cut-in or two) that bring back memories of when
a likely boyfriend would be unlikely to have a tire- or gas-rationed car with which to impress a girl.
Any other comedy would quit after establishing a kooky character relationship. The Blondie
series, for instance, pit a cute pair of comedians against each other but didn't backed them up with formula plots. Trudy and Norval bounce off each other like activated particles
that don't know they belong together. He muses and dreams and fusses with his hypochondria and
feelings of inferiority, while she soars in boogie-woogie dreams that nobody could figure out. All
the boys are so cute and dancing is so fun --- what else is there in the world?
In this movie, and in her Command Performance short subject performance of the frantic
swing-novelty song Murder, He Says Hutton epitomizes the whoopee! swing baby of the war years - partying one day, pregnant the
next, and wondering how it all happened. It's not that morals suddenly got looser, necessarily, but things just happen when they play Benny Goodman dance tunes. 1
(Hooked and interested in seeing the show without a lot of minor surprises revealed? The rest of
this review might seem a SPOILER to some)
At this junction The Miracle of Morgan's Creek takes its wildest turn, and it must have been
a shockeroo in 1944 because it's still a big surprise now. Trudy turns up pregnant, with no visible
husband and only a faint memory of someone called Ignatz Ratzkywatzky - maybe. She and Emmy run
frantic from doctor to lawyer looking for a solution to the problem. The only realistic
answer seems to be to rope sweet, loyal Norval into some fast nuptials.
In 1943 this was an unheard-of development in serious movies, let alone comedies. In the late 50s, girls
who got pregnant were still being treated as some sort of cosmic tragedy, a dire fate that always happened
to somebody else. If a minor character 'got in trouble,' they'd just disappear to some out of town
destination ... maybe forever. Miracle actually confronts Trudy's problem, illustrating her
limited choices. We're very concerned, even as we're laughing ourselves silly. This is no small
accomplishment. The tone of the show changes when the entire Kockenlocker family goes into exile - because of a quasi-criminal scandal, not Trudy's problem specifically. 2
The Miracle of the title comes in a last-minute typhoon of comedy, the likes of which haven't been
seen since. Sturges has already begun his farce in a (very hip) wraparound flashback mode as "McGinty
and the Boss" -- Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprising their roles in Sturges' The Great
McGinty -- get the lowdown on the amazing events in Trudy's hometown. Now everything goes into
a panic (over news we won't divulge here) so big, that Mussolini (Jack Oakey riffing off his stint
in The Great Dictator) and
Hitler show up in brief bits! 4
Sturges uses his stock company beautifully, especially in the scene where local bigshots, a
sheriff, and the military police all want to lock Norval up and throw away the key. Demarest comes
to the rescue again, a true protective dad. The secret to Preston Sturges' comedy is out in the
open: Every one of his outrageous gags is firmly planted in the groundwork of solid characters. People may be exaggerated, but they're never contradictory. 3
The weird thing about The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is that it builds up to a farcical
version of The Virgin Birth, and actually gets away with it. The anonymous
father of poor Trudy's child may already be dead on some foreign battlefield, and as Richard Corliss
wrote, the fruit of this miraculous union represents the children of all the boys overseas. How
patriotic can one get, especially amid the official insistence that there's something holy about the
war and our desired victory? Trudy's deserving admirer Norval proves his worth by undergoing a
hopeless search for a father who cannot possibly be found. Waiting for her child to be borne, Trudy
isn't exactly in a manger. But a cow does come into the kitchen, and a 'wise man' arrives with
gifts, mostly the gift of love. We can only conclude that the censors were either too entertained
or too unimaginative to pick up on any of this potentially blasphemous content. Sturges used his wits to write circles around official objection to his work. When Billy Wilder tried and failed to get away with his 'dirty joke' movie
Kiss Me, Stupid, he must have
wished he possessed Sturges' magic touch for smuggling hot movie content.
Paramount's DVD of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is kind of confusing for Savant, who was
given to understand that all the pre-1947 or '48 Paramount pix had been sold wholesale to
MCA-Universal. Whatever the reason, it's a good thing as this copy looks better than many
Universal transfers of poorly vaulted Paramount movies. The audio is also more clear than usual.
(Note, 9.03: A reader has helpfully pointed out that Paramount retained the rights
for this film because of their remake, the Jerry Lewis picture Rock-a-bye Baby.)
The two docus from Light, Source and Imagery cover ground both familiar and new. Eddie Bracken
appears in the first docu to explain how Sturges worked, how much everyone loved him and how he
competed with Betty Hutton for the biggest laughs. Author James Ursini wrote the first book on
Sturges and anchors several other authors to round out the discussion of the director.
The second piece about the production code is the more educational of the two, as Ursini details
Sturges' methods for snookering every writer's enemy - the Production Code snoops that sought to
pre-censor scripts. Sturges probably hired an extra secretary just to deal with the Breen office, submitting only partial scripts and pointing out how the letter of the rules were covered in all cases.
Trudy's 'moral lapse' is seen as just an unavoidable accident. She doesn't lose herself in the
spiked drink - it was the rap on her head from being tossed upward into a chandelier that did the
trick. Her stomach is never shown during the pregnancy, and the birth is only illustrated only by nurses and doctors running for fresh linen down the hospital corridor.
Obviously, Sturges' charm and the disarming hilarity of his script and film must have done most of the work. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is the kind of film that could get
laughs out of condemned prisoners, and it plays better than ever.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek rates:
Movie: Excellent +
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Featurettes - Preston Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek,
Censorship: Morgan's Creek vs. the Production Code
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2005
1. The only way I know of to see Murder, He Says is by catching it by accident as filler on TCM ... Betty Hutton is so animated, cute and hyper
that we all want to jump back to 1944 and start chasing her around the room. The Murder, He
Says peformance and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek completely bury any negative memories of
Hutton in later 50s Paramount pictures, including her headache-inducing turn in
The Greatest Show on Earth.
2. Considering Trudy's experience, how they got away with her surname
is a major mystery. Maybe Sturges pointed to a list of Kockenlockers in the phone book and asked
the Production Code office what they thought was so darn wrong with the name -- did they have dirty
minds or something?
3. I can't help but feel that Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis tried hard
for this feeling in their 1941. The core group of characters in that story are very much a
version of Sturges' setup in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, but the movie
goes far afield with wild military craziness and 60 stars in 'supporting' roles. It's all a matter of
4. The IMDB says someone named Joe Devlin played Mussolini, but it must be a cover name or something - or has Savant gone nuts? Again?
5. A different take on the presence of this film in the Paramount
library, from "B" 9/4/05:
Dear Glenn: While it is true that Paramount's 1958 Frank Tashlin
- Jerry Lewis picture Rock-a-Bye Baby is a credited remake of Sturges' The Miracle of
Morgan's Creek, the production of this film apparently had nothing to do with the reason
Morgan's Creek wasn't included among the hundreds of pre-1949 sound features the studio
sold to MCA that same year.
I wish I could find the reference -- I've run across it various times.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was excluded from the sale of Paramount's extant pre-1949
talkies to MCA/EMKA because MCA - and Paramount, reportedly, as well - had serious reservations
whether the film could be shown on television. At all. (One file memo speculated that it would
never be shown on tv.) And, as MCA was primarily buying the pictures to syndicate them
to television, it passed on Morgan's Creek.
Eventually -- after a few years, and a while following Par's creation of its own syndication unit
for its post-1949 pix, Morgan's Creek found its way onto the airwaves.
The Sturges film is, I believe, the only major Paramount pre-'49 sound feature actually owned by
the studio. Best, Always -- B.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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