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.
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:
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.) 5
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:
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: