I love Preston Sturges movies. They’re bit zany, a bit risque, a bit sweet without being sentimental, a bit idiosyncratic, irreverent, slapstick, tender. They always leave me with a slight “huh? what was that?”feeling, but in a good way, in between guffaws.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was released in 1944 and was directed and written and produced by Preston Sturges. He did everything but act in it…though his method of writing the script was to dictate, all the while acting out the different parts. He supposedly wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to tweak the censors and in watching the film, it seems they must have been tweaked pretty good.
Ebullient Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a patriotic girl who feels it is her duty to dance with all the servicemen before they ship out to Europe. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, dweeby Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) can’t get any branch of the military to take him. He always gets nervous and sees spots and is consistently refused on medical grounds. But he’s devoted to Trudy, though worried she won’t like him because he’s not in a uniform. But Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), reads in the paper about the dangers of weddings made in haste due to the war and forbids Trudy from going to the dance given for the troops. Norval comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to help her get to the dance by pretending to take her to a movie.
Trudy dances the night away with dozens of men, drinks Victory Lemonade (which is spiked), accidentally gets her head knocked against the chandelier when she is lifted up in a dance, and comes home after eight in the morning. And discovers that she’s married! Or is she? She can’t remember anything after the chandelier. All she recalls is that someone kept talking about how everyone should get married. And there’s a curtain ring on her finger. She confides in dismay to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), that she has some vague idea the man might have been called Ratzkiwatzki…or possibly Zizskiwizski. She thought it had a z in it.
But worse is to come when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her father, but can’t find out if she’s really married, because she also has a vague idea that when she got married she didn’t use her right name. And the troops have all gone to Europe. The only person she can turn to is Norval, who’s always loved her and will do anything for her. At first she tries to trick him into marrying her without telling him (her sister’s pragmatic idea, though Trudy’s concerned about committing bigamy), but when he’s so sweet she realizes that she can’t do that to him and tells him the truth.
The rest of the movie is Norval’s super heroic attempts to help Trudy, which go seriously awry, so that the entire town gets sucked into Trudy’s affairs, which become so complicated that only a miracle can resolve everything.
The town Sturges creates is a charmingly realized small American town, where everyone knows everyone…except the troops who are temporarily stationed there. Norval and Trudy were in school together (he even took cooking and sewing class to be near her), Constable Kockenlocker knows everyone as he’s directing traffic in the middle of the street. It’s a fairly diverse small town, with a range of accents portrayed by the wonderful stock character actors that Sturges used in all his films, including William Demarest, Robert Dudley, Chester Conklin, Julius Tannen, and Porter Hall.
Although filled with pratfalls (mostly by Demarest and Bracken) and clever dialogue, it’s a very sweet and tender film in it’s own way (Sturges has the remarkable ability to combine genuine feeling with comedy). Trudy’s wiser-than-her-years sister, Emmy, stands devotedly by her side from the beginning. Their father (played brilliantly and cantankerously by William Demarest) comes across as rather hapless in the first half, frequently complaining about “daughters” and trying to deal with Trudy’s flightiness and Emmy’s wisecracking comebacks, as well as the family’s many tousles, both physical and verbal. But truly, when he finds out the secret, he is as steadfast and loving as Emmy and a very good father. That’s what I loved about the film. They may be a screwball family, but they are a loving one.
And Eddie Bracken as Norval is also incredibly sweet and loyal, as brave as any soldier in his own way. He’s nervous and meek and dreadfully afraid of Trudy’s father (who rather pointedly cleans his guns in front of Norval after he thinks that Norval and Trudy were out all night together and tells him to marry Trudy), but is a hero…without ever really losing the core of his personality. Betty Hutton is also excellent, a touch less hyper than usual (which still leaves her pretty ebullient), with the added sweetness of her genuine love for Norval as he reveals what a great guy he is.
The film builds to an incredible pitch of farce at the end. Even Mussolini and Hitler make an appearance in the film. It’s definitely a war film. There are the gas cards (Norval has one and offers it to Trudy, as well as his car), wool and cotton shortages, big band, swing dancing, hasty marriages, all the young men are in uniform (except Norval). In fact, Norval is the only young man in the film apart from the troops who temporarily in Morgan’s Creek.
When reading about Preston Sturges, I usually heard about The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, but The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is just as good. There’s cynicism regarding institutions like marriage and politics and small town America and patriotism, but also affection for the characters. I never feel like Sturges despises them, whatever their difficulties or weaknesses.