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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Preston Sturges

260px-Miracle_morgan_creekI 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.

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

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.

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

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.

themiracleofmorganscreek

Trudy is trying to protect Norval from her father, while sister Emmy looks on

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.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2015 in Movies, Screwball Comedy

 

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Revisiting The Parent Trap (1961)

Parent_trap_(1961)I’ve always had a very deep affection for The Parent Trap, both the 1961 original with Hayley Mills and 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan. They were movies I frequently watched with my mom. There are not many movies about mothers and daughters – fathers get much more screen time – and when there is a mother, often they come out like Mildred Pierce or Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother. Or they’re too busy suffering à la Bette Davis to actually have a relationship with the child.

And admittedly, The Parent Trap is not specifically about mothers and daughters. It is about two twins, who never before knew each other existed, but who meet and conspire to get their parents back together. But Mom and I never failed to cry whenever Susan/Hallie would see her mother for the first time or when she gets to spend those days talking with her mother and getting to know her. I always thought those were very special moments in the film.

But for various reasons, I haven’t seen either movie in years, especially the original, which I must have seen last when I was in my early teens. However, I was recently watching a movie with Maureen O’Hara and it gave me an irresistible urge to see The Parent Trap again. So I watched it and must confess that I loved it as much as ever.

Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan

Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan

The film is less sentimental than I had remembered, partly because it really is less sentimental than the remake (though not exactly Orson Welles, either). Hayley Mills was older than Lindsay Lohan, so the film was less about cute kids and their shenanigans. She was around fourteen rather than Lohan’s twelve, which is only a two year gap, but I remember when I was twelve and my sister was fourteen and it felt like we were worlds apart, she a young lady and I still a kid. Then I became thirteen and the gap promptly closed. Hayley Mill’s Susan and Sharon are girls who are just becoming young ladies, though still innocent, interested in boys and at least aware, relatively, of the sexual dynamics at play.

There is a hilarious moment when Sharon is trying to get her father to remember her mother and he thinks she is asking about the birds and bees and tries, bumblingly, to explain, though when she figures out what he’s talking about, she says she already knows about that.

There is also far more conflict in the film than the remake or than I had recalled. Besides initially fighting with each other, Sharon fights with her father (played by Brian Keith) about his fiance, Vickie, and she doesn’t speak to him for several days. This is, admittedly, partly a calculated attempt on her part to sabotage the marriage, but it’s still conflict. And there is real, catty animosity between Vickie and Sharon (and really both girls). Even their grandparents have some conflict; their grandmother is imperious and their grandfather puts his foot down at one point.

Maureen O'Hara and Hayley Mills

Maureen O’Hara and Hayley Mills

And of course there is the conflict between Mitch and Maggie. In fact, their surprisingly sexy (for a Disney film) rapport in the film reminded me of a screwball comedy. It is a battle of the sexes, where the women generally rout the men. Poor Mitch never has a chance. He is surrounded by females; his two daughters, his gold-digging fiance and her mother and his ex-wife, all duking it out.

And despite the unifying thread of twins trying to reunite their parents, the film actually has three distinct parts to it, that explore three different forms of relationships in a family.

The first third of the film is about sibling interaction as Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at camp. They loathe each other, but after discovering they are actually twins, form a bond and grew to know each other and become allies as well sisters.

The middle part is how children interact with their parents. Susan gets to know her mother (Maureen O’Hara) and Sharon gets to know her father (Brian Keith). And you can see how their mother is rather better at fielding unexpected questions than their father is.

Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith argue while Leo G. Carrol as Dr. Mosby watches with extreme enjoyment

Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith argue while Leo G. Carrol as Dr. Mosby watches with extreme enjoyment

But by the third part, the girls actually take a back seat to their parents, who have now met and must do the rest of the work themselves. The twins may have driven Vickie away, but their parents still have to work through their own problems and admit that they miss, need and love each other.

Hayley Mills does a very good job of differentiating the two girls, one proper and more soften spoken and the other brash and tomboyish, even when they are pretending to be each other. Although by the last third of the film the two girls have essentially merged into one while the parents take over. I’ve always been a fan of Hayley Mills. Precocious without being annoying, but also still young and not striving to play wiser than she really is.

But for me a real highlight is Maureen O’Hara. She almost runs off with the picture. Warm and touching as a mother, maternal and feisty, she has excellent comedic timing and was extremely sexy. I love it when Mitch tells Vickie that Maggie is maternal and mature and then Maureen O’Hara as Maggie pops down the stairs, cheerful and gorgeous and meanwhile really socking it to Vickie by gushing over what a sweet child she is. She really does as much as the twins to drive Vickie away, putting her in a healthy tradition of screwball comedians who rout the competition, like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife.

It was also fun to see all the character actors in this film, actors I now know from other classic movies. Mitch’s housekeeper is Verbena, played by Una Merkel, who I best remember for having a barroom brawl with Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 Destry Rides Again. And Maggie’s father is played by Charles Ruggles, who did a number of Ernst Lubitsch films in the early 1930s, like Trouble in Paradise, and also shows up as the big game hunter in Bringing Up Baby who does loon and leopard call imitations.

But the character I always remembered as a kid was Dr. Mosby, the reverend who is going to marry Mitch and Vickie, though he likes Maggie much better. Dr. Mosby is played by Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Alfred Hitchcock films than anyone else, six in total: North By NorthwestRebeccaSuspicionSpellboundStrangers On a Train, and The Paradine Case. Though I always think of him as Dr. Mosby.

This clip shows the film at its screwball best, when Maggie first meets Vickie while Dr. Mosby treats the entire situation as a spectator sport.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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The Lady Eve

1941 – Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Eugene Pallette – Directed by Preston Sturges – Screenplay by Preston Sturges

THE LADY EVE poster 2[1]

“You see, Hopsie, you don’t know very much about girls! The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad.”

The above quote could probably be the theme of this movie, though a screwball comedy hardly needs a theme or excuse for being. The Lady Eve is one of the funniest, zaniest and wittiest films I’ve seen. It is such a mixture of clever lines, genuine and sizzling romance, and physical comedy that I hardly knew what to make of it the first time I saw it. However, many reviewers (including Leonard Maltin) seem to agree that it is a film that gets better with each viewing and it is now my hands-down favorite comedy.

Preston Sturges was both the director and the writer of The Lady Eve and in all his films he likes to explore ironic paradoxes. In this film, the irony is in the above quote and Barbara Stanwyck manages to embody both the good girl and the bad girl in this film – thought not exactly how you’d expect.

Preston Sturges was originally a writer of screenplays; however, he was frustrated with how he felt the directors were ruining his work and the only way he could ensure that his screenplays were properly protected was to direct them himself. While he was still only a writer he met Barbara Stanwyck, who was starring in Remember the Night, which was written but not directed by him him. Up until Sturges knew her, Barbara Stanwyck had been largely known for her dramatic and suffering roles. She played self-sacrificial mothers, prostitutes, and often the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. However, she had begun to do several lighter films and Sturges thought she could be a wonderful comedian and promised that he would write a script for her. The result was The Lady Eve.

the-lady-eve[1]Charles Pike (Fonda) is the naïve heir of a brewing business, but he really loves snakes. Returning from an expedition “up the Amazon” he runs into Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) and her father Colonel Harrington (Coburn) on board ship. She and her father are card sharks whose specialty is fleecing rich men at cards, who Jean reels in for them to fleece.

In this case, she sticks out a leg, trips him and whisks him off to her cabin to get a new pair of shoes to replace the ones with the now broken heel.

In her cabin – and later – she completely overpowers him with her perfume, her bare knee and her general presence. Charles falls hard, literally falls (falling is another theme in this film – perhaps as an allusion to the original fall at Eden?) and he manages to take six pratfalls throughout the movie.

And as Charles is falling all over himself, she falls unexpected in love with him and accepts his marriage proposal, telling her father she is “going to be exactly the way he thinks I am.” However, Charles discovers that she really is a con artist and rejects her. This prompts her to embark on one of the most extraordinary and hilarious acts of revenge you’ll ever see, as she shows up in his life again, this time as the supposed Lady Eve Sidwich…one of those “best girls” who “aren’t as good” as he thinks.

And in any other hands but Barbara Stanwyck’s, I think I would have considered the revenge a trifle cruel. The reasons it’s not is owing partially to the inherent humor and brilliance of the writing and partially to how much she makes the audience believe that she loves him. The film critic, Roger Ebert notes that “what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy” which is what gives the movie a stronger emotional/romantic tone (other screwball comedies are not as overtly romantic), because these two really do want each other.

The Lady Eve (1941)[1]And I think that’s one of the reasons why the first time I watched it, I wasn’t sure what to think. What I saw first was comedy, wit and sexiness; however it took a second viewing for me to truly appreciate how romantic it was.

The rest of the cast is likewise marvelous. It was my first Henry Fonda film and it went a long way towards helping me get over the conviction that he was only an earnest actor in earnest movies. In The Lady Eve he is innocent and handsome and completely enthralled by her and their chemistry is sparkling. It almost seems, in some places, that Sturges was deliberately thumbing his nose at the censors – it’s amazing the innuendo he puts in this film.

Charles Coburn is her father, a virtuosic card-shark (virtuosity was his word, not mine). William Demarest (who appears in many Preston Sturges films) is Pike’s valet and body guard who is convinced that Jean and her father are up to no good and spends much of the movie trying to dissuade Fonda from falling for Jean/Eve: “It’s the same dame.”

As the Lady Eve Sidwich

As the Lady Eve Sidwich

Fashion Notes: Barbara Stanwyck’s clothes were designed by Edith Head. It was really the movie that made Edith Head well known (she went on to design the personal and/or movie wardrobes of Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Dorothy Lamour, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford) and it was the first opportunity for Barbara Stanwyck to wear glamorous clothes. Edith Head said of the two persons Barbara Stanwyck impersonated in the film:

As Jean Harrington

As Jean Harrington

 

 

 

 

 

“It was a complete metamorphosis…It wasn’t merely a change of costume. The way she stood and walked was different, her makeup and hair became more elegant to suit her character.”

“For her gambler character, I had used sharp contrasts – black on white, all black, all white – to make her appear a tad coarse. Naturally I chose much richer, more luxurious fabrics when she was supposed to be of nobler birth. I also used different colorations that would show up more subtly in black and white. I left the sequins and glitter for the lady gambler in the beginning.” (quotes from the book Edith Head’s Hollywood, by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro)

Edith Head also said she used a lot of Latin American touches in her costumes for the movie, which then set off a wave of Latin American fashions in America. From then on, Barbara Stanwyck had it written into all her movie contracts that Edith Head would design her wardrobe. For a look at how Barbara Stanwyck went from chorus girl to glamorous star, see here on Movie Star Makeover. For pictures on her costumes in the movie, see The Criterion Collection’s article “Dressing the Lady Eve.”

Further Notes:

the_lady_eve[1]Preston Sturges was apparently quite nervous about the number of falls in the movie and he had been pressured to cut some of them out. He said, in his autobiography (quoted in this article from TCM):

“There are certain things that will convulse an audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print. Directing and acting have a lot to do with it, too. I had my fingers crossed when Henry Fonda went over the sofa. I held my left ear when he tore down the curtains and I held everything when the roast beef hit him. But it paid off.”

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck did three movies together (The Mad Miss Manton (1938), The Lady Eve (1941) and You Belong to Me (1941)), although The Lady Eve is by far their best, and it was also the only film either of them did with Preston Sturges (I suppose, technically, she did two, since he wrote the script for one). I wish they’d done more.

Random Note:

In the movie, there is a lot of talk about how the boats (or luxury cruisers) are no longer running, which puzzled me for a few viewings, until I realized that it takes place in 1941, when Europe was at war, so although America had not yet entered the war, it would have still been unsafe to take a trip to England. The only boats that are running in the film go to South America.

Useful and Informative Links

TCM’s article on The Lady Eve

Film critic Roger Ebert’s review of The Lady Eve

 

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Movies

 

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