by Tony d’Ambra
Small town 40s America. Picket fences, porches, and quiet tree-lined streets. Places with names like Bedford Falls and Morgans Creek. Wise mothers, irascible strict fathers with hearts of gold, dizzy older sisters on the cusp of womanhood, spunky older-than-their-years younger sisters, and nerdy suitors. Movie-houses and jalopies. Record-stores and dances at the country-club. Thoroughly integrated foreigners (but no black faces).
Myth or reality? A dream or the place where we would have wanted to grow-up? Fantasy or fact? Either way, Preston Sturges stood ready to lampoon. Most say savagely, I say gently. We all say brilliantly.
Frankly, I can’t figure how this movie didn’t rank higher in this countdown. Fast-paced, witty, over-the-top, irreverent, and a barrel of laughs. What else do you want from a comedy? Audiences in 1944 must have been more than satisfied: The Miracle of Morgans Creek was the biggest grossing movie of the year.
The scenario for 1944 was a humdinger. Trudy Kockenlocker – love that name! – connives to get her nerdy suitor Norval – yes! - to fool her Dad so that she can attend a dance party for local servicemen leaving for the war - without him and borrow his car! – while he sits out a triple-feature at the movies. She gets drunk on spiked lemonade, hits her head on a ceiling lamp during some wild dancing, and turns up at 8am outside the theatre. She remembers little of what went on until the early hours – except getting married to a GI whose name sounded like Ratzkiwatzki? Later she learns she is pregnant. Breen from the Hays Office, who by all accounts was sympathetic, let it through, though changes were needed to get a suitable rating; such as Trudy being married before consummation, and that it all happened after a bump on the head.
The story is nicely framed as a flashback, with a canny segue featuring the State Governor and ‘The Boss’, two characters reprised from Sturges’ 1940 film about political corruption, The Great McGinty (which earned Sturges his only Oscar for the screenplay). The action kicks off from the first frame as two old guys frantically enter the local newspaper office yelling to hold the presses. They scramble for a phone and ring the State Governor with a BIG story – we don’t find out what the fuss is about until the end. The titles appear with the old fellas yelling and gesticulating madly regardless. “I started the whole thing…”
We are soon introduced to the Kockenlocker ménage. A happy wacky household you would love as your neighbours. Trudy, her grumpy old widower Dad who is the town cop, and 14yo sister Emmy. Trudy works in a record-store and is still a ‘minor’ – under 21 in those days. Officer Kockenlocker is played by Sturges regular William Demarest; the role is his metier, melding perfect timing with pratfalls and exquisite lines like “Tell your sister the house ain’t paid for, will you?” to Emmy, when the house starts a-trembling as upstairs in her excitement Trudy kicks up a storm getting ready for the fateful dance. Emmy retorts: “She knows that, Papa. You tell her every day.” Diana Lynn is perfectly cast as Emmy. Precocious and cute as a button, she shines and shines. Betty Hutton is great as Trudy, imparting a fresh dizzy innocence to the shenanigans. Her tipsy inebriation when she turns up late at the movie theatre after that night of hanky-panky is a comic delight, and Eddie Bracken as the put-upon Norval is the perfect foil.
Norval’s car is the worse-for-wear after Trudy’s night on the tiles:
- You’ve been drinking
- Who’s been drinking? I never had a drink in my life! How dare you insinuate I’ve been drinking?
- You certainly don’t get what you’ve got on lemonade.
- I certainly did.
- All right.
- What have you been using on my car, a pickaxe?
- Is this your car? I was wondering where I found this old jalopy.
Norval, the prototypical nerd is an orphan who boards with a local lawyer and his wife. He has been sweet on Trudy since they were little kids and works in a bank to “get rich and to buy her things someday”. With the pregnancy a reality to be dealt with, wily Emmy hatches a scheme to wangle Norval into what he wants anyway: marrying Trudy and making the coming confinement legit. Suffice to say nothing goes to plan.
Sturges started the picture with only a handful of pages from the uncompleted script, writing at night for the next day’s shooting, and did not have the ending until the eleventh hour. The result is a truly engaging story with razor wit, deft characterisations, and frantically funny sight gags, with just enough slapstick to hold off any resistance from the viewer. He satirizes everything and everyone, from opportunistic politicians to marriage, motherhood, and romance. Even the army and the war don’t escape. A newspaper headline screams “Hitler Demands a Recount” after the ‘miracle’ is revealed, and a new caring policy for MPs uses ‘psycholology’ (sic) to handle wayward men in uniform.
Sturges may pillory his characters but deep down he has a soft affection for them. Decency is rewarded and only hypocrisy and cant punished. There is a wonderful scene at the end at the local fire station where the town worthies are discussing Norval’s fate – he is in the local jail – don’t ask! It turns into a melee after Kockenlocker snr tries unsuccessfully to take a swipe at the local bank president, who is responsible for Norval’s arrest. This sequence, like other crowded scenes in the film, is shot in medium close-up, giving it all an hysterical urgency. Emmy disturbs proceedings by telling her Dad a certain event is imminent! All rush for the staircase down to the garage, but Kockenlocker snr takes the fast way down the firemen’s pole. Inexplicably he stalls once he hits the ground – what is he waiting for? Waiting for the bank president – so he can bop him!
The framing scenes are beautifully handled with the situation in the Governor’s office becoming ever more chaotic as the news unfolds and lackeys begin to fill the room – again tightly framed by the camera. The lightning-fast repartee of the Governor and his chief aide are brilliantly delivered in long takes. Brian Donlevy as Governor McGinty and Akim Tamiroff as “The Boss” are an awesome comic team:
- You mean he’s [Norval] still in jail, you dumb blockhead?
- Well, get him out.
- But how can I, Mr. Governor, with all those charges against him?
- By dropping those charges, you dumb cluck. You wealhead!
- Now, get me that banker on the phone.
- His charter is cancelled!
- And the justice of the peace!
- His license is revoked and his motel is condemned.
- There’s only one thing more, Mr. Governor, the marriage.
- What’s the matter with her marriage?
- She’s married to Norval Jones. She always has been.
- The guy married them, didn’t he?
- The boy signed his right name, didn’t he?
- But he gave his name as Ratzkiwatzki.
- He was trying to say Jones. He stuttered.
- What are you looking for, needles in a haystack?
- Then how about the first Ratzkiwatzki?
- He’s annulled.
- Who annulled him?
- The judge, who do you suppose?
- Retroactive. Get Judge Mendoza on the phone.
- I’m getting it.
- He’s out of the picture.
- He was never in it.
- Get me those guys on the phone.
- Who do they think they are, anyway? Hello, Mendoza.
All’s well that ends well…
How Miracle at Morgan’s Creek made the Top 100:
Pierre de Plume No. 11
Bobby McCartney No. 23
Bobby Jopsson No. 26
R.D. Finch No. 41
Jon Warner No. 48
Allan Fish No. 58
Pat Perry No. 58