November 28, 2013 by smumcounty
Preston Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944) begins with a harried newspaper editor making a frenzied call to the governor to report on an event that has occurred in the sleepy hamlet of Morgan’s Creek. The governor is unimpressed. “You got a flood or did you strike oil or something?” “No, Mr. Governor, we did not strike oil. We have not got a flood. What we got, Mr. Governor, is…” And then we cut from the editor’s office back to the Governor’s office and see his reaction. “You got what! Are you sure of your facts?” Then he starts barking orders. “Get a map of the state. Make sure that Morgan’s Crick is in it. If it ain’t, maybe we could persuade them to move over or somethin’. Oh boy!” His political boss joins him in his office to see what the commotion’s all about. “You better get right down to Morgan’s Crick. Buy up a few choice corners, maybe some hotel suites. They’ll need some. And the bus franchise would be very valuable,” he tells him. “Morgan’s what?” the boss asks. “Crick, crick, like a little river.” “River? Could use a big dam.” At this point, the governor asks for the full story and this leads us into a flashback which takes up the rest of the movie.
It’s a frenzied scene and a great start to the film. It begins by showing you that we are firmly in the land of screwball comedy. The governor and his top political operative are played by Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprising the roles of McGinty and The Boss from Preston Sturges’ “The Great McGinty”.The dialogue in this scene runs a mile a minute and is very smart. “This is the greatest thing to happen to this state since we stole it from the Indians,” the Governor says. “Borrowed,” The Boss replies. It’s also a great framing device. We know something incredibly momentous is going to happen but we’ve got to stick around to the end of the film to find out what. This sort of framing device is sometimes used in film to keep the audience’s attention during an otherwise slow film but here there is no need for such a device since the intervening invents are well worth watching.
The flashback begins with the introduction of Getrude Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton). It’s World War II and Morgan’s Creek is a weigh station for new recruits before they’re sent overseas. Trudy, like any red-blooded girl has a slight case of soldier fever and feels it is her duty to see that the soldiers are entertained before they are shipped off. She has plans to go to a local dance with the boys but her father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), doesn’t trust the soldiers and refuses to let her go. So Trudy instead makes plans with Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) to go to the movies. Norval’s one of the few young men left at home because he can’t get through the physical. He gets so nervous that his blood pressure rises and he starts to see black spots in front of his eyes. (“The spots!”) Of course, this date with Norval is just a ruse to get Trudy out of the house and on the way to the movies she convinces Norval to lend her his car and wait for her at the movies while she goes gallivanting with the boys. Norval, being head over heels in love with Trudy and a bit of a schlemiel, agrees.
In the course of the evening, Trudy goes to a series of dances and during a particularly wild swing dance move she’s lifted up and bumps her head against a mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling. Due to this bump, the rest of the night is a complete blur and she ends up not getting back to pick up Norval until the sun is rising. Later going over the evening with her sister she realizes that she must have married one of the soldiers. The curtain ring on her finger is her first clue but the final convincing proof is when she discovers that’s she’s pregnant. Her next step would normally be to notify the father but she can’t remember who she married. “It had a Z in it. Ratzkiwatzki or was it Zitzkiwitzki.” On top of that they used phony names when they were married so there is no record of the event.
So Trudy has had a wild night out on the town that has left her pregnant and though she was married at the time she has no way to prove it. At first she considers getting Norval to marry her and he’s more than willing but when listening to his touching confession of love for her she realizes she could never do such an underhanded thing to him. She tells him the predicament she’s in and Norval gets the bright idea that they can get married with Norval posing as Ratzkiwatzki. Once she has the marriage license she can divorce the fictional soldier and get remarried to Norval for whom she has developed a real love during her troubles. Norval gets dressed up in a World War I uniform (WW II uniforms being hard to come by) and they appear before a justice of the peace. All would have gone well except Norval makes the mistake of signing his real name on the marriage license instead of Ratzkiwatzki, at which time, the police are called and Norval is eventually thrown into jail.
All of this puts Norval in hot water. He manages to escape from his jail cell with the help of Trudy’s father and goes in search of Ratzkiwatzki so he can prove that Trudy is really married. He returns six months later having failed and finds that Trudy’s entire family have left town in disgrace. It all looks pretty bleak until the deus ex machina ending which brings the governor into the story to put everything right. The “miracle” is such an amazing event especially occurring during wartime that the governor cannot risk having even a shadow of ignominy cast over it. The scene showing The Boss and McGinty speaking to the editor on the phone, setting things straight, punishing the villains and rewarding the heroes, is a masterful example of the quick patter of screwball comedy:
The Boss: His charter is cancelled.
McGinty: And the Justice of the Peace.
The Boss: His license is revoked and his hotel is condemned!
Editor: You want the MP’s and US men too?
McGinty: What do they got to do with it? That was a state guard uniform.
The Boss: I can see it from here.
McGinty: As a matter of fact, he’s a colonel in it. I’m bringing him his commission tomorrow.
The Boss: Retroactive as of last year.
McGinty: Go out and get him a uniform.
At this point we see reactions from around the world of the news of the miracle. “Mussolini Resigns, ‘Enough is Sufficiency’ screams Il Duce”. The piece de resistance is when we see Hitler informed of the event. He’s sitting at a table with some of his officers when a soldier runs up and breaks the news to him. He starts beating his fists and screaming in anger. He and his officers then stand, revealing the officers towering over Hitler. Hitler’s short! Ha! Take that you Nazis!
To get a real appreciation of this film requires that we understand its creator’s place in American cinema. In a five year period in the early 40’s, Preston Sturges wrote and directed a series of comedies for Paramount each of which is a priceless gem of a movie: “The Great McGinty” (1940), “Christmas in July” (1940), “The Lady Eve” (1941), “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944), and “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). During this period he was wildly successful with audiences and became one of the highest paid people in the country. Unfortunately, disagreements with Paramount led him to leave the studio and he never again had quite the same success as he had during this period.
Like “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”, Sturges’ other films during this period are marked by a satiric viewpoint on society and a writer’s love of language. Many of the best scenes in these films involve two or more characters bantering back and forth in long uninterrupted takes. There are at least three scenes in “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” that involve long tracking shots of two characters walking through the streets of the town talking, including this one where Trudy wonders if she shouldn’t end her troubles by drowning herself. Norval wants to marry her but Trudy can’t allow him to commit bigamy:
Norval: There’s not much water this time of year, Trudy.
Trudy: Isn’t there a swimming hole about ten miles away?
Norval: You’re not supposed to use your tires for anything like that, Trudy. Besides, I’m a very good swimmer, and being a very good swimmer, they say that when they get in a situation like that they just naturally, sw-swim away.
Trudy: I’m a very good swimmer too. I hadn’t thought of that.
Norval: Well then, let’s forget the creek.
Trudy: Maybe we could tie rocks around our necks!
Trudy: What’s the matter with gas!?
Noval: What’s the matter with bigamy!?
Demarest vs. Bracken
The performances of the principles in this film are wonderful. Eddie Bracken as Norval is as manic as any character I can think of in any other film. The scene of him learning that Trudy is not only married but pregnant is a masterpiece of comic timing. William Demarest is great as Poppa Kockenlocker. He’s glowering and menacing and makes a perfect counterweight to Bracken’s stuttering, sweating, Norval. He also shows his physical side here, taking swinging kicks at kid sister Emmy’s backside and landing flat on his back on more than one occasion. Diana Lynn is wonderful as Emmy who’s always putting her father in his place. “Now what do you know about this little boogie woogie joint?” he asks her at one point. “Nothing, Poppa. Just heard you were there … digging quite a trench.” But he can given as good as he gets and it can get a little dark : “Someday they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe some place. Nothing else. The mystery of Morgan’s Creek.” Lastly, Betty Hutton shows herself to be a solid comedienne.
The supporting actors also give solid performances. Another thing I enjoy about this film and all of Sturges’ films from this period is his use of a stock company of character actors who would reappear in his films in different roles. Paramount objected to this reuse of the same actors believing that audiences would object. Sturges on his part remarked, “these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures.” You gotta love that level of loyalty, especially in Hollywood. For my part, I appreciate seeing these wonderful actors again and again. From this stock company, “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” includes Al Bridge as Mr. Johnson, the Lawyer (“I practice the law. I am not only willing but anxious to sue anyone anytime for anything!”), Porter Hall as the Justice of the Peace, (“Lock the door, Mariah. We have ourselves an abductor.”), Torben Meyer as Dr. Meyer (“I am a doctor, not a gossip schmeerer.”) among others many of who are uncredited.
You can well imagine that Sturges had trouble with the production code office during the making of this movie. A young girl goes out for a night on the town with a group of soldiers and comes back pregnant. But Sturges firmly establishes that Trudy was married before having sex, the curtain ring on her finger is proof of that, and it wasn’t alcohol that lowered her inhibitions but rather a klunk on the noggin. So the Breen office had little complaint there. Rather they were concerned that during wartime the movie has a soldier marry and impregnate a young girl and then abandon her leaving the child to be raised by a draft reject. But Sturges placated them by including images of war time conservation, conserving sugar by partaking of sugar-less Victory Lemonade, and referencing the conservation of rubber by limiting unnecessary driving. He also included a scene showing the soldiers on the morning after and with no ill effects. “Sunday morning and not a stiff in the guard house,” as one MP puts it.
Full disclosure requires that I reveal that this film is where I get my nom de blog, Smum County. In the scene where Trudy and Norval are trying to get married with Norval posing as Private Ratzkiwatzki, the justice of the peace asks a very nervous Norval where he resides. Off the top of his head he stutters “Camp Sm-sm-smum.” “And where is that,” asks the justice. “Sm-sm-smum County,” Norval replies. That name has always stuck in my head and I use it whenever I need a fictitious place name that almost sounds real.
Finally, I’d like to include this picture of my VHS copy of “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” signed by Eddie Bracken. A few years ago, (before the advent of DVD) Film Forum held a Preston Sturges festival where they showed most of his films. It was tough but I tried to see every one. The highlight was the screening of this film where Eddie Bracken appeared and spoke about his experiences making this film.