Thursday, September 8, 2016

Bred in the Bean

'Though the plot turns on a $25,000 contest prize -- big moola in 1940 Astoria, Queens -- no one in Preston Sturges's Christmas in July is defined in the least by money. They aren't defined at all. Milkmen, barbers, bakers, cops on the beat, working-class barmen and pool players, nurses, laundrymen, bootblacks, the kitchen help, taxi drivers (of the most non-Scorsesian sort). Salarymen and their secretary girlfriends. Radio announcers and company Presidents. If judged, judged by how good they are at keeping the craziness going. At times almost achingly tender toward the "poor," the movie's classes don't exist. Hardboiled and sweet-natured, here no one takes anything from anybody and no one means anyone any harm. (In this way would Sturges cover the class waterfront -- working here and in The Great McGinty, upper in The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, middle in Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, all three in Sullivan's.)

Dick Powell and Ellen Drew are the middling center of the Sturges whirlwind ~ dervishes captured and spun by Victor Milner's brilliant black-and-white (at times figures seem set in relief like reverse etchings on a silver pot) and Ellsworth Hoagland's blistering editing, in what seems like a race to steal the picture: Demarest as Bildocker, Pangborn the announcer (in such a warm and elegant radio studio), Alexander Carr as store owner Schindel, Harry Hayden as Mr. Waterbury, Ernest Truex as Baxter, and (the winnah!) Raymond Walburn as Dr. Maxford. ("Maxford House -- Grand to the Last Gulp") And Sturges lets the supporting players in on the game: Maxford's pretty secretary (Kay Stewart), Dick (Rod Cameron) the Baxter office wag who starts the plot (and who looks lots like John Candy's kid brother), the neighborhood cop (Frank Moran), Mr. Schmidt and Mrs. Schwartz, Sam the colored floor-sweep (Fred Toomes).

A 65-minute world of slogan contests in which everything happens. From 1940 -- an astonishing year for American movie comedy, on the cusp of world war: Christmas, His Girl Friday, The Great Dictator, My Favorite Wife, The Bank Dick, Philadelphia Story, Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, Shop Around the Corner.

And how 'bout that Davenola!