Shortly before his death in Hollywood in 1940, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: ‘They’ve let a certain director here write his own picture and he’s made such a go of it there may be a different feeling about that soon’. Fitzgerald’s gin-soaked instincts were to be proven right; the film The Great McGinty (1940) was a sensation, landing the inaugural original screenplay Oscar for its author Preston Sturges. Within the year, two other legendary screenwriters, Billy Wilder and John Huston, had their directorial debuts greenlighted by the studio moguls at Paramount and Warner Bros.
Over the next three years, Sturges wrote and directed a clutch of anarchic comedies, including The Lady Eve (1941) and Palm Beach Story (1942) that today rank alongside the likes of Duck Soup and Bringing up Baby as certifiable classics. The best, and most successful, of his screwball comedies, though, was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) which saw Sturges delight in sticking two fingers up to the, then, omnipotent Hays office and deliver a scathingly irreverent assault on some of America’s most cherished institutions.
Here’s the pitch: good time girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) gets ‘swaffled’ at a farewell dance for soldiers stationed at Morgan’s Creek, where she meets, marries and mislays one of the departing GI’s. The next morning all she can remember about her fly by night groom is that his name may be Ratzkiwatzki or, maybe, Zitzkiwitzki. A month later and having failed to track down GI Joe, she discovers she is pregnant, and the search is on for a sucker (a patsy Ratskiwatzki) to save her blushes and her reputation. Enter Eddie Bracken as stuttering goofball Norval Jones the man most likely to say ‘I d-d-d-do’. The harebrained plan, though, goes hilariously wrong and Norval (4f on account of his “spots” and being a total jerk) is arrested on charges of abduction, bank robbery, impersonating a soldier, impairing the morals of a minor and bigamy! It looks as if Norval is heading for a long stretch on the chain gang when the ‘miracle’ happens (well, this was the decade of Here Comes Mr Jordan and It’s a Wonderful Life’).
Though Sturges, as director, never allows the pace of the film to slacken for a second, gleaning superb performances from his stock of character-acting oddballs in the process (check out William Demarest as the pratfalling father of the bride) it’s the surreal dialogue that truly enriches the movie. Whether it’s the bombastic bank manager Twerk’s lecture to Norval on personal morality – ‘a man in a bank is like a fella crossing Niagra Falls on a tightrope – HE CANNOT BE TOO CAREFUL’, or the swindling Governor’s pronouncement that the ‘miracle’ is the biggest thing to happen to this state since we stole it from the Indians’, Sturges never misses an opportunity to deflate the pompous and the powerful.
Where Capra, the other great comedy director of the period, was sometimes content to use his genius to sanctify the folksy morals of small town America, Sturges simply took the piss out of them. Ultimately, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a savagely funny attack on everything middle America holds dear, from motherhood and patriotism to free enterprise and sexual morality and it even manages to shaft Hitler and Mussolini into the bargain!
Preston Sturges wrote and directed some of the greatest screwball comedies of all time. The first screenwriter to have overall control of a Hollywood studio picture, his place in history is assured. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is laugh out loud funny.