One of my goals for 2012 is to check off everything on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs list. One of the side benefits is that there are several films on the list by directors with whom I’m still familiarizing myself. Preston Sturges is one such director. There are still a handful of Sturges films that I haven’t seen. Thanks to the 100 Laughs list, I recently had an excuse to take a gander at Sturges’ 1944 gem, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. I’d heard that it was a bit brazen, but didn’t know how much until I’d finally seen the film. How brazen was it? Tremendously so, and I’ve fallen in love with the movie.
Morgan’s Creek was released right in the middle of the Hays Code heyday. The Hays (or Production) Code installed multiple guidelines that filmmakers had to follow, in the interest of not offending the public. It was created in the early 1930s as a response to the crime and sexual liberation that ran rampant on the screen in Hollywood’s early days. The Hays office had the power to censor filmmakers, who were required to give samples of their screenplay to the Hays office in advance. There were several ridiculous, minor rules that filmmakers had to follow to the letter of the law. For instance, a married couple could never be shown in bed together unless one of them had both feet on the floor. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy was out of the question. Drunken debauchery could not be shown. If crimes were shown, criminals had to be punished for their crimes; criminals were not allowed to be glorified. In short, it was a governing body that imposed an undue moralism upon the artists who were making films from the early 1930s until approximately 1965. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the smartass Sturges set out to demolish these ridiculous conventions. He succeeded, with side-splitting results.
The film is set in motion when Trudy Kockenlocker (yes, that’s really her last name), a local young girl with an affinity for military men, attends a party thrown in their honor. In doing so, Trudy skips out on a movie date with her childhood friend, Norval Jones. Once at the party, the partygoers (including Trudy) very explicitly drink lemonade. You couldn’t have booze, after all. But in the fun of the party, Trudy bangs her head on a chandelier. She becomes woozy, and her night becomes a blur. When next we see her, she’s seemingly drunk driving and wrecks in front of Norval. He erroneously accuses her of being drunk, which she denies vehemently, pointing out that she had only had lemonade. Unfortunately for Trudy, in the process of her woozy, blurry evening, she “got married” to a soldier whose name she can’t remember. Worse, she’s also pregnant, a fact which would surely send the small town into hysterics. She ultimately confides in Norval, who (along with Trudy’s kid sister, Emmy) helps her concoct a goofy criminal plan which will help Trudy attain a marriage certificate, thereby saving her honor in not having the child out of wedlock.
That’s just the set-up. Check out what Sturges has already done. He’s shown his girl “drunk” while going way out of his way, in hilarious ways, to show that she in fact hadn’t had a drop of liquor. His girl is also pregnant, and is married in name only. In fact, she can’t even remember the name of the guy that she had sex with. The soldier never shows up once during the film. But because Sturges went out of the way to have her mention that she’d been married while woozy, it was perfectly acceptable through the Hays Code. It was all part of a wonderful dance that he did with the censors. As Sturges’ wife points out, he followed the Production Code to the letter of the law… while completely demolishing the spirit of the Code with satire, cynicism, and humor. It’s really a beautiful thing. As if seeking to attain extra bang for his buck, when Trudy finally does give birth, she has sextuplets. Sturges didn’t just show one birth that was out of wedlock. He showed SIX! Sturges succeeded in this whole process by showing censors only small parts of his screenplay, and certainly none of the pages which featured the “offensive” material. Or he’d make their recommended edits, but in the softest, most ineffective way possible, so as to minimize the intent of the censors. And in still other cases, he’d ignore the Hays office’s script changes completely.
I’ve mentioned a few times now how much Sturges films had an influence on the Coen brothers. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is no different. Norval (Eddie Bracken) is a good-hearted, well-intentioned clod who happens to find himself committing a series of farcical crimes, including stealing his own money out of a bank where he was employed. All of the main characters have a great deal of oafishness about them, all finding themselves in trouble before stumbling upon a happy resolution, much like Coen protagonists find in O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Hudsucker Proxy. Speaking of Hudsucker, the protag (Tim Robbins) is a character named… Norville Barnes. It’s spelled differently but pronounced the same. Additionally, I would venture that the Coens took the inspiration for the Arizona quints from Raising Arizona from Trudy’s own sextuplets.
Finally, it’s worth noting just how dense and effective Sturges’ comedic style is in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. He applies a giant dollop of slapstick comedy from the bumbling Norval, the equally bumbling Trudy, and Trudy’s inelegant father who’s also the town constable. There’s also a large dose of Sturges’ rapier-like wit, which is embodied in the overlapping rapid-fire dialogue amongst the characters as one level after another of humorous chaos is unleashed on the small town. Trudy’s sister also fits this mold, with a sharp biting tongue proficient at cutting to the heart of matters. And to bring it all full circle, the subtext of Sturges using the Production Code’s own cloying morality to satirize it makes me laugh long after I’ve finished watching the movie. This is a comedy gem, one of the finest and most important comedy films ever made.