After watching three fairly crappy contemporary comedies (STEP BROTHERS, TROPIC THUNDER, and THE HANGOVER), I decided to cleanse the palette by going to the DVD box set my wife gave me for Christmas, and watch a Preston Sturges film. There are still a few I haven't seen, even though I would rank him as among my favorite writer/directors, and would rank Sullivan's Travels as one of the most important films ever made.
This being July 4th, I could not turn down the opportunity to watch CHRISTMAS IN JULY. I can't believe how good this movie is. It's not even one of his best movies, but it's so much better than anything I've seen in ages. The opening 15 minutes are a textbook example of brilliant writing. Although technically there are scene changes, it's essentially one long scene with a few intercuts. The entire scene is dialogue between two characters, the male and female leads, sitting on a roof.
What's most amazing about this sequence is that it keeps your attention for the full 15 minutes. Even in 1940 it would have been a challenge to keep the audience watching for that long. But Sturges accopmplishes it by having the scene cover three entirely different emotional moods. The plot of the movie is about the hero entering a contest to write a slogan for a coffee company. The opening is a silly explanation from our hero as to his entry in a slogan contest. It's moderately amusing, but the real undertone of the scene is actually quite sad. His slogan is so bad, we know that he has no chance of winning. So what we really learn is that he is a lovable loser.
Then the same scene transitions to a completely different mood; it becomes almost maudlin as he tells his girlfriend that they could never possibly get married on his $22/week salary, and that because they were born into poverty they are doomed to stay in it. This opens an important sub-theme of the film: that you are only as good as people believe that you are. It's a very pessimistic view of society, and it gives a "comedy" an undercurrent of tragedy throughout. Yet somehow Sturges is a brilliant enough writer that he pulls off this mood change.
And in a tour-de-force, he then changes mood yet again in the same scene, when the young lovers' argument turns into a romantic flirtation. By the end of this 15-minute opening, you can't help but be in love with this couple.
The plot of the film is based on frustration comedy. The hero believes that he has won the $25,000 prize for writing a coffee slogan (the equivalent of a lifetime of salary for him) but the audience knows that it is just three of his jerky "friends" pulling a prank on him. Again, it's a very sad undercurrent in what's supposed to be a comedy.
I never thought that I would be crying in the third act of a Sturges comedy, but he really knows how to switch gears emotionally in the film. Only moments later I was literally leaping in the air and cheering the ending.
One of the things I found most interesting is that of the last four comedies I viewed, by far the strongest female character was in this 70-year old film. The female lead has a fantastic monologue at the end of the film that completely turns the film around. She's empowered in a way that no woman in contemporary movies would ever be allowed to be.
I know I'm an old fart, but why can't they make movies like this any more?