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The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek(1944)

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The Miracle of Morgan's Creek occupies a central place in writer-director Preston Sturges' still-amazing streak of early 1940s comedies for Paramount, which also includes The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan's Travels. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek has many trademark Sturges ingredients—pratfalls, stinging dialogue, oddball romance, a raft of great character actors and a healthy dose of social commentary beneath the abundant laughs-and, regardless of where you might rank it in your own pecking order of Sturges classics, few comedies match it.

While most of Sturges' other pictures take place in cities or feature city dwellers in other surroundings, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek takes Sturges to small-town America. The fictional Morgan's Creek is a storybook hamlet constructed on the Paramount backlot, a setting where Sturges would also film Hail the Conquering Hero. The town of picket-fenced houses and merchants may be more mythical than typical, but it's the perfect place for the heightened reality Sturges knew how to deliver, again and again.

Before the opening credits even roll, he's spinning the plot into action, as the local newspaper editor (Vic Potel) and the town's music shop owner (Julius Tannen) phone the governor to tell him about the "miracle" that provides the movie's title. The governor (Brian Donlevy) is, of course, the opportunistic title character from Sturges' 1940 directorial debut, The Great McGinty, and "The Boss" (Akim Tamiroff) is the same ruthless behind-the-scenes string-puller who launched one-time "bum" McGinty’s political career. The governor hears what's so special about the "miracle," though we don't yet. We have to wait to see it in extended flashback.

But it's not as if Sturges is withholding any comedy from us with this structure. Not only does he get laughs before the credits, when the call is placed, he also gets them during the credits, in the mad gesturing of the editor and the music shop owner. Most comedies that dive headlong into a story have a hard time downshifting and developing characters in quieter moments. But not The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. It soon offers quiet Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), an anemic hometown boy whose ineffectuality is matched only by his sincerity. Norval is a patsy who lets himself be victimized by Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), the girl he's unrequitedly loved since she was as small as a firecracker, as he says of his first memory of her. We should pity Norval too much to actually like him, but in the hands of Sturges and Bracken, Norval is the loser in all of us, the nice guy who finishes last but hasn't given in. Sturges gives him a colorful affliction that's kept him out of the service ("the spots!") while Bracken is so likable that you can't help but not embrace Norval. When he tells Trudy everything he’s done has "always been for you, and nobody but you," it's very moving, and you can feel the effect his revelation has on her mood. We should dislike Trudy, too, for dragging Norval into her predicament, but Hutton is such a bundle of energy, you cut her some slack.

And what of Trudy's little predicament? Getting Norval to lie for her so she won't get in trouble with her disapproving dad (William Demarest), she secretly goes to a dance for soldiers departing for World War II, bangs her head and comes home late, with vague memory of marrying someone she can't recall and even vaguer memory of a wedding night quickie that leaves her pregnant. Of course, Trudy's sexual escapades take place off-screen, but Sturges wrote them at a time when the Hollywood studios’ production code perpetuated puritanical myths like married couples having only twin beds. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek stirred up problems Hollywood's censors and many authority figures thought were best ignored and, even more remarkably, put them in a wartime context that questioned patriotism, political leadership and the purity of American femininity. Norval offers to help Trudy by eloping with her and impersonating Ratziwatzki, the long-gone soldier she thinks she married, so she can have a marriage certificate and she can prove her child isn't out of wedlock. But they're so nervous, they botch the ceremony at a Justice of the Peace's office, and everyone ends up in trouble. Sturges targets heroism and hypocrisy when Trudy "miraculously" gives birth to sextuplets and the "story" behind their birth must be sweetened for mass consumption—like Norval's crimes of impersonating a soldier and abducting a minor, Trudy's sexual recklessness is suddenly unimportant when there's political gain to be squeezed from it by those in charge.

Sturges may have had a message about girls, parents, patriotism and promiscuity in the back of his head, but he also knew he was making a comedy. This was, after all, the writer-director who'd made Sullivan's Travels, his ode to comedy that was inspired by seeing contemporaries get too, in his words, "deep dish." He's not worried about being tasteful or proper, and he laces the movie with the stock company of character actors who regularly make his comedies so lively. From hardboiled Demarest as Trudy's blustery, overmatched widower dad and sly Al Bridge as the town lawyer to wild-eyed Sally Blair as the witness to the would-be wedding and parrot-faced Jimmy Conlin as the mayor, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek teems with familiar faces for vintage comedy fans.

Thus far, Sturges' comedies have trickled to DVD in deluxe Criterion releases (The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, Unfaithfully Yours) and a no-frills Palm Beach Story disc from Universal. Paramount's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek disc is an inexpensive one, but has two featurettes bolstered by interviews with Bracken, who also starred in Hail the Conquering Hero, conducted before his 2002 death. Still somehow boyish, though well into his 80s, Bracken describes acting for Sturges as "like working for a one-man circus" and also tells of the rivalry he and Hutton played out, and of trying to embellish the physical comedy involving Norval in order to steal scenes from her. The 15-minute featurette on Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek comes off better than the shorter Censorship: Morgan's Creek vs. The Production Code. Eight minutes is simply not enough time to cover the topic with much depth.

For more information about The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman