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The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Preston Sturges had an elitist attitude back when you could actually ruffle a few feathers by having one. He's often mentioned in the same breath as Ernst Lubitsch, since both men made witty, literate adult comedies in the 1940s. But they were very different filmmakers. Whereas "The Lubitsch Touch" often seems infused with affection and champagne bubbles, Sturges is more of a beer and pretzels kind of guy. He forever seems spoiling for a fight, and his happy endings usually contain a whiff of patronization. He played to the unwashed masses more than Lubitsch did, but you could tell he was repulsed by their lack of interest in soap.

Sturges was especially good at skewering the mores of small town America; his pictures are full of picket fences and political corruption, parades and unrepentant liars. He was the first studio staff writer to direct his own scripts, and that degree of control served him well. Work this pointedly cynical needed to be guided by an individual voice to maintain its focus, just as Frank Capra's all-American romanticism would have turned to sugary swill had it passed through too many hands.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek may seem tame by today's standards, but, back in 1944, it was viewed as borderline offensive. Sturges actually sat down to write a script that would throw the censors into conniption fits, and that's exactly what happened when they got a look at the first draft. In fact, there were so many changes being made to the original screenplay, he started filming with only 10 pages completed, and he still had no idea what the titular "miracle" would turn out to be! Even then, Sturges cooked up scenes that appealed to a broad cross-section of America's movie-goers while pointedly outraging the self-anointed keepers of the moral flame.

Get a load of this plot. Eddie Bracken plays Norval Jones, a 4F bank clerk with a lot of problems. Norval is obsessed with joining the Army, even though he's never getting in due to the "spots" that appear before his eyes during physical examinations. He's also smitten with a boy-crazy tootsie named Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), the daughter of the local police chief (William Demarest, a.k.a. "Uncle Charlie" from My Three Sons.) Though Officer Kockenlocker does his best to keep his two daughters in line, Trudy is a go-getter who secretly attends soldiers' parties, dancing like a maniac while steamrollering her way to social acceptance.

Unfortunately, Trudy gets loaded one night and becomes a tad too familiar with the troops. She winds up pregnant, but can only vaguely recall that the now long-gone father of her child might have been a soldier named "Ratzkiwatkzi." That's not much help. Enter Norval, who agrees to take responsibility for the child and marry Trudy. But Trudy's heart just isn't in a long-term relationship with Norval. This leads to a scandal, then a "miracle" in the delivery room, and Trudy's absolution via a well-timed pronouncement by the state's corrupt Governor McGinty (Brian Donlevy, reprising his role from Sturges' The Great McGinty.)

This wasn't your usual World War II comedy, to say the least, and some viewers were outraged. There were even people who complained that there were parallels between Trudy's pregnancy and the story of Christ's birth! Sturges, for his part, spent a lot of time semi-sarcastically answering outraged hate mail, not that he was apologetic. Apparently, the hubbub helped. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was the highest grossing film of 1944, drawing, as it undoubtedly did, cinematic thrill-seekers, hardcore Sturges fans, drunken soldiers, and the girls they had impregnated.

Box office speaks louder than hate mail, of course, so Sturges survived unscathed. He was nominated for an Oscar® for his on-the-run screenplay, and he was also nominated for writing Hail the Conquering Hero the same year.

That'll show 'em.

Produced, Written, and Directed by: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Music: Charles Bradshaw
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegte
Costumes: Edith Head
Cast: Eddie Bracken (Norval Jones), Betty Hutton (Trudy Kockenlocker), Diana Lynn (Emmy Kockenlocker), William Demarest (Officer Kockenlocker), Brian Donlevy (Governor McGinty), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss.)
B&W-99m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara

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