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The Big Idea (3/5 & 9/24)
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Remind Me

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK

The Big Idea Behind THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK

In late summer and early fall of 1942, Preston Sturges began work on a script based on an incident from his youth. A girl he knew named Adelaide Kip Rhinelander was in love with a young man named Jack Schackno but forbidden by her parents to date him. She was allowed to go out with Sturges, however, so Adelaide devised a scheme whereby he would pick her up at her house and pretend they were going on a date. Then he would deliver her to Schackno. The incident formed the basis for Trudy's use of Norval as a "beard" for her whereabouts at the beginning of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).

Another aspect of the plot of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek dated back to 1937, when Sturges concocted a modern Nativity story about a young, unwed mother-to-be saved from suicide by the town hermit. But as his interest in comedy developed further, he put the dramatic tale in the back of his mind.

Yet another story credits the inspiration for the film to Paramount's plans to demolish a detailed and beautiful small-town set that stood unused on the studio ranch. Apparently Sturges heard of the plan and convinced his bosses to let him write a story for the set.

At the time he started the script for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Sturges had a solid background as a top-notch screenwriter; the five films he had written and directed during the previous three years had performed well at the box office and received great reviews and he garnered an Academy Award for the script of The Great McGinty (1940), which he also directed. Yet he was in conflict with his studio and production executive Buddy DeSylva. Sturges had recently completed Great Without Glory, a biography of William Morton, who pioneered the use of ether as an anesthetic but gave away the patent to save the life of a young girl. Paramount was concerned audiences wouldn't know how to respond to an essentially tragic story made by the reigning king of comedy, so DeSylva had the film recut to emphasize the humor while rearranging Sturges' unique story structure into chronological order. Furious at this action, Sturges decided to push the limits of acceptable subject matter for the screen and seized on the very relevant but rarely discussed theme of wartime sex.

Whether he sensed Sturges was only trying to goad him with his ideas for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek or he was planning to give the director enough rope to hang himself, DeSylva surprisingly offered little resistance at this stage.

Recent studio contractee Betty Hutton dogged Sturges like a groupie, hoping to have him write something for her. Hutton had just been chosen "Star of Tomorrow" by exhibitors for her work with Eddie Bracken in The Fleet's In (1942), and DeSylva, who had signed her after seeing her on Broadway, was eager to promote her career. Sturges was pleased to accept Hutton as his leading lady. In her four films prior to this (three with Bracken), she had embodied a familiar comic type: the aggressive, boy-crazy vulgarian. Other comic actresses, such as Martha Raye and Virginia O'Brien, had made the type their own, but only the more photogenic Hutton had become a star playing the stereotype. Sturges latched onto this image for Trudy and wrote the part with Hutton in mind.

Sturges wanted to use character actor Andy Devine for the role of Norval but happily agreed to the studio's insistence he use Hutton's frequent co-star Eddie Bracken. The actor, however, was not so enthusiastic. He felt he was being used to build up Hutton's career at the expense of his own, and objected to the fact that every time he went to see a movie they did together, she had several spotlight singing numbers (inserted without his knowledge during production). He agreed to meet with Sturges but balked when he read the script, deciding it was all about his co-star. But he relented when Sturges told him that his was the part that would steal the picture.

Sturges also accepted the studio's choice for the younger sister. Diana Lynn had played a similar part opposite Ginger Rogers in Billy Wilder's first directorial effort, The Major and the Minor (1942).

After agreeing to Paramount's casting of the major roles, Sturges added his own stock company of character players, especially William Demarest, for whom he specifically wrote the part of Officer Kocklenlocker. The large troupe of supporting and bit players were especially loyal to Sturges because he valued their talents, enjoyed their company and gave them steady work.

Paramount submitted the first 116 pages of the script to the Motion Picture Production Code Office to see how it would fly. Joseph Breen, the office head (and a notoriously strict enforcer), often returned one or two pages of cautionary notes and strongly suggested changes for every script submitted to him, but The Miracle of Morgan's Creek generated seven single-spaced pages of objections. The studio requested a face-to-face meeting between Sturges and Breen to see if there was any way the film could get Code approval. Breen's post-meeting memo declared much of the script to be "unacceptable" not only under the Code but for purposes of wartime political policy. Breen did not insist outright on the elimination of Trudy's pregnancy from the plot but did note that it would have to be handled extremely carefully in order to avoid the implication that the armed forces were a hotbed of promiscuity or a cause in the rising number of illegitimate births.

Despite his objections, Breen actually liked the screenplay and meant his notations to be delivered with a degree of sympathy. And Sturges was generally amenable to most of the suggestions, such as suggesting that Trudy was married before sex and having her dazed state be the result of a conk on the head rather than drunkenness.

The Production Code office wasn't the only one to carefully monitor the script. The War Department Pictorial Board also influenced such suggestions as having Norval toot his horn when he arrives rather than having the sound of screeching brakes and tires, "which, of course, are contrary to the rubber conservation program."

by Rob Nixon

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