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Behind the Camera (3/5 & 9/24)
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Remind Me

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK

Behind the Camera on THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK

With changes to the first group of script pages still being negotiated, Sturges did something he had never done before: he began shooting on the scheduled start date of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) with barely ten pages of a finished script. In fact, so dependent was he on last minute improvisation and sudden bursts of creativity that it was almost at the end of production before he even knew what the miracle of the title would be. He shot for eight hours every day, then stayed up most of the night writing. This gave the whole process a sense of pressure atypical for a Sturges production.

Because he could not afford to spend a lot of time on set-ups, Sturges chose John Seitz, who had worked on the lengthy opening to Sturges' earlier film Sullivan's Travels (1941), as cinematographer. He knew he could count on Seitz to shoot long continuous scenes of dialogue and unbroken tracking shots without needing to stop and discuss them.

The long tracking shots of Hutton and Bracken (and also Hutton and Lynn) delivering pages of dialogue while walking for five minutes down several blocks of the town streets were extremely complex to film for that era. Cameras were placed on tracks and pulled backwards by six crewmembers. The sound crew also walked backwards with handheld boom microphones, while other assistants maneuvered 300 yards of cable, lights and reflectors. Sturges and Seitz shot more than 11,000 feet of film before they got the desired footage (400 feet) they needed.

Eddie Bracken later recalled that the studio was being driven crazy by the fact that Sturges would spend the day rehearsing the camera and have nothing shot by 4:00 in the afternoon. However, the actor noted, between 4:00 and 6:00, Sturges would get 11 pages in the can, effectively producing in two hours what many directors shot in three days.

Beyond the urgency brought on by Sturges' daily updating and completion of the script, the picture was lent a sense of frenzied energy by the rivalry between its stars. Certain he had been deceived into accepting the role, Bracken was determined to steal the picture. He used every trick he knew to filch the focus from Hutton, not only the tried-and-true maneuver of upstaging her but also developing physical tics that would draw more attention to himself.

William Demarest didn't need to invent any physical bits for his character. Sturges had him taking so many tumbles he became known as "Pratfall Demarest."

Although the director was working at an unusually frantic pace, he still kept tight reins on the production, ensuring that neither Bracken nor anyone else became the main attraction. Sturges favored ensemble pieces, and even the smallest parts were given some choice bits.

Sturges had always been a perfectionist, expecting every line to be letter perfect. But with the tension brought on by directing all day, writing all night, arguing with the studio over Great Without Glory, overseeing the release of The Palm Beach Story (1942) and running a restaurant he owned, his temper would occasionally flare up. He would often explode at the tiniest mistake, bringing both Diana Lynn and Betty Hutton to tears several times. It soon became obvious that The Miracle of Morgan's Creek would go over schedule and budget and Sturges found it more and more difficult to direct his cast effectively.

With the production deadline for the film's climax fast approaching, Sturges knew he would have to produce a satisfactory conclusion quickly. At the last minute he came up with the idea for the "miraculous" ending, then worked up a device using two characters (and the actors who played them) from his earlier film The Great McGinty (1940) to give the story a narrative framework and to take a shot at political opportunism.

Shooting ran on until December 28, 1942. A rough cut was made and shown to DeSylva the following February. At this stage, the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency asked for several changes to move their rating from a C (Condemned) to a B (Morally Objectionable in Part for All). DeSylva agreed but realized there was no chance to ever attain even an A-2 (Approved for Adults) rating. Late in February, Sturges shot a day of revisions necessary for the B label and as of March, the studio decided to let the picture stand.

by Rob Nixon

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