Having recently watched and reviewed Sullivan’s Travels I mentioned going out and watching the rest of director Preston Sturges‘ work. Christmas in July, Sturges’ second film and the first to be deemed “classic” according to sources, the film feels like a début. The story is cute, the acting is cute, it’s all just….cute (although appropriate for the month). In many ways the film plays like a copy of something Frank Capra would put out with an overt message about goodness and a deus ex machina that seems fated and/or miraculous. At a little over an hour the film saves itself by moving rapidly, and the acting, particularly from Ellen Drew as Betty is good, but I wouldn’t put this next to Sullivan’s Travels.
Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is a dreamer constantly entering contests and believing the odds will one day be in his favor. He enters into the Maxford House Coffee Slogan Contest using the slogan “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee it’s the bunk.” The winner receives $25,000. Unfortunately the contest jury can’t declare a winner and as a joke a couple of Jimmy’s coworkers trick him into believing he’s won. Through a case of miscommunication with the head of Maxford House, Jimmy ends up with a check and starts buying items for his friends and family but what happens when the joke is discovered?
I tried to be as brief with the plot as I could but really that’s the entire plot laid out and resolved in 67 minutes. While the plot is lean Sturges does something similar to Sullivan’s Travels in attempting to discuss human nature within his story. In Christmas in July you have a similar tale of the rich believing their providing meaning and public service to the public with this contest, while at the same time trying to increase their revenue stream. Furthermore, once others find out Jimmy has come into money, the man finally starts to be taken seriously. The top executives of a rival coffee company Jimmy works for listen to his ideas, thinking their the best ever heard in the history of the world! One exec even says “I’ve had my eye on him for some time” whereas right before this moment he had no idea who Jimmy was! By the time Jimmy goes to a department store the manager says he knows Jimmy’s an honest man because he has money (oh how we know this isn’t true). Sturges makes the comment that just the appearance of possessing wealth is all that’s needed and ultimately wealth is a facade as it doesn’t make one a better/smarter person. In fact many of the people with money like Mr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn) of Maxwell House are bumbling idiots. Of course once it’s discovered Jimmy hasn’t won the department store manager and Mr. Maxford immediately jump to calling Jimmy a thief and fraud.
At times the film is very much in the vein of a Frank Capra movie and considering the 1940s WWII-era of films I can understand why Sturges would make Christmas in July the way it is. There is the small town (or street in this case) fighting back against corporate greed when Mr. Maxford and the department store manager come back to take back their possessions, and there is the sense of community surrounding Jimmy and Betty. I think a lot of that is the reason I didn’t connect with Dick Powell as Jimmy, between his acting and the character (named Jimmy…get it), I just kept saying “Was Jimmy Stewart busy for this?” This is the first Dick Powell movie I’ve seen and he was good but nothing special. His character is a stubborn dreamer but at times he flirts with being an utter tool, especially in the opening scenes with Betty. In certain regards I didn’t really find this to be Jimmy’s story. Certain moments appear like he’s not even doing anything to get what he wants, particularly in the end when Betty is the one who has to convince Jimmy’s boss to give him a promotion. Jimmy just gives up in the second act and there’s an odd disconnect as the story shifts to make Better the angelic woman who will save him.
I will say though that Ellen Drew is a stunner in this film. I’ve never seen her in anything before and not only is she gorgeous but there’s a sweetness to her acting reminiscent of Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels. I’m not sure if it’s right to say Ellen Drew was the inspiration for Lake’s character or not but the actresses and the tone of their characters are similar. To compare them a bit, both are somewhat flighty (there’s a hilarious scene where Betty runs late into work), they’re stubborn and in love with equally stubborn men, and both walk the line between child and adult. Drew does have great chemistry with Powell and the opening scene establishes the rapport they have that I wished had been fleshed out more. The opening argument the two has does a side-splitting job of setting up their characters. They’re arguing over how Jimmy’s campaign isn’t funny as coffee doesn’t make you sleepy, it keeps you awake! Well Jimmy believes a recent study is going to disprove that and Betty disagrees. They go back and forth and no matter what scenario is presented to Jimmy he’s wrong, ultimately beating his already unfunny slogan into the grave. I was confused at the end when Betty becomes extremely upset over Jimmy’s loss, in contrast to her in the beginning when she tells him to be realistic. By the end she’s bawling like she’s either responsible for what’s happened or truly believed he won. I just never fully understood why she fell apart at the end but Drew is so beautiful it didn’t matter.
By the end there’s a typical Frank Capra deus ex machina ending that I won’t reveal although I did enjoy knowing that Jimmy’s promotion at the end is revealed to be due to his hard work. The logic is actually presented with humor as the manager says he promoted Jimmy because if he won a slogan contest for coffee, that’s the best proof that he knows how to advertise!
A few quick tidbits I’d like to include. I love how this movie presents money matters that would not pass today with our economy. Case in point, Jimmy shows the check to a store clerk and the clerk immediately establishes him a line of credit. I know part of this is because they believe he has wealth, and again they equate wealth with honesty, but I would love for it to be that simple. Also, there’s a running plot about Jimmy wanting to buy his mom a Davenport (a fancy couch that pulls out into a bed). Well when they go to buy it said couch pulls out to include a bed, a radio, and a freaking night table! I want one ASAP! In case you’re interested to see how much Jimmy won in 2010 dollars (the latest I could get figures) I’ll tell you! $25,000 in 1940 equals out to $384,366.10, more than enough to buy presents for an entire street in those days and I could definitely do some damage with that type of money!
Christmas in July is cute but it’s not especially memorable or special. I still recommend seeing Sullivan’s Travels first, right now that’s my favorite Sturges film. Christmas in July feels like a first effort almost but with stars like Ellen Drew and a quick runtime, it’s a fun time killer on a hot July day. If you’re interested in watching the movie in its entirety you can do so below:
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