If you had asked me in the early to mid 1990s what my favourite film was, I would have puzzled and confused you by saying, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”
Hardly anyone seems to have heard of it, even though it was written and directed by Preston Sturges, a master of the screwball comedy, whose films The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels are regularly cited (here for example) as being among the best film comedies ever made. Miracle never seems to make it onto any such lists, even though I still reckon it contains some of the most dramatic-funny sequences I have ever seen.
Mind you, looking back at it now, I can see that it has some fairly problematic elements. I might talk about that later. But for now, I just want to start telling you about it.
It was released in 1943 and it is a war film, in a way. It is set in the idyllic mid-American town of Morgan’s Creek. The local cop is an irascible gent called Officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), and no, I don’t know how they got away with that name either. He has a daughter called Gertrude (Betty Hutton). Trudy Kockenlocker. There’s going to be a “kiss-the-boys-goodbye” party before the local recruits go off to war, and Trudy wants to be there to do her bit for the war effort. But her father forbids her.
So what she does is persuade Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) to “take her to the pictures”, and this will allow her to sneak off to the party, coming back to the movie house later on so that Norval can then escort her back home. Norval, who is starry-eyed about the war and would love to join up but can’t because he has high blood pressure leading to spots before the eyes at any moment of stress (“The spots!”), is a slight, stammering wreck of nerves with a quiff of curly hair and a fondness for bow ties. He was clearly an inspiration behind Norville Barnes in the Coen Brothers’ 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy.
Anyhow, Norval, who is entirely in Trudy’s thrall, isn’t happy with the plan but goes along with it anyway.
At the big party, Trudy dances with a lot of soldiers. Later, the champagne begins to flow. But, at the insistence of the film censors, Trudy does NOT get drunk. No, sir. What happens is that during a particularly energetic bout of jitterbugging, she dings her head on a glitterball, and after that, well, things get a little hazy.
Next morning, Trudy rattles up to the movie house in Norval’s car, now almost wrecked, saying what a nice time she had, and clearly still pretty well out of it. Norval is outraged, having spent all night at the movie house till he got chucked out, and then on a bench. Her father is incandescent when they roll up home at eight in the morning, but that is as nothing compared to what happens when Trudy starts remembering what happened.
She recalls, as she talks with her sister Emmy, that one of the soldiers said it would be great if everyone in the party got married. Then, as she is relating this, she finds a ring on her finger.
What is more, a few weeks later, and after a visit to the doctor, she knows she must have got married, for she is pregnant, and that couldn’t have happened if she wasn’t married, could it?
This being the case, she has to prove she is married. Only she can’t remember the man’s name (“I think it had a Zee in it… like Ratzkiwatzki…”), doesn’t know where she got married, and didn’t give her right name. So, no proof. There is only one thing for it, as she decides in discussion with Emmy: she must persuade Norval to marry her. As Emmy says in her ruthless way: “He was made for it, like the ox was made to eat and the grape was made to drink.” (Quotations are from the shooting script reprinted in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (University of California Press, 1995).)
The rest of the film is concerned with the these young idiots’ increasingly frantic plans to correct the situation. Along the way, Trudy falls in love with Norval. Norval remains an idiot, but becomes a little less hopeless, and almost grows into the role of hero that the film has made for him. Trudy’s predicament seems about to end in disgrace and ignominy when a final miracle, aided by a little local corruption, saves the day.
Must I describe it? Must I spoil the ending? It’s tempting, but I’ll try not to, if only because that final whammy, which takes up the last 15 minutes or so of the film, is the most crazily exhilarating sequence I know, paced, timed, and choreographed in a perfect fusion of action, pulse, music and montage. You have to see it for yourself.
I first saw the film in about 1990 or 1991. The Nineties were for me a black hell. I was shy, a loner, fundamentally inadequate in my own eyes; I spent long periods unemployed because I felt I was unemployable. I certainly had only the slimmest chance of being selected in an interview setting.
At that time, Channel 4 bulked out its listings with screenings of old films in the mid-afternoon slot. They broadcast the films of Preston Sturges over about two weeks – not as a “season” but because they were, presumably, cheap. When, alone at home and on the dole, I switched on and saw this odd, wisecracking film, I was puzzled. Occasionally the hero would break out with some patriotic sentiment in the most earnest tones – “Except maybe getting into the army, nothing could make me happier than helping you out” – but it kind of sounded like the opposite somehow. I switched over, and then back again. There was a scene where, without anything being said right out, it became clear the heroine had got pregnant by a soldier she didn’t know, and I thought, “What is this?? This was made in 1943?” And the ending just clean knocked me over. That’s when I started raving about it.
A lot of my enthusiasm was to do with the film itself, both its quality and its outrageousness. But I can also see that something more personal was at work too. Norval Jones is of course a figure of fun, with his nerdy awkwardness, his bow ties, his debilitating stammer, his nervous laugh, his spots before the eyes. And yet he is also the hero, indomitable as a cartoon character, who after every disaster just gets up and tries again. I could see myself in him. I could forgive that he was a comic butt because we, the viewers, travelled with him, through the flames of that laughter, to the other side where he triumphed over all and got everything he desired, and more besides.
I have always been a little sceptical of the idea that what a viewer wants to see on the screen is someone like the viewer: this whole notion of “being seen.” Isn’t it the whole idea of art that one is taken imaginatively somewhere else, into lives that are different from one’s own?
But, thinking about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I see that perhaps I was wrong. Norval was someone remarkably like the person I thought I was, clumsiness, hesitant speech, nervous laugh and all. The comfort of seeing him, and even being given the permission to laugh at him, was actually liberating. (Such figures don’t need to be exempt from ridicule.)
Nevertheless, I can see now how uncomfortable some of the elements are. For instance, there are harsh words for someone who has sex with a woman incapacitated with drink or befuddled with concussion.
Again, Officer Kockenlocker, the single parent of two daughters, is a volcano of fury, constantly threatening his daughters with violence (“What you two ought to have is a good shellacking!”). He succeeds in being a comic figure because the only person we really seeing him hurt is himself, as when he aims a great walloping kick at one of his daughters, misses, and falls back on his bum. But I can see that from a certain angle, for instance if one had parent who was actually like that, it could all seem less than funny.
You could view the film as “Trudy Kockenlocker Learns Her Lesson”, and the plot certainly shows her being taught to turn her back on her wild partying and to settle down with a nice young man in a bow tie. In that sense, it’s one of Sturges’s more conservative-minded offerings, though it scarcely seems that way in the viewing; the script goes out of its way to avoid censuring pregnancy out of wedlock, and it is the hypocrites and priggish moralists who earn the contempt. In some of Sturges’s other films the plot is all the other way, as in The Lady Eve where it is the wild heroine who teaches the priggish hero a lesson he will never forget. Perhaps Miracle only really makes sense from Norval’s perspective: after all, one can see why he wants to marry Trudy, but it’s harder to see that he is any great prize from her point of view….
Nevertheless, and thinking about it all again, I still think it is a wonderfully good film, a little miracle in its way. Somehow or other, and I have read all about it but still don’t understand how he did it, Preston Sturges managed to make a film with a whole sheaf of things in it that should have been impossible in Hollywood in 1943. And the result was something that is about three times as funny as it has any right to be, and which helped to save me at the lowest point of my life.