23 miracle

#23 — The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944)

My general inclination is to look askance at films that overtly rely on cultural daring to make their impact. This isn’t always true, as the use of variants of “audacious” in any number of rave reviews will testify. Further, that policy softens significantly the earlier a film’s copyright date. There are instances where I can’t help but marvel at the material that was slipped past Hollywood’s strict codes. I’d like to think that my critical acumen remains heightened enough that I can see through the older films that are as hollow as the empty provocation of the most dire examples from my own era, but I do sometimes worry that I call fall prey to grading on a curve. All that preamble is meant to make clear that the most striking element of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek may very well be the risque bend of the storyline, but the enduring brilliance of writer-director Preston Sturges elevates is well past being merely a cheeky taunt at a smothering studio culture trying to protect itself from aghast protest at nearly all costs. As I type that out, though, that sounds pretty satisfying, too.

Similar to Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero — filmed well after but released the same year, thanks to a studio decision to keep the earlier film on the shelf for a while — The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek exploits the ongoing war effort for a twisty comic premise. Betty Hutton plays Trudy Kockenlocker (that character name alone might have made Paramount skittish about releasing the movie), a young woman who spends a raucous night helping some soldiers celebrating their last night before heading off to the front. When she wakes up the next day, things are a little foggy, but she does remember spontaneously marrying one of the war-bound men. His name escapes her, though. She’s pretty sure it’s got a Z in it. feeling abandoned and beset, Trudy is ripe for rescue, and it comes in the unlikely form of Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a fella who’s always pined after her. He offers to be her man and help raise the baby, an act of romantic altruism that leads to escalating dismay.

Those travails faced by Norval are the key to the film, a pointed expression of the Sturges outlook. Especially during this era, other filmmakers might default to a sentimental kindness toward the character, lending him obvious sympathy even as his troubles mount. That’s not really Sturges’s approach, and the film benefits greatly because of it. He never relents on the conviction that Norval is a patsy, daftly unaware of the ways he’s blundered into a tumble down fortune’s stairwell, all because good deeds are duly punished in a devilish universe, especially when they’re stirred into being by the dimwit palpitations of a delusional heart. And yet Sturges manages to keep this all from being too emotionally cutting, in part by his penchant for boisterous slapstick that cuts the bathtub gin burn like fizzy soda water. On some level, Sturges understood the boldness needed some balance, a blithe, loopy energy that makes the cynicism a little softer, a little safer. That’s why The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is more than its considerable daring. Sturges knew a film’s inherent value increased if it was more than a cranky treatise.

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