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The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

(1944) **** Unrated
99 min. Paramount Pictures. Cast: Betty Hutton.

The definition of the film genre known as "screwball comedy" is an elusive one, but film buffs generally know one when they see one. Preston Sturges was one of the masters of the cinematic screwball, an unexpected pitch that flies at high speed on a twisty course and causes disorientation.

One of the first auteurs (bucking convention by writing and directing his films), Sturges had a small but potent output as a director, beginning with the hit 1940 satire The Great McGinty, proceeding to The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, and arriving at The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Hail the Conquering Hero, Harold Lloyd swan song The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, and Unfaithfully Yours, among others, would follow).

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek stands out for its sheer audacity of subject matter and its sustained emotional-roller-coaster effect: it's quite possibly the most high-strung movie ever made. Released during World War II (and the era of the intrusive Hays censorship office), Sturges' film was culturally subversive in its treatment of hurry-up marriages between soldiers and the women they knocked up and left behind.

Betty Hutton plays the bawdily-named Trudy Kockenlocker, a woman who finds herself obliged to trap a man. Though her cranky worrywart of a father (William Demarest) knows better, Trudy rebels against his authority and sneaks out to a soldiers' farewell dance. Innocently planning to do her part for the war effort, Trudy runs afoul of spiked lemonade and awakes with only a tell-tale curtain ring and the vaguest impression of marrying a doughboy, perhaps named "Ignatz Ratzkiwatzki" (apparently, Sturges chose this name to lampoon one of his censors).

Trudy has one saving grace, a puppy-dog sort-of suitor who's eternally available to her. Nervous-Nellie Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) has a willing spirit to help Trudy out of her jam, despite his weak, 4-F flesh (in moments of crisis, Norval sees psychosomatic spots). Unfortunately, each of Trudy's two problems complicates the other. Without a husband, she daren't be seen as pregnant by her hostilely moral community, and if she gets married, she's a bigamist.

Trudy expertly manipulates a proposal from Norval, but finally can't bring herself to exploit him (at least not without his full support). To puzzle over the problem, Trudy consults her ever-tighter inner circle: Norval, her father, and her precocious fourteen-year-old sister Emmy (a winning Diana Lynn). The various proposed "solutions" tend only to lead to larger problems, as in a hysterical wedding scene that unleashes the floodgates for screwball pandemonium. From there, the steady pace picks up and refuses to let up until the "miraculous" climax.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek carved out its own unique niche in the annals of screen comedy by so cleverly couching its shocking material in broad slapstick and fast-paced character comedy. The film rarely allows itself the delirious abandon of so-many classic comedies, but Sturges is purposeful in this respect. We're meant to be as anxiously involved as the characters are in their dilemmas.

The actors express Sturges' high anxiety in effusive character quirks: Bracken's runaway stuttering (which Hutton catches) and accident-prone eagerness, for example, makes him a fine foil for Demarest's equally put-upon papa. Constable Kockenlocker is prone to sweeping himself off his feet while fecklessly attempting to kick his familial co-conspirators, and for the record, Demarest was roughly fifty when he repeatedly performed this painful manuever for the sake of his art.

Conveying fast-talking, keen intelligence and uncertain morality, Big Band singer Hutton makes the most of one of her few non-musical performances (Annie Get Your Gun would follow in 1950), and Sturges somehow turns the real-life tension between Hutton and Bracken—each of whom was suspicious of the otehr's scene-stealing—to the film's advantage. Part of the magic comes from filming the action in long-takes, with fluid tracking shots leading the actors down the mean streets of Morgan's Creek.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek best displays Sturges' impishness as a director. Besides circumventing the Hayes Production Code with deft understatement, Sturges subtly plays on the idea of a Virgin Birth (no, that's not the titular miracle, but the absent-father scrambling makes a befuddled Joseph of Norval all the same).

In the overstatement category, Sturges also worms in cameos for the "great" Governor McGinty and right-hand-man "The Boss" (Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, reprising their roles from The Great McGinty), as well as Mussolini and Hitler! (In one of the film's best lines, McGinty blares, "This is the biggest thing happened to this state since we stole it from the Indians!")

In the era of South Park, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek may look a bit quaint, but seen in its historical context, Sturges's wartime willingness to look unflinchingly at homefront sexual mores—and his insistence to scold blind patriotism as an excuse for questionable behavior—will forever stand out as grand gestures of comedic daring.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1 Full Frame

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

Street date: 9/6/2005

Distributor: Paramount Home Video

Paramount delivers the bargain of the year with this budget-priced special-edition of a bona fide classic movie. Primarily, the disc features a sterling transfer. The opening credits are windowboxed, then convert seamlessly to a full-frame image that's quite clean and sharp (especially for a film from 1944).

In two accompanying featurettes, experts offer commentary on Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. "Preston Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (14:03) includes home-movie footage of Sturges and recollections by star Eddie Bracken (who died in 2002) and Sturges' widow Sandy. Two authors of books on Sturges—James Ursini and Andrew Dickos—also contribute comments on the man thought of by many as the first writer-director. "Censorship: Morgan's Creek vs. the Production Code" (7:38) assembles all of the above and film historian and author Ed Sikov to address the Hays Code and Sturges' creative circumvention of it.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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