We all have at least one: a performer who, no matter how skilled, famous or beautiful, gives you a royal pain in the neck. Sometimes you know why, as with my anti-Julia Roberts fervor, which dates to her catastrophic turn in Michael Collins. And sometimes you don't. I had a roommate who refused to watch Jack Lemmon in anything, and could offer no real reason for this piece of insanity other than "He irritates me." Girish and I bonded over, among other things, our mutual inability to sit through a Jeannette MacDonald film (unless they kept a tight lid on her, as in San Francisco).
I love Preston Sturges, but previously never got around to watching The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and I will admit why: Betty Hutton. That foghorn voice. That cloying desire to be the cutest thing in the room. Watching The Greatest Show on Earth and being asked to believe that not one, but two men would reject Gloria Grahame--GLORIA GRAHAME,
for heaven's sake--in favor of this galumphing loudmouth. I hated her in the The Perils of Pauline, too. So tomboyish, so hearty, so damn wholesome. The Siren doesn't like wholesome. She likes sirens, as a general rule. (Come to think of it, Julia Roberts is wholesome, too. Blech.)
But in Morgan's Creek, genius Preston Sturges somehow took Hutton and made her enjoyable. All that manic energy gets reined in, and frequently Hutton's character is calm and collected while the rest of the farce gyrates around her.
The movie comes with its own parlor game, called "How did he get away with that?" As in, how did Sturges get any of this stuff past the censors? One critic in the Guardian calls it a "mystery on the scale of what happened to the dinosaurs." Past a certain point you just wonder if Sturges got the whole Breen office drunk or something.
Hutton's character, for starters, is named Gertrude Kockenlocker--a last name that sounds like the schoolyard punchline to an off-color knock-knock joke. Trudy is the daughter of the Morgan's Creek constable (William Demarest, doing pratfalls that could cripple many a younger man). She is loved by 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken, in the full flower of his nebbishness), but feels a star-spangled obligation to entertain the soldiers from the local base before they shove off to foreign fields. One night Trudy goes to a wild round of farewell dances, drinks a little too much and get coshed on the head while executing an ill-advised dance move with her partner. She turns up the next morning, dazed and alone, but with a wedding ring mysteriously on her finger and a vague memory of having wedded a soldier the night before after someone said, "Let's all get married!" She thinks his name was Ratziwatzki. She also thinks she didn't give her right name for the marriage license. Things get even worse for poor Trudy when she turns out to be pregnant. Her younger sister (a superbly funny Diana Lynn) and, eventually, the lovestruck Norval try to help Trudy, but it takes the miracle of the title for things to work out.
The list of forbidden subjects in this film goes well beyond that summary. There's bigamy, in that Trudy at point tries to lure Norval into marrying her. There are thoughts of suicide, revealed in a wonderful, exceptionally long tracking shot, as Trudy unburdens herself: "Oh, Norval, it would be my dying wish that when they fish me out of the water, I would want you to know that my last thought would be of you." The befuddled Norval eventually responds, "Well, there's not much water in the creek this time of year, Trudy."
Other sanctities of American life get the uniquely tart Sturges treatment, too. The denizens of tiny Morgan's Creek are a bunch of sourpusses, not likely to turn up in the last reel for a round of "Auld Lang Syne." And the Siren loved this tender summary of the father-daughter relationship, from Demarest: "Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." Diana Lynn gets her digs in, too, as in the famous line, "If you don't mind my saying so, Father, I think you have a mind like a swamp." This a year after Since You Went Away opened with its epigraph: "The Story of the Unconquerable Fortress, the American Home, 1943."
The Siren doesn't believe in using "modern" as an accolade for an old movie--as in, "Why, it's so modern! it could have been made last month!" No, it could not, and when you find another Preston Sturges you may cable the Siren and reverse the charges.
That said, it is true some films date badly and others do not. One reason this movie still seems so fresh is the way it skewers pieties still with us. Sturges said his moral was aimed at "young girls...who confuse patriotism with promiscuity." That particular problem has lost its urgency, but anyone who has ever felt a twinge of seething rebellion over the endless admonishments to "support the troops!" will find a lot to appreciate here.
It's a fantastic movie, and Hutton is great in it.
Does this mean the Siren has to rent The Merry Widow?