Beyond the classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old films and examines what makes them memorable. In this episode, she highlights the great aspects of Christmas in July.
Preston Disturb wrote and directed some of the best studio-era comedies in Hollywood, but the one he had dreamed of for many years is often overlooked. Before creating classics like The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, Paramount funded his passion project, which became his second directorial work. Christmas in July. Regardless of what the title suggests, the 1940 comedy isn’t exactly a vacation movie, but it’s a ridiculously heartwarming story that feels right at home during the vacation season.
Early in his career, Sturges worked on an original play called A Cup of Coffee. He revised and kept writing the play while working on other people’s films in Hollywood to make money. As part of his brief studio contracts at multiple studios, Sturges often had to help with scripts without getting screen credit or having much influence over the types of stories he had to tell. That seemed to change when Universal hired him to direct a film version of A Cup of Coffee in 1934. However, the project was discontinued before production began. However, Sturges did not give up the script he loved and offered the film to Paramount for $ 6,000 in 1940 while he could direct. After almost a decade, it would finally become a reality.
A Cup of Coffee went through a series of title changes before ending for Christmas in July, but the story stayed the same. Jimmy Macdonald (Dick Powell) dreams of quitting his office job and making enough money to support his mother and girlfriend (Ellen Drew). He enters all sorts of competitions hoping to win big, but he’s still out of luck. That changes when some of his employees send him a fake telegram stating that he has won the slogan competition he took part in for Maxford House Coffee. He is overjoyed and this office prank turns into a monumental chain of disasters. Jimmy finds out what it feels like to have money after years of struggle and is finally able to care for the people he loves. It is only a matter of time before reality catches up with him and everything he has accomplished can be brushed right out of his hands.
Dick Powell wasn’t the first choice for the role of Jimmy, a role far more confident than the Depression-era characters the actor remembers. Sturges focused on William Holden first. Powell had made a name for himself in the early 1930s thanks to the hugely successful genre of music, namely 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers. His Happy-Go-Lucky personality was a perfect complement to the escapist musicals made at the time. These films certainly dealt with poverty and the Great Depression, but audiences were used to seeing Powell sing through his struggles. They also rarely saw Powell’s characters on-screen contemplate their poverty, as the films didn’t want audiences to do the same.
For Christmas in July Powell has no musical numbers to lean on, and Jimmy is far more self-reflective than other Powell characters. Jimmy longs to lift his family out of poverty but recognizes the improbability of the event. On the roof of his house, Jimmy confides in his girlfriend Betty early on in the film. He depends on these competitions even though he never won one, but life hasn’t given him any other option. He is a hard working man from a family that has struggled with money all his life.
The film never explicitly mentions depression, but it does emphasize everything that the characters go through in the film. Jimmy’s entire neighborhood is full of good, hard working people who feel the same kind of hopelessness. This is one of the rare studio-era films that features people stuck in poverty because of something greater than themselves. Sturges originally wrote the piece in 1931 when the Depression was in full swing. Competitions like Maxford House’s were rife during this period because they gave people an illusion of hope. Stupid luck seems like the most realistic thing to hold on to for Jimmy.
For a comedy, the film shows up early with the scene on the roof. Jimmy is hopeless and ready to refuse a happy marriage to Betty if he doesn’t have the money to properly provide for her. Powell really nails this serious and dark scene in a way the audience hadn’t seen him do. It feels extremely fitting that the man who starred in the films that distracted Americans from their poverty finally saw it on screen after the country pulled out of the Depression. Powell’s serious performance suited him well and was only the beginning of a new phase in his career in which he leaned towards darker plots and tougher characters. This was followed by his transition to film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, including films like Pitfall and The Bad and the Beautiful.
Sturges knew how to balance the vulnerable and serious scenes with the comedy needed to entertain the audience. The moments when characters realize their desires and how the class structure has made these dreams impossible are always followed by funny scenes. Christmas in July never gets serious for too long, which makes these moments even more powerful.
With the film, Sturges skillfully fools the rich. None of the men in power at Maxford House have any idea what is actually going on in their own company. The owner, Dr. Maxford, believes the competition jury has selected Jimmy as the winner, and issues him a check for the $ 25,000 prize pool without much question. Jimmy is even offered a promotion thanks to his competition win. His boss is impressed with his slogan for the coffee company: “If you can’t sleep, it’s not the coffee. It’s the bunk. ” Jimmy then buys almost every gift available in a department store for his entire block, while the owner completely trusts him because he has the vibe of a successful man. All Jimmy really needed to be successful was to say he was a winner and he can fool anyone he is.
There’s a sincerity about Christmas in July that’s hard to do with screwball comedy, but Sturges manages it wonderfully. He has a way of exploring the intersection between money and love, but this film is rarely considered one of his best work. It has everything audiences love in Sturges’ other films, like The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels. It’s ridiculous, funny, down to earth, and full of fast-paced comedies. Christmas in July has also been nominated for lists like the AFI Top 100 Funniest American Movies list (with four Sturges films), but it’s never cut.
It’s a story Sturges nurtured for nearly a decade, but maybe it came a little early in his directing career to be considered a classic. That film was also a turning point in Dick Powell’s career, which only those films recognize that came after Christmas in July. This Sturges movie offers the kind of real world meditation and overt hope that works best during the vacation. However, Sturges proves that Christmas miracles can happen anytime, even in the middle of hot July.