American films of the 1940s were far different from their predecessors of the 1920s and 1930s. Brash upstart comics from radio and vaudeville who found their forte in rat-a-tat verbal routines replaced the creative gag situations of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. Writer-director Preston Sturges is one of the noted filmmakers who employed this style effectively. His films relied upon a quick, snappy rhythm, with fast-talking characters. While ’40s-era American comedians like Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello used conventional plots about army life and haunted houses, Sturges explored the underbelly of small-town America and attempted to reveal its secrets. Wartime patriotism, pregnancy and corrupt politics were among the areas his films explored.
In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, a small-town girl, Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), attends a party – against the wishes of her father (William Demarest) – held to entertain soldiers on leave. After a night of dancing and carousing, she remembers little, but later discovers she is pregnant. Her adoring childhood friend, Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), agrees to marry her. Her wisecracking teen sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), is her only other ally.
It has always been considered amazing that Sturges was able to produce a mainstream studio movie in Hollywood about “pre-marital” pregnancy during a period when a tight Production Code was being heavily enforced. But it was not so easy for Sturges. The Breen Office, upholders of the Production Code, scrutinised his screenplay and a seven-page document of suggested revisions was submitted to Paramount Pictures. Sturges was left with only ten approved script pages.
Sturges forged ahead and completed the film in late 1942. It was withheld from release for a year due to a glut of Paramount product. Some of the studio’s 1942 films were even released by United Artists, including René Clair’s I Married a Witch (which was produced by Sturges).
When Paramount released The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in January 1944, it resulted in several letters to the Breen Office regarding its subject matter, but also a very strong critical and popular reception. Later sources, including Sturges’ own autobiography, recall many theaters reporting standing-room-only attendances at some showings. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the film “audacious” (1) and wondered how Sturges got the subject matter past the censors, while James Agee opined in The Nation, “The Hays office must have been raped in its sleep”, also calling the film “more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent, and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years” (2).
The initial response to the film, then, was focused on Sturges’ defiance of censorship restrictions, and how he cleverly created a film that managed to present its risqué subject matter while still skirting around the Breen/Hays watchdogs. Alongside a central character who confuses sex with his patriotic duty, Sturges also gives a nod to the birth of Christ by scheduling the delivery of Trudy’s baby on Christmas morning. To this he adds Emmy, a wily 14-year-old whose dialogue intimates more than she should know about such things, and a stammering boyfriend interested in helping with the cover-up: “Maybe we can say we had a flat tire. It’s old, but it’s reliable.”
The film’s chaotic method of presentation is also fascinating. The characters are rarely subdued, and are often shrill. Everyone emphasises their point by yelling and screaming, often bulging their eyes and flailing their arms as blatantly as the early Keystone comedians. In more than one instance, the father reacts to his sarcastic teen daughter’s wisecracks by preparing to kick her in the backside, each time slipping and falling hard on his own. There is also a scene where the girls subdue their irate father to the ground with a wrestling hold and restrain him until Norval gets away (with the father hollering throughout). Even a simple cutaway to Trudy getting ready for the party shows her fixing her dress with loud jazz blaring from the phonograph, her feet pounding the floor to the rhythm (“Tell her the house ain’t paid for”, the father says to Emmy as they wait downstairs). A character will begin speaking immediately after another has finished his or her dialogue. Often they’ll talk over each other.
Unlike the carefully crafted slapstick of Keaton or Lloyd, the pratfalls in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek stem from its chaotic structure. However, this hectic nature and form somehow works effectively. These small-town characters are not the folksy types found in MGM’s family-oriented Andy Hardy series of the same era. They are not specifically of this world. These people are convulsive and flappable. Their shrillness is in perfect sympathy with the tense situations, and the film is peppered with crisp dialogue to keep this from being distracting or off-putting, even to modern day viewers.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a massive success on its initial release, and became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1944. Sturges’ script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the 1945 Academy Awards. The National Board of Review nominated it for Best Picture of 1944, while Betty Hutton was named Best Actress. The New York Times included it as one of the 10 Best Films of 1942-1944. The film’s legacy continues in the 21st century. It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation on the United States National Film Registry in 2001.
In 1958, Frank Tashlin reworked Sturges’ film as Rock-a-Bye-Baby, a Paramount release featuring Jerry Lewis. Lewis told this writer, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a Paramount property, and thus easy for us to do. Tashlin revamped it for me. When I asked him about taking the idea from a famous comedy, he said, ‘Well, at least we stole from the best’.” Although he did not actively work on the production, Sturges received screen credit for his original story.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944 USA 99 mins)
Prod Co: Paramount Prod, Dir, Scr: Preston Sturges Phot: John F. Seitz Ed: Stuart Gilmore Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Ernest Fegté Mus: Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken
Cast: Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Diana Lynn, Porter Hall, Emory Parnell, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff