Christmas in July (1940)

christmas in july review

Christmas in July (1940) Directed by Preston Sturges

Watching or reading a story where you can’t tell whether your weepy feelings excited by the drama come from the effusive laughter or the sadness of a tragedy is one of the most sophisticated qualities a comedy opus can have. The sentimentalist myths of the genius of cinema, Charlie Chaplin, are praised by cinephiles for their capacity to annul the segmentation between the ecstasy of humor and the realism of tragedy; Chaplin’s cinematographic language synthesizes both facets in an indiscernible expression of sentiments that in the hands of someone not adept at these tragicomic circumstances would be an anomaly. That mawkish, cheesy but searing and touching articulation of establishing an elegant and indivisible harmony between the sorrowful emotions with those of happiness, is something that the intelligent screenwriter and film director, Preston Sturges, has been developing with enviable refinement throughout his career. After his sharp and quite authentic screenplays that Sturges wrote for many productions in the 30’s, in 1940 came his film debut, The Great McGinty, a film in which for the first time we could see his literary magic translated into the art of celluloid under his own hands.

He directed and wrote The Great McGinty, thus elucidating to Hollywood that his modern and peculiar way of making comedies was stylistically unprecedented. So it was then, an undeniable fact that his next film, released in the same year as The Great McGinty, would be something singularly Sturgesian. Christmas in July is the little gem that sits in the middle of the other, more brilliant gems of his filmography, perhaps the fact that it is the smallest and subtlest makes it the most overlooked, but that is not to say that it does not shine with the evocative idealism of his other films.

The humanistic energy that emanates from Christmas in July contains the best of Preston Sturges as a screenwriter, and also encompasses the specific idealism that permeates all of his work. The specificity of this filmmaker’s romantic dramaturgy is found in that affable language I mentioned at the beginning of this paper. Figuratively, the beautifully poignant story of Christmas in July displays that singular quality, so complex and perfect, of connecting dichotomous feelings. The story is based on Sturges’ own 1931 play, A Cup of Coffee, and carries in its biting social critique an exceptional minimalism to concentrate an emotional psychology that lends considerable substance to the satirical silliness.

The charming and dreamy Jimmy MacDonald, played with consistent honesty by a fantastic Dick Powell, lives too distracted, alienated from his reality, because he is intensely focused on waiting for the result of a coffee slogan contest, which will give the winner of the best slogan the plentiful prize of 25 thousand dollars. The deluded Jimmy is absolutely convinced that his slogan is the best and therefore believes that it is very likely to win. However his sweet but realistic wife, played by Ellen Drew, is not so persuaded of the brilliance of Jimmy’s, apparently creative, slogan for a coffee company; the ludicrous slogan goes like this, “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” Ridiculously confusing and puerile, yet Jimmy’s certainty and optimistic attitude is enough for his sympathetic wife to support him.

Both are an average American working class couple, living in the greyness of the Great Depression, and since dreaming doesn’t cost anything, the two of them, on a warm night, get their hopes up thinking about the prosperity that winning that sum of money from the contest would bring them. The next morning, on another humdrum workday, Jimmy’s co-workers play an “innocuous” prank on him; they send him a phony letter from that contest telling him that he has won the grand prize. Unfortunately, the prank goes from being harmless to something extremely unpleasant, because not only Jimmy believes it, but his life quickly takes a 360-degree turn, just because he is now at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy, his boss promotes him and gives him his own new office in the most creative and best paid department. Everything happens so rapidly that the inconsequential pranksters don’t even have time to tell the truth to the ebullient Jimmy.

From here, the film embarks to break our hearts in a hyperbolic synchronicity of comedy and drama, where we see the gullible Jimmy spending money he doesn’t have. Sturges, like any great filmmaker who ventures into the manifestation of social messages, has his ethical principles well grounded; the film evolves with formidable emotionalism because its director conducts his own story knowing very well where he wants to take it, and what he wants to expose in his statements with socio-political nuances. Christmas in July declares an acerbic attack on the dangers of consumerism, and elaborately delivers an anti-capitalist expression that reverberates in the poetic passages of the bleak tragic atmosphere and is sustained in its mockery of American plutocracy. Essentially, all of these conditions in Preston Sturges’ writing prevail thanks to the raw honesty that the situational has in his stories. Although there is something important to emphasize even more than that artfulness in communicating powerful messages, the peculiar personality that Sturges’ writing embraces is that of pure cartoonish anarchy.

This film in particular is a prime example of that quirkiness. The characters and their exaggerated reactions, implausible nature, and the rhythmic swiftness of the narrative, specify that we are inside a plastic world, tangible yet artificial, convincing but we are conscious of its comic and goofy rhetoric, yet the context of this over-the-top and dynamic theatricality, is that of a stark reality. Christmas in July portrays the economic crisis of the 30’s with a voracious authenticity and histrionic rhythm, it is a wacky film, there is no doubt about that, but it is a madness that allegorizes a social reality, not in the superficial absurdity obviously, but in the profound economic and social issues.

But of all the praise-worthy aspects it has, there is one that has perennially stayed with me, and that is the facility this film has in fleshing out a kind of tragedy in a predominantly comedic storytelling. Exemplifying that distinctive feature is very easy, it’s literally everywhere, visually too, though I think there can be no better description than simply observing attentively the human values that the main character holds. Dick Powell superbly conveys with unbeatable precision, the goodness of the character he plays, with a limpid generosity that resonates deep in my heart. Jimmy is the paragon of the flawed but magnanimous, altruistic and warm-hearted human being, he is the figure we all as people should dream of being someday.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Jimmy in a common and not well paid job, he lives in a lower class neighborhood and has ambitions like any idealistic young man; however society has conditioned him to reduce his dignity to that of money, as well as his desire to be happy to material things. But curiously, and this is a difficult detail to perceive but it is there at a microscopic level, Jimmy is a guy that we like not because of his determination to achieve happiness through consumerism, we like him from the beginning because he is very much like us. We never judge him for being of low socioeconomic conditions, nevertheless, as a counterpoint we have the bald, greedy, loquacious and boisterous capitalist characters in the story who do judge him based on his socioeconomic power, when they become cognizant that he has earned a copious amount of money, automatically, the conception they had of him changes radically. Now they respect him, and even make him feel part of their own group.

Jimmy goes from being socially inconspicuous to being socially recognizable in the eyes of the powerful. And yet, Jimmy never stops being Jimmy; usually people change when the influences of their extravagant lives have an impact on their personality, but Jimmy remains just as simple, he gives the same treatment to anyone else. Sturges has a somewhat utopian view of this character, as he gives him a genetics slightly antithetical to what we know in the real world, however I think Jimmy is a testament to human kindness, or a sample of what the prototype of philanthropy should look like. When Jimmy thinks he has won the prize, the first thing he does is to buy gifts for his whole neighborhood, not for two people or three, for everyone; to his wife he buys clothes and a fancy ring, to his mother he buys her the couch she wanted so much, etc. And at the end of it all, we realize that at no time did he spend a single dollar to buy something for himself. This is the precise moment where we get in touch with the emotional but bittersweet thesis of Christmas in July. Final sequences that hurt like lacerating cuts to our soul, because we know very well that this man of good faith is spending money he does not have and that he is clearly in an irrepressible illicit act that in our eyes his graceful human warmth is a benign and innocent act, which ultimately confirms that technically he did not win any contest, but that he deserved those 25 thousand dollars for his stupendous, extraordinary humanitarian work.

Few films can convey with such forcefulness, in only 67 minutes, a bittersweet poetry that can tell us so many things about our society as well as about our defects as a species; although Sturges’ lyric leaves a vast space for the intrinsic qualities of the human being. It is a denunciation of a bureaucratic system that dehumanizes us, that makes us rigid automatons, submissive to the structures of power that enslave us with materialistic propaganda, but the vivid contrast that Christmas in July evokes is not that of a critically angry discourse, it is sharp yes, but hopes are found even though its tonalities always depress us, it is strikingly hilarious but sad, it is hysterical yet sincere, and so close to the human experience that it transcends its comedic confines.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.