“Christmas in July” (1940)

by A.J. Hakari

"Christmas in July" poster

 

If you’re a Preston Sturges fan who felt enlightened by the clever social commentary of Sullivan’s Travels, then it’d be best to pass on Christmas in July. In fact, this 1940 comedy much like the sort of movie that Joel McCrea’s character tired of making in that former feature, a frothy farce with nary a hint of meatiness in sight. Of course, Sullivan’s Travels taught us the good that can come of humor, and so it goes that Christmas in July is a harmless little thing that only aspires to make us smile. You can’t help but admire the flick’s liveliness, but with a premise as threadbare as the one it’s packing, even its 67-minute length comes off as way too prolonged from time to time.

Never before has coffee meant so much to so many people. Millions across the country are waiting by their radios, hoping to be named winner of the Maxford House java giant’s new slogan contest. Mild-mannered clerk Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is one of them, but to him, the $25 thousand grand prize is more than just a nice chunk of change. It’s a new couch for his mom, the start of a life for him and his sweetie (Ellen Drew), and the chance to prove his creative talents to the world. Unfortunately, some of Jimmy’s fellow officemates have taken note of his enthusiasm and worked up a fake telegram declaring him the contest’s victor. But before they get a chance to spill the beans, word of Jimmy’s success spreads like wildfire, sending the lad on a spending spree that won’t last long when the boys at Maxford House get wind of the deception.

Though Sturges has a reputation as a master of screwball cinema, Christmas in July is so airy and laid-back, I wouldn’t categorize it as zany in the least. Maybe he just saved his surplus of craziness for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek four years later, but there’s seriously not much to this thing. Sturges’ vibe is a very mellow one, to such a degree that any of the zippy jokes or awkward set pieces that you’d expect out of a situation as sticky as the one Jimmy lands in never emerge. Christmas in July doesn’t even concern itself that much with the characters pranking Jimmy to begin with, merely showing him getting the telegram and buying a bunch of stuff until the plot decides to let him in on the truth. Not to rag on Sturges, who expresses obvious empathy and affection for his creations, but there’s really no movie here. While he can fill the screen with all the good intentions that he can summon, they’re not enough to provide a backbone suitable enough to keep a narrative like this interesting.

I may not have the kindest words to say about its storytelling, but I admit that the entirety of Christmas in July‘s ensemble appears to be having a grand ol’ time. Powell supplies a sympathetic hero, a guy with noble aspirations who’s just gotten a few bad breaks in his time. It’s easy to root him on, especially when his charitable side kicks in after hearing of his “win,” a welcome surprise from the usual routine of the good guy making a selfish ass out of himself before reality humiliates him in the climax. Everyone else puts on a good show, especially Raymond Walburn (Broadway Melody of 1938) as the blustery head of Maxford House, though one can’t help but feel that too many got slighted with the minor roles they were given (even Drew). It would certainly seem that way, since Sturges pays so little mind to his own message, with his pleas to appreciate the little guys in all of our lives arriving too late and too heavy-handed to accept.

In all honesty, I began writing this in hopes of digging up some reason not to dislike Christmas in July, but I’ve got nothin’. Although it’s a jovial jaunt with some funny lines and an infectious optimism, these traces are disappointingly scant at best. Christmas in July neither provides the intellect with much to mull over or inspires the belly to conjure many laughs of the hearty kind.

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