Film critic James Agee wrote after seeing Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) that “the Hays office must have been raped in its sleep.” Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a post-code film that feels as much like a pre-code film as this screwball comedy, recently re-issued by the Warner Archive Collection. The one of the film’s protagonists is a drunk woman whose promiscuous habits lead her to marry a soldier (whose name she doesn’t remember) and to become pregnant…really pregnant…super pregnant.
The film begins when Trudy (Betty Hutton) is asked by a troop of soldiers to accompany them to a farewell dance. Her father (William Demarest), the town police officer, refuses to let her leave because he fears what might happen (and rightfully so). So, in order to get past her father, Trudy agrees to go on a date with the square bank teller Norval (Eddie Bracken), who has been deemed unfit for military service. She pressures Norval, whose love for Trudy makes him a quick pushover, into letting her go to the dance. She parties the night away, drinking “Victory Lemonade” until she blacks out. When she returns to Norval and her father the following day, she discovers a wedding band on her finger and a bun in the oven not long after.
In order to try to set her life right, she asks Norval to help her by posing as her unknown husband so she can get another marriage license. Hilarity of the clerical varietal ensues and things quickly go from bad to worse for Trudy and Norval. While the film follows the rules of the Hays Code, it bucks the spirit of the code at every corner. Trudy may not have been drinking liquor, but the implication is that something else was in that punch. Moreover, the town police officer is often lampooned and his authority is continuously undermined. There are few filmmakers aside from Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges who could have turned the the code’s lemons into lemonade and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a prime example of that (it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay).
Yet, if there’s one small strike against Miracle it’s that its screwball mania can become exhausting. It’s odd to complain that a movie can be too funny, but Miracle had me laughing myself into a coma by the time I reached the end of its 90 minute run time. I appreciate screwball comedy but the genre can also feel like I’m watching Looney Tunes for a feature length. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the amped up quality of screwball can become a bit shrill after a while. Still, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a prime example of the genre and Golden Age Hollywood comedy…even if it lacks the warm heart at the center of Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
Unlike most Warner Archive Collection releases, their re-release of this older Paramount title has a couple special features in its corner: a featurette on the Hays Code and how Sturges got around them (basically, he sent in a couple of pages at a time) and a short documentary on Sturges (Bracken and author James Ursini are amongst those interviewed). The AV transfer isn’t bad for an old catalog title, even it lacks the sharp and snappy restorations of more esteemed films from the period. That said, this gets my highest marks for a Warner Archive manufactured on demand title (although the hold over cover art is a bit garish). The small but appealing selection of extras coupled with this gem make it a must purchase.
This film competes with Sullivan’s Travels as my favorite Preston Sturges film, and the writing and performances are absolutely brilliant. Given that Sturges was, at least for a little while, the top writer-director in Hollywood, and his output during that time was nothing short of amazing, it’s a shame that he doesn’t get much recognition from casual movie fans today. He deserves to be remembered as one of “the greats” and if modern audiences watched The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, even though it’s about 70 years old, they would find that the comedy holds up remarkably well. Thanks for giving this film the credit it’s due!
If you live in Northern California you hould check out the Stanford Theatre where December is a festival of double bills made of one Preston Sturges and one Marx Brothers. MIRACLE play with DUCK SOUP Dec. 12-15. There will be a lot of exhausted folks from the laughter.