Christmas in July
April 30, 2018
1 Hr., 7 Mins.
round minute 20 of the keyed-up corporate comedy Christmas in July (1940), the protagonist, the blue-collared Jimmy (Dick Powell), is so beside himself, he stands atop his desk while clockwatching at work. “Wow!” he repeatedly shrieks. Saliva shoots in every direction; his eyes are wide with disbelief.
Earlier, he’d entered a slogan contest hosted by the Maxford House Coffee Company. As advertised statewide, whoever comes up with the best new catchphrase for the corporation will receive a $25,000 cash
prize — and maybe some other benefits if you’re lucky in your life. Jimmy’s offering? “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”
His workplace elation smacks him in the face when he notices an envelope on his desk. When opened, he discovers that he has, against the odds, won the contest. He causes a commotion. But this sort of good fortune is so unheard of, even his employers can’t stop themselves from letting him have his moment.
There’s a twist, though: Jimmy’s been duped. Last night, when the contest’s organizers were trying to select their champ, an obstinate grump named Bildocker (Willam Demarest) fucked up the voting process and indefinitely delayed results. The envelope on Jimmy’s desk is not from Maxford but a couple insensitive colleagues who thought it would be funny to see their peer’s hopes rise and fall.
This backfires. Jimmy’s boss, thinking his employee could have business potential given his “recognition” by a major company, promotes him. In a day, he’s given an office, a secretary (his Ellen Drew-portrayed girlfriend, Betty), and a shiny new title: advertising executive, his manager declares. Shopping sprees, all backed by this bogus check, begin; things finally start seeming as though they’re picking up. We nervously anticipate the moment when Jimmy discovers the truth.
Yet the discovery doesn’t seem all that important in Christmas in July. Written and directed by the idiosyncratic comedy filmmaker Preston Sturges, the 67-minute film is more about renewal and the unexpected opportunity to reclaim one’s destiny than it is about long-winded, comical deception. Akin to Sturges’ best works, it is a rip-roaring, atypically funny lark in touch with middle-class struggles and the disappointments of the human experience. His movies can pause to have a laugh in the face of the most unthinkable of predicaments.
Christmas in July is minor in comparison to the string of the tremendously influential line of films he’d helm in the following years – from 1941 to 1944, doing wrong was next to an impossibility – but it nonetheless showcases his trenchant, vaguely absurdist comedic style, which came to be epitomized just a year later with The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels.
Slightly different about Christmas in July, though, is its dashes of melancholy. The misadventures are harebrained and scores of the characters are loony (the film’s paramount scene-stealer is the foul, gravel-voiced Dr. Maxford, who’s played by a terrific Raymond Walburn), but the sadness loiters, too. Without the stroke of luck which eventually befalls Jimmy and his girl, they’d both be confined to a lifetime of unrewarding, soul-sucking office work.
Thank god, then, that a Hollywood ending shows up just as the film’s wrapping up. The characters need it and, what do you know, so do we. Perhaps Christmas in July is an inessential chapter in Sturges’ brief-but-exceptional filmography — but then again, clinging onto anything a nonpariel comedy filmmaker like him has to offer is a must. B