Preston Sturges had written about Christmas before. Remember the Night, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (who he’d later direct in The Lady Eve) tells the story of an Assistant DA (MacMurray) deciding on a whim to bring home a lovely but troubled thief (Stanwyck) set to be jailed after Christmas, and can be considered a companion piece to Christmas in July for their shared celebration of compassion, generosity, and idealism. Sturges had issues with the film, however, unhappy with script changes made by director Mitchell Leissen. From then on, Sturges would not allow others to use his words. He’d direct two films later that year: The Great McGinty and, of course, Christmas in July. While thoroughly enjoyable, it does lack some of the filmic capabilities he’d acquire with more experience.
Sturges started out as an actor and playwright before moving on to writing screenplays. He adapted one his plays, “A Cup of Coffee”, to make Christmas in July, and nowhere are those theatrical roots more evident than in the wonderful repartee between co-stars Dick Powell and Ellen Drew as down-and-out couple Jimmy MacDonald and Betty Casey. The film opens with Jimmy and Betty sitting on the roof of their New York tenement, Jimmy expressing his hopes that a slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee will earn him a $25,000 prize. Betty seems doubtful, unable to fully comprehend Jimmy’s line, “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk”, based on the false belief that coffee actually makes one tired.
Being the butt of the joke at his job, a couple of mischievous coworkers send a fake telegram to Jimmy announcing he’s won Maxford’s contest. This immediately attracts the attention of Jimmy’s superiors, who then promote him to the marketing department based on the purported success of his slogan. Jimmy heads to the Maxford House Coffee building to collect his prize, and company founder Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), thoroughly exasperated with the slow process of choosing a winner, assumes his staff has finally made a decision and writes a check to Jimmy without any further thought. With all this money to his name and a higher salary coming, Jimmy goes on a shopping spree for himself, Betty, and everybody in his working-class neighborhood before the company realizes its mistake.
Although not as cinematic as its predecessor or follow-ups, Christmas in July contains timelessly funny dialogue, appropriately screwball performances, and perfectly executed slapstick. Only a smidge over an hour long, the film truly constitutes of the title of “hidden gem”, a heartfelt but never-serious farce, perfect for summer or Christmas and delightfully quaint. The standout performance comes from Ellen Drew, who gives an uncharacteristically deadpan and subtle performance for a romantic lead. The sweet but jaded way she’s written clearly foreshadows Stanwyck’s role in The Lady Eve, although Drew’s less glamorous, more girl-next-door relatability makes her uniquely endearing.
Sturges may be known for farce, but in its compressed running time, Christmas in July feels full-octane ridiculous, and all the better for it. | Nic Champion
Christmas in July is distributed on BluRay by Kino Lorber, and includes a commentary by film historian Samm Deighan.