Monday, December 23, 2019

Preston Sturges | The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

the trapped boy next door
by Douglas Messerli

Preston Sturges (writer and director) The Miracle of Morgan's Creek / 1944

If you were to believe Preston Sturges’ 1944 film (filmed a couple of years earlier before its release), nearly all the young soldiers heading off to World War II were sexually potent beings who in a kind of desperate attempt to link with the women they would have to leave behind, were ready to marry and fuck one grand last time, a kind of “love them and leave them” routine outlined in so very many movies of the period.
      That, at least, is what the small-town Morgan’s Creek girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) s
eems to discover. Attending a last night dance for the soldiers, Trudy ignores the warnings of her policeman father, played by the ever grouchy William Demarest, and with the unwilling help of her admiring 4-F small-town admirer, Norval Jones (the ever sad-eyed, nervous and stuttering innocent, Eddie Bracken), dismisses her father’s stern refusal to let her have her pleasures, which includes a dance and a follow up night-club after-hours event, with a final drunken vow for of all the young soldiers to suddenly marry the women who have joined them.
     Using false names and hiding behind their one-night girlfriend’s drunkenness, the soldiers marry the girls, with poor Trudy suddenly realizing she has spent the night in bed with a man whose name might have had a “z” in it: Razkywatzy of Zitzkywitsky. She doesn’t remember exactly, despite that she is now, she soon after discovers, pregnant with his child.
     Visiting a local lawyer, she attempts to have the marriage annulled, without success, and then attempts to woe her previously discarded lover, Norval, to save her name and help bring her child into a more normalized world.
      Sturges always played at the edges of traditional morality, and the Hays Committee, almost shot this film down because of its open flaunting of traditional morality, its young 14-year old’s (the precocious Dynna Lynn) quite cynical observations of her elders, and the film’s later flirtation with bigamy and numerous other crimes.
      Given her father’s bluster, Trudy’s new would-be husband, Norval, who finally convinces her of his long-time attempts to be close to her—including even taking a high school cooking class—
is arrested on 19 charges (all of which we know him to him to be innocent), including, soon after, an escape from jail.
      I remember as a young man watching this film with great dismay. How could such a decent person become so intensely punished for crimes he never committed—reminding me a little of the black eye awarded Jack Lemmon in The Apartment for having had a nonexistent affair with Shirley MacLaine. Both characters are even a little bit proud for their travails which slightly redeems their damaged manhood’s.

     But then the floozie-like Hutton was just not my type. Annie Get Your Gun, in which she later starred, with its absurd shooting sprees and distastefully racial song “I’m an Indian Too,” were not events I enjoyed, even as a child. If she was the most beautiful girl at the soldier’s ball, I didn’t want to be soldier. Like poor Norval, I was deemed by the Selective Service as a 4-F—in my case because of my sexuality, which saved me, I am sure, from dying in Viet Nam and allowed me to continue my relationship with my now-husband Howard.
      Underneath this film’s comic veneer—which allowed it to join The National Film Registry—there is a strong suggestion that, if Norval (dubbed by his atrocious name), is not exactly a “pansy,”—he goes to movies instead of the dances—is not truly worthy of the sexy Trudy’s love.
       This time round, I laughed more than I sneered, as the brassy Hutton began to realize that she was desperately in need of a local man—especially with the appearance of six healthy babies. A call to authorities suddenly frees (or perhaps I might argue, dooms the loving Norval), to an endlessly restricted life of a father.
        Even Sturges’ film-end quote, after Norval falls in a faint upon hearing the news:

But Norval recovered and
became increasingly happy
for, as Shakespeare said:
"Some are born great, some
achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon

suggests a passive rather than proactive role for this would-be Shakespearian hero. If he has saved the princess of his dreams, he has closed-off any future possibilities, while the soldiers have marched off to another kind of herodom, without any of the repercussions of the own sexual acts.  
     If there was ever an argument for the #METOO movement, Norval, as well as Trudy, might have claim to the impact which such blatantly sexist behavior has had upon their lives.
     I now, as an elderly man, realize what I didn’t like as a young kid about this movie. No one here seems to have any moral choice to behave as they might have. I love Sturges highly comic films, but not his moral possibilities—twins, even double-twins, might have been able to make their own sexual choices, a young unconquering hero, might have been allowed to outwardly speak the truth, an older director in search of those lost to the Depression should not be imprisoned for his search. Yes, order in Sturges’ movies is turned upside down, but simply laughing about those facts is not quite enough.
      Both figures of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek become entrapped into lives that they had not originally sought out, even if they now pretend to accept a world of complete social normality. And how, one might ask, will Norval, a lowly bank-teller pay for his six new children’s survival? The miracle at Morgan’s Creek, alas, is not miracle at all, despite the reporter’s call to the Governor, who can’t even quite perceive that this small town exists in his state.

Los Angeles, December 23, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).

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