Saturday, July 2, 2016
Christmas in July (1940)
Posted by Erin Snyder at 12:25 PM
Astonishingly, all of that is less convoluted than the movie's plot. That isn't a criticism (though I will have a few later on) - the movie's refusal to follow convention makes it more interesting than most comedies I've seen from the period. Apparently, Sturges is remembered as something of experimental filmmaker, testing his boundaries and playing with structure in his comedies, at least if I'm understanding the Wikipedia article I just skimmed. That certainly seems fair: Christmas in July definitely played with expectation, tone, and theme.
The story centers on Jimmy, a young man interested in advertising who has entered a contest to create a slogan for a coffee company. The contest carries a twenty-five thousand dollar prize, but the movie establishes slightly higher stakes: from the beginning, it's his sense of self-worth he's fighting for. We get a clear look at this in an early scene between him and his girlfriend, Betty, who might have a better claim to the role of hero than the main character himself.
The would-be advertiser actually works for a rival coffee company. A few coworkers, overhearing him calling to check on the status of the contest create a fake telegram congratulating him and telling him to come pick up the check. Before they can fess up to what they did, Jimmy's told the entire office. He's swept into a meeting by the president, who loves Jimmy's ideas and makes him a marketing executive.
Jimmy and Betty head over to the company running the contest. Mr. Maxford, the president of that corporation, thinks the selection committee simply failed to inform him they'd selected a winner, accepts the fake telegram as legitimate, and hands Jimmy a check. Jimmy heads to the nearest department store, buys his girlfriend an engagement ring, then proceeds to purchase gifts for every one of his neighbors.
He throws a "Christmas in July," showering his street with gifts and ice cream. Around this time, Maxford realizes the telegram was fake. He calls the owner of the department store, and there's a slapstick sequence in the New York neighborhood where each tries to have Jimmy arrested (though the department store owner turns on Maxford when he realizes the check was legitimate, and Jimmy was the victim).
Jimmy's far less devastated by the legalities than he is by the revelation his entry wasn't actually chosen. Along with his fiance, he heads back to the company where they work to tell his boss the truth. When he's about to be sent back to his old job, Betty steps in with a speech about how Jimmy's belief in himself was what empowered him and how he really needs a chance - indeed, how everyone does. His boss is moved and gives him the chance to prove himself.
Before the movie closes, the camera jumps across town (in a jarringly literal way) to the other company, where the selection committee announces they've finally chosen a winner, and... yeah, obviously.
All of this occurred in a brisk sixty-seven minutes, which left me astonished by the sudden appearance of the words, "The End." I'd honestly expected another thirty minutes, if not a full hour more. Again, this isn't a complaint - I was perfectly happy having this wrap up.
Even at an hour and change, there's a great deal to unpack here; some positive and some negative. Let's start with the good - Betty. Or, more accurately, Betty's role. As I said before, she was the movie's hero in a very literal sense. While Jimmy was the protagonist and main character, it's notable that he's in no way an agent. Every action or decision he makes is driven by the plot, not the other way around. His character is entirely a reactive element in the story. The coworker who sends the fake telegram, his manager, the president of his own company, Mr. Maxwell, and the contest committee all drive the plot, while Betty resolves it. Her speech (while not especially profound) is structurally what salvages Jimmy's dreams. How many movies made now to claim to offer the female lead that level of agency?
Of course, like anything made in this era, there's a great deal that doesn't age well. This movie definitely wasn't above trying to mine comedy out of stereotypes. Black actors are given the same docile servant roles they had in countless other films from the time. There were also some fairly unflattering Jewish stereotypes, though to be fair they were countered by some more rounded representation (at least slightly more rounded - the Jewish neighbors were still stereotypes, but at least they came off as human).
For better or worse, this was a very uncomfortable movie to sit through. To be fair, it was intentionally so: the premise is steeped in dramatic irony. It was a very ambitious, carefully considered project... but I'm not sure that makes it an especially good idea. Christmas in July was an experiment in building a story and script around a set of discordant tones and ideas. For me, at least, I don't think the experiment was a success.
Let's talk Christmas. The phrase "Christmas in July" appeared once, by my count. The gift-giving sequence was a pretty significant sequence, though it was relatively superficial to the story. Again, the money didn't matter - what mattered was the chance to prove oneself. The stage play this was based on was called "A Cup of Coffee," and accoring to Wikipedia several other names were considered before they settled on this one. Taken together, it makes the whole "Christmas in July" a gimmick, not a theme.
Overall, this certainly wasn't a bad movie. In terms of successfully realizing its goals, it's actually quite impressive, and the fact the movie chose to elevate its female lead and have her save the man is even more so. It's also worth noting a number of the jokes were funny.
But unless you enjoy comedy that toys with your expectation that something horrible is about to happen, I doubt you'll find this especially enjoyable as an experience.