Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Christmas in July’

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Well, the summer is functionally over, and just as months of wearing shorts and t-shirts and reading outside must come to an end, so too must my Preston Sturges kick; and what better way to see the summer off than to watch Sturges’s warmly regarded (and appropriately titled) Christmas in July (1940)? Incapable of thinking of anything better to do on this handsome afternoon (apart from devouring a waffle cone loaded with pistachio ice cream), I headed to Memorial Library to bid farewell, at least for now, to both 70+ degree temperatures and Sturges’s world of screwball calamity.

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Christmas in July, like The Great McGinty, manages to be both wonderfully topical and terribly impertinent, often seeming to arrive accidentally at a place where some really incisive critique of Americanism could be made. To its credit, Christmas in July establishes its target early and hits that target often: the capitalists are whimsical morons wielding inflated wallets and overfed bellies; modern happiness is predicated entirely on the state of one’s bank account; a lie is often just as significant (or as important) as a truth; it isn’t love if there isn’t an enormous diamond involved; and so on.

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But Christmas in July is just as tender as it is stern. When we first meet our protagonists, it seems as though Jimmy (Dick Powell) is going to be a turtleneck-wearing lump of hair-grease stoicism while his fiancée, Betty (Ellen Drew), is going to be all chase and no bait. However, the funny thing about first impressions is that they’re always dead-on except when they’re dead-wrong: a $25,000 check reveals Jimmy to be a likable softy and Betty to be a girl who doesn’t wear a mink coat or a gaudy wedding ring but who certainly wouldn’t turn down either if offered to her. Christmas in July, more so than any other film with which Xmas is even indirectly related, captures the whole capitalist potlatch phenomenon with irresistible correctness and incidental precision. The film feels a bit like a thematic pinata: if the truth should come spilling out of it, great, but if not, oh well, at least the acting is funny.

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One has to give it up to Sturges for taking the compositional principle of clutter to new heights through his never-bare approach to mise-en-scène. Many Sturges comedies seem like attempts to fit as much crap in the frame as that sucker can hold before bursting apart and falling into the occlusive expanses of offscreen space. How many faces can one fit on the screen without compromising the clarity of appearance of a single one of them? How many wrapped gifts can one fit into the backseat of a taxi without overwhelming the dialogue going on between the lounging lovers in said backseat? Watch Christmas in July and you’ll feel as though you’ve discovered the answers to these superfluous questions.

Christmas in July can be found at the Memorial Library Media Center right now. Come for the innovative long takes, the graceful yet modest tracking shots and the narrative’s overall controlled mayhem; stay for the genuine warmth and the subtle critique.

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