Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the great aspects of Christmas in July.
Preston Sturges wrote and directed some of the very best comedies of Hollywood’s studio era, but the one he spent many years dreaming about making often goes overlooked. Before he created such classics as The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, Paramount funded his passion project that became his sophomore directorial effort, Christmas in July. Despite what its title implies, the 1940 comedy is not necessarily a holiday film, but it is the kind of ridiculously heart-warming story that feels at home within the holiday season.
Early in Sturges’ career, he worked on an original stage play called A Cup of Coffee. He continued to revise and rewrite the play while he worked on other people’s films in Hollywood to make money. Under his short studio contracts at multiple studios, Sturges often had to help with scripts without receiving screen credit or having much say in the kinds of stories he got to tell. That seemed to change when Universal hired him to direct a screen version of A Cup of Coffee in 1934. However, the project fizzled out before production even began. Sturges wouldn’t give up on the script he loved, though, and offered the film to Paramount for $6,000 in 1940, as long as he could direct. After almost a decade, it would finally be made a reality.
A Cup of Coffee went through a number of title changes before it ended up at Christmas in July, but the story remained the same. Jimmy Macdonald (Dick Powell) dreams of leaving his office job and making enough money to support his mother and his girlfriend (Ellen Drew). He enters all kinds of contests in hopes of winning big, but he has yet to get lucky. That all changes when a couple of his coworkers send him a fake telegram stating he won the slogan contest that he entered for Maxford House Coffee. He’s overjoyed, and this office prank turns into a monumental chain of disasters. Jimmy finds out what it feels like to have money after years of struggling and he can finally provide for the people he loves. It’s only a matter of time until reality catches up with him and everything he’s accomplished could be swiped right from his hands.
Dick Powell was not the first choice for the role of Jimmy, a role much more self-aware than the Depression-era characters the actor is remembered for. Sturges had his eyes on William Holden at first. Powell had earned his stardom thanks to the wildly successful musical genre during the early 1930s, namely in 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and the Gold Diggers movies. His happy-go-lucky personality was a perfect addition to the escapist musicals made at the time. These movies certainly addressed poverty and the Great Depression, but audiences were used to seeing Powell sing through his struggles. They also rarely saw Powell’s characters contemplate their poverty on screen since the movies didn’t want audiences to do the same.
In Christmas in July, Powell has no musical numbers to lean on, and Jimmy is much more self-reflective than other Powell characters. Jimmy yearns to pull his family out of poverty but recognizes the unlikelihood of that happening. On the roof of his apartment building, Jimmy confides in his girlfriend Betty early on in the film. He is reliant on these contests, despite never winning one, but life hasn’t given him any other option. He’s a guy who works hard and comes from a family that has struggled with money his entire life.
The movie never mentions the Depression explicitly, but it underscores everything that the characters go through in the movie. Jimmy’s entire neighborhood is full of good, hard-working people who feel the same kind of hopelessness. This is one of the rare movies during the studio era that shows people stuck in poverty because of something larger than themselves. Sturges initially wrote the play in 1931, just when the Depression was in full swing. Contests like Maxford House’s were rampant during this time because it gave people an illusion of hope. Dumb luck seems like the most realistic thing to cling to for Jimmy.
For a comedy, the movie dips low early on with the scene on the roof. Jimmy is hopeless and is willing to deny himself a happy marriage with Betty if he doesn’t have the money to properly provide for her. Powell really nails this serious and somber scene in ways audiences hadn’t seen from him, though. It feels extremely fitting that after the country was pulling itself out of the Depression, the man who starred in the movies that distracted Americans from their poverty was finally recognizing it on screen. The serious performance from Powell fit him well and was just the beginning of a new stage in his career where he’d lean towards darker plots and tougher characters. It was followed by his transition to film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, which including movies like Pitfall and The Bad and the Beautiful.
Sturges knew how to balance the vulnerable and serious scenes with the comedy needed to entertain audiences. The moments where characters recognize their desires and how the class structure has made those dreams impossible are always followed by hilarious scenes. Christmas in July never gets serious for too long, which makes those moments even more powerful.
With the film, Sturges expertly makes a fool out of the rich. None of the men in power at Maxford House have any clue what is actually going on in their own company. The owner, Dr. Maxford, assumes that the contest jury has chosen Jimmy as the winner and writes him a check for the prize money of $25,000 without much question. Jimmy is even offered a promotion thanks to his contest win. His boss is transfixed by his slogan for the coffee company, “If you can’t sleep, it’s not the coffee. It’s the bunk.” Jimmy then buys nearly every gift available in a department store for his entire block, while the owner completely trusts him because he has the air of a successful man. All Jimmy really needed to succeed was to say he was a winner and he can fool anyone into thinking he is one.
There’s a sincerity to Christmas in July that is hard to do with screwball comedy, but Sturges pulls it off beautifully. He has a way of examining the intersection between money and love, but this movie is rarely thought of among his best work. It has everything that audiences love in Sturges’ other films, like The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels. It’s farcical, witty, down to earth, and full of fast-paced comedy. Christmas in July has also been nominated for lists like the AFI Top 100 Funniest American Movies list (which features four Sturges films), but it never makes the cut.
It’s a story that Sturges nursed for nearly a decade, but perhaps it came a little too soon in his directorial career to be considered a classic. This movie was also a turning point for Dick Powell’s career, which people recognize only the films that came after Christmas in July. This Sturges film holds the kind of meditation on the real world alongside unabashed hope that works best around the holidays. However, Sturges proves that Christmas miracles can happen any time, even in the middle of sweltering July.