Preston Sturges has a knack for comedic dialogue so absurd that it’s borderline Brechtian. Consider Barbara Stanwyck’s famous quip against the hapless Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE, “I need him like the ax needs the turkey!” – a line that at first you think makes perfect sense, before you realize how grotesquely weird it actually is. It’s in the double-take that Stanwyck’s character in all her quirky sadism comes vividly into focus. Or consider Rudy Vallee’s proud declaration in THE PALM BEACH STORY that “Tipping is un-American!” – which first makes you laugh out loud, and then has you scratching your head at the illogic. Does tipping reward hard work or is it communist? Or do I simply not know what “American” means? Rare is the filmmaker who can in three seemingly simple words deftly have viewers questioning their cultural and national values as they gasp for air from laughing too hard.
Tonight’s film, CHRISTMAS IN JULY, has Sturges’ most delirious head-scratcher: Dick Powell’s “winning” coffee slogan, a line so bizarre I daren’t give it away here. Its complete disregard for common sense (and its brilliant use of a double – possibly triple – negative) apparently can only be solved by the latest Viennese scholars and uncommon geniuses like Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald. Luckily for the rest of us, it’s repeated throughout the film until it, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation.”
The chaos that the line incites is hilarious, because for the audience, there’s so much pleasure to be had in simply watching as each subsequent character struggles to figure it out. Because surely the audience hasn’t a clue. We’re told there’s a pun in there, and maybe it’ll emerge if enough people give it a shot. And as in the best of Sturges, the double- (and triple-) take creates a feverish comic estrangement out of which the true meaning emerges. For this “tribal incantation” isn’t simply the murmur of MacDonald’s hopelessly confused friends and co-workers, it’s the rumbling of capitalism tearing at its seams. The hypnotic repetition of the line takes aim at tagline-crazy America and the myth of upward mobility. Sturges reminds us that if you stare at anything long enough, you realize just how crazy the world really is. Despite the requisite happy ending, which Sturges’ critics were always quick to point out, CHRISTMAS IN JULY contains what James Agee said are “some of the most intoxicating bits of nihilism the screen has known” and what Rosenbaum calls “comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so hard it hurts.” Ultimately, what interests Sturges isn’t just the laughs but the question of a man’s sense of self-worth when wrung through a society obsessed with financial success. The heart-wrenching closing conversation MacDonald has with his employer is as tragic as it is completely logical. And then all you can do is laugh.