The Philadelphia Story (1940)

George Cukor | 1hr 52min

It is nothing short of remarkable that George Cukor managed to unite Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in one film and capture such fine performances from each, though the brilliant comedy of The Philadelphia Story goes beyond its raw star power. Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is marvellously constructed in its romantic entanglements and sophisticated wit, as over the course of 24 hours preceding the wedding of one wealthy socialite, Tracy Lord, he entwines and then unravels a knotted web of fiancés, divorcees, crushes, and affairs. The end of her previous marriage to magazine reporter C.K. Dexter Haven is captured in a brief, wordless prologue, with each step, push, and snap of a golf club playfully punctuated by Franz Waxman’s jaunty score. The terms they depart on are far from amiable, and it isn’t until thirty minutes later that we see them reunited once more with Grant’s delightfully dry greeting.

“Hello friends and enemies.”

Dexter’s intentions seem shady at first, as he is bringing his colleagues Mike and Liz undercover for a report on Tracy’s wedding to posh aristocrat George Kittredge, though soon enough he reveals his true motive of distracting his boss from the bigger story regarding her philandering father. Meanwhile, Mike’s opinion of her as a “rich, rapacious American female” softens upon their meeting, and soon another romance begins to blossom between the two as he begins to see her instead as a “radiant, glorious queen,” obliviously disregarding Liz’s own feelings for him.

Delicate beauty in this romance between Tracy and Mike, eventually turning into a hilarious drunken fling.

All across the male ensemble, Tracy comes across similarly narrow views that reject her humanity in favour of simplified stereotypes which, however loathsome or adoring, do bear at least some semblance of truth. To her father, she lacks an “understanding heart” and behaves like a spoilt goddess, casting judgement upon those she deems beneath her. To George, the “beautiful purity” of her demeanour is exactly what attracts him, worshipping her like a statue to be placed on a pedestal. As for Dexter, it is that perfectionistic intolerance which drove him to drink during their marriage, resulting in their divorce.

“You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”

Of course though, she isn’t a goddess, and after a series of upsetting conversations revealing the way these men view her, she downs three cocktails, setting in motion a drunken night that pulls back the curtain on her imperfections and insecurities. Still, this doesn’t stop an equally inebriated Mike from falling even deeper into his infatuation, and Cukor relishes every comedic beat from Stewart as he slurs and hiccups his way through a confession of love for Tracy to a weary Grant. Cukor’s elegant camerawork serves the humour here well as it navigates interactions between characters with a nimble lightness, often moving away from those dominating our attention to amusingly reveal others eavesdropping from just outside the frame.

A meeting of two great actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart, both at the top of their comedic game.
Wonderful camera movements shifting our focus to eavesdroppers, emphasising the web of fantastic characters and their dynamics.

Visually though, Cukor is clearly much better suited to large-scale musicals with bold production designs like A Star is Born, and while we can see traces of that style seep through the handsome décor of the wedding reception’s white tablecloths and candles towards the end, The Philadelphia Story rests its creative strengths on its sharply pointed screenplay. Given his profession as a writer, it isn’t surprising that Dexter seemingly has no limit to the number of barbs he throws Tracy’s way, and Grant’s deliveries never fail to land with pure, cutting ferocity.

“I thought all writers used to drink and beat their wives. You know, I always used to think I wanted to be a writer.”

Handsomely mounted production design in these last few scenes as the dynamic between Dexter and Tracy softens into a sweet romance.

Then there is the passing of specific phrases between characters, each one serving to strengthen their bonds and development. When Tracy chides Mike at one point for his apparent prejudice, she finds herself using the same words that Dexter used against her earlier, and stops herself mid-sentence in recognition of their shared perspective. Most notably of all though, the two ex-lovers frequently recall the nautical term “yar” from their past sailing on boats, defining it as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.” In effect, it embodies the flexibility, kindness, and patience one shows towards their partner in a relationship, and the metaphor grows even more apparent each time it arises, leading to the final declaration of love between the two divorcees-turned-fiancés.

“Oh, Dexter, I’ll be yar now. I’ll promise to be yar now.”

“Be whatever you like. You’re my redhead.”

Of the three potential lovers Tracy has been caught between over the previous night, it is clear she has made the right choice. Where someone like George cannot stand to see her fall from the pedestal he has placed her on, and Mike remains obstinately blind to her flaws, Dexter is the only man who fully understands and accepts her as she is, yar or no yar.

A wedding with no groom saved in the last minute by the ex-husband, tying up loose ends with a sweeping romantic gesture.

With a wedding ready to go and the groom no longer around, the setting is perfect for Dexter to step into his shoes, inviting the impromptu bridal party of Mike and Liz to escort them down the aisle. And of course, the tabloid photographer is right there waiting for them at the altar, giving Cukor his perfect ending with a freeze frame of their shocked faces looking straight at the camera. With such insurmountable charm and refined form as this, Cukor’s relative lack of visual style is easy enough to forgive, as The Philadelphia Story’s lightly pointed comedy cleverly picks apart the complex dynamics of troubled romances and the humility that can turn them into flourishing relationships.

A perfect, charming union of each main star in the final wedding scene.

The Philadelphia Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

At a certain point in Rebecca, those unfamiliar with the novel might pause and realise that the young, blonde woman we have been following does not have a name. Initially “Madame” appears to be the most common moniker given to her, like a blank slate of vague respectability, and it is only by the time she marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter that she is finally given a proper title – Mrs. de Winter, the second to take the name after his deceased wife, Rebecca. Stepping into her shoes as the first lady of the majestic Manderley manor leads to some initial confusion and disdain among the staff, and while she eventually starts taking more active ownership of the identity, the ghost of its previous owner still lingers. Even when not directly mentioned, Rebecca’s deathly shadow hangs thick over the manor, implicitly present within the very first line of Mrs. de Winter’s opening voiceover.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

As she recounts her sleeping vision, we approach the wrought iron gates at the edge of the estate, float through its bars, and navigate our way down its winding road in a single, long take. There, at the end of it, the burnt husk of Manderley imposes itself upon the lawns and silhouetted trees with a dark, Gothic beauty, bathing in the misty moonlight. Drawing the first-person narration directly from the prose of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, the writing has a romantic, lyrical quality to it, but this alone would not guarantee a successful film adaptation. It is rather through Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant camerawork and evocatively expressionistic mise-en-scène that Rebecca conjures the eerie memory of its unseen title character, imbuing the raw, suspenseful filmmaking on display with her elusive spirit.

After the montage of the misty grounds through the opening credits, Mrs. de Winter’s voiceover accompanies us as we float through the iron gates and down the road to Manderly, emerging behind gnarled trees like a haunted house.

Hitchcock approaches his narrative much the same way one would a ghost story, only ever revealing the artefacts of Rebecca’s post-mortem presence rather than her physical visage. The initial “R de W” marks diaries, pillows, and handkerchiefs, becoming a powerful motif of her enduring ownership over the estate, while the dour grief that persists in her wake is personified as the sinister Mrs. Danvers. Against Joan Fontaine’s naïve, anxiety-ridden Mrs. de Winter, Judith Anderson’s black-clad housekeeper is a force of unsmiling severity, never failing to remind her of whose shoes she is trying to fill – or in one particularly cruel scene, whose evening gown she is dressed in.

A remarkable camera movement much like Notorious, starting up close on the serviette marked with Rebecca’s initials, drifting to Mrs. de Winter’s face, and then pulling right back into this magnificent wide shot.

It is through the complex formal characterisations of the two Mrs. de Winters that Hitchcock’s investigation of their mystical connection manifests as a compelling, psychological paradox, simultaneously blending their identities while recognising the irreconcilable differences between the two. When the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim move into the East Wing of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers notes the lack of an ocean view, positioning it in stark contrast to the West Wing where we learn Rebecca previously resided. It isn’t that Mrs. de Winter is restricted from entering those quarters, but she does silently realise that it would not reflect well upon her if she did, given others’ perception that she is trying to replace her beloved predecessor. Still, when she sees a light on coming from that section of the manor and movement in its window, the curiosity is too much to bear. The mesmerising suspense that Hitchcock is so known for takes hold here as we apprehensively approach the West Wing’s door, cross its threshold, and discover the shrine to Rebecca de Winter’s memory that Mrs. Danvers maintains and worships as if she were still alive.

“Everything is kept just as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.”

Rebecca’s untouched room kept like a shrine to her memory, appropriately gorgeous in its production design and Hitchcock’s manipulation of its lighting.

Outside of that untouched, opulent chamber, Hitchcock shoots the rest of Manderley with a handsomely menacing decay, carving out ornate sculptures, immense arches, and lavish furniture within its cavernous interiors. Perhaps even more visually sumptuous is his low-key lighting of the space, throwing shadows of flowers, bannisters, and even the pouring rain up against decorated walls. Further adding to the uncanniness surrounding Mrs. de Winter in her paranoia are those wonderfully Hitchcockian camera movements which anxiously creep around doorways, punctuate dramatic beats, and elegantly shift our focus between characters and their sophisticated environments.

Cavernous, Gothic interiors curated with haunting sculptures, chandeliers, and archways – cliche as it is, but the architecture of Manderly is very much its own character, embodying the spirit of Rebecca.
Expressionistic shadows thrown up across walls, a brilliant touch to Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.
The shadow of rain pouring down the walls of Manderly when Mrs. de Winter first arrives, drenching it in a gloomy atmosphere.

At the point that Maxim finally reveals what unfolded on the night of Rebecca’s death, Hitchcock resists the urge to slip into a flashback, as he instead pushes his camera away from his actors to linger on the negative space she inhabits in his recount. Upon the lounge where she once taunted him, the same tray of cigarette stubs present from that evening still sits there, and as she rises and walks across the room, so too does the camera follow the invisible figure, manifesting her in its captivated movements.

Hitchcock’s camera lingers on this negative space as if watching a ghost as Maxim recounts the night of Rebecca’s death, tracking the camera across the room as he describes her movements.

Hitchcock is also among the few great directors who can place a cut just as well as he can move his camera, and the dreamy long dissolves in Rebecca that set gorgeous close-ups against Gothic interiors are a testament to this. Along with this inspired choice, he continues to build an air of mystery around the deceased woman in cutaways linking her to the angry, choppy ocean outside the West Wing windows, foreshadowing its significance as her resting place. Given this figurative association, it is a poetic exorcism of sorts which finally drives her out of Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s lives, effectively killing her twice by opposing elements – once left to rot in the water, the second time burning in flames, destroyed along with the entire Manderley estate.

Cutaways to the ocean become a strong formal motif, foreshadowing the reveal of Rebecca’s ultimate fate.

Through a series of gripping twists in the final act, it becomes apparent that Rebecca is a far more complex figure than we could have ever guessed, transcending the vague symbols and hints which were previously our only reference points to her character. Perhaps even more than the devastating fire ripping through Manderley, it is the destruction of her incorporeal, enigmatic façade which finally affords the married couple peace in their union. On that note, Hitchcock puts Rebecca to rest with an understanding of the past which neither glorifies nor despises it, but which recalls it simply as it understood itself – a flawed, complicated being, destined to have its historical legacy twisted into simple but powerfully sensitive memories.

Sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and then burnt in a fire – an exorcism of Rebecca’s spirit that ultimately destroys her hold over Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.

Rebecca is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Pinocchio (1940)

Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske | 1hr 28min

It shouldn’t be surprising that the artistic peak of Walt Disney animations can be narrowed down to the period that the entrepreneur himself was alive, overseeing the production of each feature film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Jungle Book. It is there that the studio flourished with artistic ambition, driven by the vision of Disney himself who, quite unusually, exerted his influence as auteur from the position of producer rather than director. So caught up in the nostalgia of childhood, every single one of these beloved films have at some point been claimed as the definitive best for some sentimental reason, though none quite reach the magnificent stylistic and narrative heights of Pinocchio – just the second feature film to come from Disney, marking the pinnacle of his cinematic innovation.

To praise the landmark in animating mechanical motions and weather effects that Pinocchio exhibits is not to simply boil its triumph down to its technical advancements, though Walt Disney certainly belongs in the same conversation as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, all being filmmakers who push boundaries in the realms of both technology and art. Where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs possesses a more primitive, picturesque splendour though, Pinocchio feels tangibly alive in its movements, orchestrating an entire symphony of cuckoo clocks that chime, click, and dance in polyrhythmic, mechanical beats. A mother spanks her child, a hunter shoots a bird, a bee flies off a flower, and a love of whimsical contraptions bursts forth from Geppetto’s beautifully anarchic workshop, where the old woodcarver plays with his creations. All around this space, Disney layers and obstructs his compositions with those random assorted pieces, detailing some of the finest hand-drawn illustrations captured on film, and specifically evoking the expressive, cluttered mise-en-scène that Josef von Sternberg pioneered a mere decade earlier.

So many compositions like these in Geppetto’s workshop, obstructing frames with toys, clocks, and shelves, evocatively layering his mise-en-scène with a delicate visual touch.

From the tiny perspective of Jiminy Cricket, this crowded Italian cottage might as well be a playground blown up to a magnificent scale, turning countertops into cliffs and bookshelves into caves. Toy Story would take some inspiration from this 55 years later by expanding a simple kid’s bedroom into an entire landscape of possibilities, and there is even the common thematic thread between the two of toys wishing to be real, though Pinocchio is especially active in using its camerawork to stretch the eccentric wonder of its world. As Jiminy Cricket heads towards the workshop to seek refuge for the night, Disney adopts his point-of-view, energetically hopping up and down with him, and later we watch Geppetto dance with his newest marionette from inside the bowl of his goldfish, Cleo. There, the curved glass playfully distorts Pinocchio’s movements, comically stretching his face to fanciful effect.

You don’t find this sort of experimentation in other Disney films – playfully refracting the image of a dancing Pinocchio through Cleo’s goldfish bowl.
Like Toy Story 55 years later, a single room becomes an entire world for its minuscule inhabitants, blowing up its tiny pieces of decor to magnificent proportions.

It isn’t until after Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy and finds that Pinocchio has sprung to life that we depart his workshop for the wider world, and the film steps up its rich stylistic immersion once again with a shot that might just be Disney’s finest moment. The multiplane camera his studio developed years earlier allows a robust depth of field comparable to live-action film, but it is put to especially excellent use here in the sheer coordination of its multiple moveable layers, together simulating one long take gliding across rooftops and under bridges of this humble Italian village. As we descend from the bell tower, watching doors fly open and children running through the streets, it is evident that Disney is specifically using this shot to mark an exciting new chapter in his narrative, introducing Pinocchio to an entire world of possibilities.

An unusually long take for animation lasting almost a minute, descending from the bell tower and flying through the town. Technically accomplished animation from Disney, making excellent use of his multi-plane camera, but also so artistically potent, making a new chapter in the narrative.
Townscapes like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with expressionistic warped roofs and mountains.

Scattered through the film are similarly dynamic camera movements making the most of the gorgeous townscape, notable among them being the inspired overhead tracking shot that passes buildings and trees through the foreground as Pinocchio skips off with his shady new friends, Honest John and Giddy. Even when Disney isn’t dollying in on the two sleazy foxes over the stairs of a greasy bar or pouring down needles of rain upon Geppetto searching for his lost boy, we are often left to sit in glorious, still images that seem carved from wood with their tactile, grainy textures.

Another skilfully executed long take, this time watching Pinocchio through the streets with the foxes in ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ from a high angle, passing buildings and trees through the foreground.
Disney’s using of ornate mise-en-scène to frame his characters all through Pinocchio is a huge visual success of the film, especially as the camera dollies in and out of scenes.

By the time the boy puppet arrives at Stromboli’s travelling show as his newest act to sing the musical number ‘I Got No Strings’, the central allegory driving Pinocchio’s narrative has properly settled in, using these “strings” to represent the parental restrictions that slowly ease up as a child grows older. Becoming human, or to become “real” as the film posits, is not just a matter of claiming one’s independence. To be human is to be guided by one’s moral conscience, embodied here by our narrator, Jiminy Cricket, whose asides to the camera turn him into a one-man Greek Chorus. His attempt at explaining the complex concept of morality in simple terms to Pinocchio leaves him a little lost for words, and so it is only when each test of integrity comes around that he can offer advice for the puppet to either accept or ignore.

It follows then that if a child can become “real” by proving they can be trusted with responsibility, then the opposite will see a transformation of a different kind. As Pinocchio tries to fib his way out of accountability, his nose grows and grows, eventually springing a nest with eggs and birds on the end of it. It is a humiliating physical transformation that distances him even further from his dream of being human, though compared to what awaits him at Pleasure Island, it is a relatively tame punishment.

Pleasure Island – treacherous in what it represents, and terrifying in its crowded, Art Deco visage, heavily inspired by F.W. Murnau’s carnival from Sunrise (1927) or perhaps even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

It is upon this strange isle that Disney essentially creates a mini-horror film for children, sending a boatload of boys to a carnival where they can indulge all their wildest impulses. Once again, cluttered mise-en-scène dominates the scenery, and its visual transformation from bright, Art Deco-inspired amusement park to dystopian ruin over the course of one night also signals the degradation of these boys’ souls. If one submits to their most base animal instincts, Disney reasons, then their outside might as well match what’s inside, and as such the children on this island are transformed into donkeys and shipped off to work in mines and circuses. It is a horrific thing to watch, so much so that even the camera looks away at the final stage of Lampwick’s bone-creaking metamorphosis, rendered through haunting shadows cast against a wall. For all the magic and whimsy present in Pinocchio, it is strikingly grounded for a Disney film, giving real weight to the choices its young protagonist makes.

More silent expressionism here, this time Nosferatu (1922) with the shadows depicting a horrific, bestial transformation.

There is some unfortunate narrative hand-waving leading into the film’s final act, which while being a resplendent sequence in itself, is not terribly well set-up, as the Blue Fairy intervenes for the third time to let Pinocchio finally prove his worth. Geppetto’s search for his lost boy has led him into the mouth of the fearsome whale, Monstro, and in the underwater battle with the beast, Disney concludes his magnificent experiment in animating truly invigorating action. Geppetto’s dying lamplights bounce off the surface of the water inside Monstro’s cavernous belly, and as he and Pinocchio make their decisive escape, Disney creates powerful visual movements in his waves, currents, bubbles, and splashes, each one intricately sculpted through the precise arrangement of visible droplets and streams of white foam.

Framing Geppetto’s boat using the whale’s innards – there’s certainly no criticising his visual creativity.
A landmark in water animation, with each drop, stream, ripple, wave, and current intricately hand-drawn and moving with such visceral realism.

With this dazzling whirlwind of a set piece closing out the film, Pinocchio’s astonishing scope and scale effectively exceeds virtually every other Disney animation that came before and after, building a world that seems to never stop shifting around its characters. Purely within context of their emotional arcs though, the pay-off carries a sweet tenderness to it. The lesson that Pinocchio learnt much earlier in the film after obliviously playing with fire returns here in his rescue of Geppetto, using his new knowledge to rile up Monstro and make a quick escape. Even more rewarding than that though is how this deed demonstrates his innate selflessness, finally validating him as a ”real” boy with a conscience.

For Geppetto, the anxieties of parenting prove to be worth it, as he finally gains a son no longer under his control, and yet who is fully active in loving and protecting him. To be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” – that is what it means to be human, Disney suggests, and the dynamic visual expression of this moral fable in all its dark, whimsical temptations backs it up as a staggering accomplishment of both meticulous hand-drawn animation and rich, allegorical storytelling.

Josef von Sternberg in the cluttered mise-en-scène, out of focus but still leaving a tangible imprint on these detailed shots.
The animation of rain bringing such tactility to these scenes. It is hard to believe the leap Disney took from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just three years earlier to this.

Disney Plus is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 32min

There may be screwball comedies that can match His Girl Friday in its sheer narrative lunacy, but Howard Hawks’ satirical take on the newspaper industry stands unparalleled in its breakneck pacing which, when combined with its rhythmic, rattling screenplay and the verbal gifts of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, becomes an accelerating effort to keep outdoing its own hysteria. Hawks himself can turn a phrase and orchestrate performances like he is the one delivering them, as his actors breathlessly zip between lines to the point that their dialogue begins to overlap and multiple conversations emerge all at once, creating similar chaotic soundscapes to those that Robert Altman would innovate thirty years later. It is curious that Altman never used this device to create a film about journalism though, as within this newsroom setting Hawks discovers the potential of its seemingly permanent state of urgency, and charms his audience into a whirlwind of words and wits.

Even as the master of gender comedy sets a ridiculous standard in his own madcap narrative pace, his leads are more than up to the challenge of pushing it even further, all in service of their characters who insistently chase up crucial information and loose ends across a number of plot threads. This complex balancing act poses a tricky challenge for Russell in particular, as although former reporter Hildy Johnson finds herself drawn towards a quiet life of marriage and children, she also simultaneously falls prey to the temptation of re-entering her old career as a newspaperwoman, where her spark of passion ignites into a full blaze and lures her into a primal feeding frenzy.

Rosalind Russell, a wicked force of comedy here in His Girl Friday, and an appropriately loud costume to match that persona.

From the moment she walks into the newsroom in her matching zig-zagged hat and coat as if they were entirely normal fashion choices, Russell owns every moment she is onscreen. Not only does she prove her ability to match Grant with every comedic beat, but at one point she even demands that Hawks’ camera keep up with her as she frantically moves side to side, switching between concurrent phone calls. It is a well-timed dance she is leading here, and one that points to her own skilful characterisation of a competent woman so entranced by her work that she barely hears her fiancé, Bruce, threaten to leave her.

Not only is the promise of good news story too much to pass up, but when the escaped convict at its centre winds up in her own office, the chance to use her own unique position to take down a corrupt politician is entirely irresistible. Of course, it takes a few minor manipulations on the behalf of Walter, her ex-lover and editor, to keep her around. In a hilarious running gag that he sets in motion, he ensures that Bruce continues getting arrested so that he remains out of the way, though this situation only escalates when the heavily foreshadowed arrival of his mother finally transpires to complicate things further.

Subplots comically punctuated by the slamming of doors open and shut, efficiently keeping the narrative moving along.

As this kidnapping sublot contributes to the overall tapestry of this narrative, it is just one of several irreverent plot threads dealing with the darker side of humanity, including attempted suicide and death threats. There is a certain hint of amorality here, as while such weighty topics pass through the story, these journalists brush them off with comical ease as nothing more than minor distractions to be dealt with in the moment and never considered again.

Many screwball comedies get by without being overly attentive to their visuals, but there is some superb staging of ensembles in this newsroom.

Rapid montages and brisk camera movements can be found here to match the pace of dialogue, but for the most part it is in deftly staged compositions of actors within this office of low-slung lamps that the film is visually elevated to a level that few other screwball comedies have reached, pairing some of Hawks’ greatest direction with one of his most masterful screenplays. Even as doors slam open and shut in markers of narrative threads jumping in and out of this story of their own accord, he never once loses control of His Girl Friday’s eccentric rhythms, sparring, and effervescent chemistry.

Among the best shots of the film in its fantastic lighting and camera placement, as Hildy visits the imprisoned Earl Williams.

His Girl Friday is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 7min

Not much about Christmas in July is terribly festive, but it is a fitting title nonetheless given how much Preston Sturges fills the film with his own brand of wholesome benevolence. Our hero, Jimmy MacDonald, is an office worker lost in a sea of desks. He has his eyes firmly set on the American Dream, and then one day a prank gone wrong sees him believe he has won $25,000 cash in a slogan competition for a coffee company. The instant that he believes in his own success, his entire attitude changes. His sudden boost in confidence is enough to earn him a promotion, an office, and a personal secretary, with even the executive of the company running the contest believing that he is the real winner. As for the actual slogan itself – it is nothing less than lame, wordy, and confusing.

“If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

And yet there is something endearing about Jimmy’s whole-hearted conviction in the cleverness of his quip. Within Sturges’ world of naive, incompetent businessman, such self-assured belief is infectious, as the slogan’s apparent success spurs on a surge in popularity until everyone who once saw it as a meagre attempt at humour convinces themselves of its brilliance. After all, it won a contest judged by a board of professionals. How could it not be? Even Jimmy’s own boss uses it as the basis of his own judgement.

“I think your ideas are good because they sound good to me. But I know your ideas are good because you won this contest over millions of aspirants.” 

The comedy in Christmas in July is a little more low-key than the usual Sturges outing, especially since the focus isn’t so much on the slapstick or zany antics than being a satire of American success. But his trademark commitment to running gags and expeditious pacing is present even this early in his career, and the faith individuals place in mainstream opinions rather than thinking for themselves is a perfect target for a director with such a skill in crafting farcical escalations. A more cynical film would make Jimmy a selfish egomaniac, but here he is a sincerely good, compassionate man, and as such it isn’t hard to get behind his stroke of good fortune, or conversely fear his inevitable downfall. It may not belong among his greatest works, but thanks to Sturges’ comical screenplay, Christmas in July strikes an easy tonal balance of skepticism towards corporate America and a comfortable, agreeable comedy.

Christmas in July is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Great McGinty (1940)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 23min

Tamer than most Preston Sturges comedies, but also more overtly political, The Great McGinty marks the debut of a satirical filmmaker who, within just a few years, would go on to define an entire genre. Sturges isn’t afraid to hit dramatic beats here in the rise and fall of tramp-turned-mayor Dan McGinty, though pulling these off in any seriously compelling manner is not his strength. It is the lowbrow slapstick sprinkled throughout where we discover traces of the Sturges who would become one of Hollywood’s great comedic directors, especially as he capitalises on the running gag of fist fights between McGinty and his Boss, with these serious threats of injury gradually turning into petty eruptions of male egos, and eventually melding into the background as a natural part of the environment.

Sturges’ skill in the editing room is also on display here in his creatively efficient montages, passing time through long dissolves, double exposure, and even the use of a stop-motion effect to show shrinking piles of money. Later, he intercuts McGinty’s campaign for Governor with that of his opponent, contrasting a level-headed, virtuous candidate with the frenetic showmanship of McGinty’s endorsee. And of course, it is McGinty who comes out on top between the two – it only makes sense that a man whose political career began in voter fraud only continues reaching new heights by playing the part of a pawn.

A political pawn, wilfully strung along a path of corruption.

Yet after playing the part of upstanding husband and democracy-loving family man for far too long, the artificial code of ethics he pretends to live by eventually settles in his conscience, giving rise to a self-loathing and disgust for his own lack of integrity. The irony of a corrupt political system defeating itself through its own artifice is not easily lost, especially as Sturges underlines how all it takes is a “moment of honesty” to send these institutions crashing to the ground, finding the humour in the unpredictability of public life. The Great McGinty may not have the formal or comedic brilliance of Sturges’ strongest works, but it is a modest effort at political satire from a director who would only go on to sharpen his artistic voice from here.

The Great McGinty is not currently available to stream in Australia.