Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton, Diana Lynn, William Demarest.
“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is so filled with violence, disorder and misunderstanding that I have known people to emerge from it trembling“–David Thomson quoted in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, by James Harvey
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek satirizes the wartime idolatry of soldiers and the innocent, faithful girls left behind. Trudy Kockenlocker feels it’s her patriotic duty to dance with departing G.I.s before they ship out and is dismayed to discover one hung-over morning that she has apparently (according to the evidence of a curtain ring on her finger) married a private whose name she can’t exactly recall. Twenty-one-year-old band singer Betty Hutton and former child star Eddie Bracken spoke bolder dialogue that had been submitted to the censors since the Production Code was enforced in 1934. One eliminated speech made explicit Sturges’ moral lesson: the unfortunate confusion of promiscuity with patriotism (Sturges 300).
Betty Hutton and William Demarest
Preston Sturges was in the news in 1998 (when I first wrote this piece) both because of his 100th birthday, and because he was ignored on the American Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest Films, although the 2007 list included Sullivan’s Travels. The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero spilled out in a manic burst of energy between 1940-44. He was the first screenwriter to direct his own scripts, blazing a trail for everyone who dreams of the credit: written and directed by…(and you can put your own name here).
He brought much of his own unique life experience to his screenplays. No one he knew as a boy had the slightest notion of marital fidelity. All families were makeshift, and his films show a particular fondness for a single parent with a child of the opposite sex, like young Preston and his mother. Born Mary Dempsey, she had recreated herself as Mary Desti, an imaginary part of an aristocratic Italian family. The man he considered his father, Solomon Sturges, probably her third husband, was a prosperous Chicago stockbroker. Sturges spent much of his youth being shipped between the proper world of his father, and the European Bohemia of his mother, who packed away his tailored suits and dressed him in Greek robe and sandals. Wildly unconventional adults, actors, dancers, artists, Europeans and Americans of every stripe, businessmen, millionaires, wastrels and gamblers populated his life, and later his screenplays. Mme. Desti was Isadora Duncan’s best friend and supported herself intermittently with a cosmetics firm Maison Desti, whose best-selling product was a youth creme called “Secret of the Harem.” Sturges assumed Maison Desti would be his career, and while still a teenager, created for Maison Desti a kiss-proof lipstick, Red Red Rouge. He dabbled in other careers, too. He was an amateur inventor with a patent on a diesel engine and later ran a popular restaurant in Hollywood, The Players.
He fell into playwriting; “Strictly Dishonorable” was the big comedy hit of 1929 and it made him a ton of money. In it, an engaged couple squabbles over a flirtation, and the woman must affirm her virtue to her outraged fiancé, since that is apparently her only currency (sigh). Separated from his second wife, Post cereal heiress Eleanor Hutton, Sturges was lured to Hollywood. He wrote many freelance screenplays during the 1930s, primarily comedies, but also a drama, The Power and the Glory, that many (including Orson Welles) considered a blueprint for Citizen Kane. But, he realized the director was the boss on a movie set, and longed to direct his own screenplays. Paramount studios was the most accommodating to creative spirits in the team-oriented studio era, and they bought a screenplay that became the Oscar- winning The Great McGinty, for $1.00 and the promise Sturges could direct.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek came near the end of his run of great comedies. As diverse as his life experiences had been, he was a stranger to small-town American life as idealized in the beloved films of Frank Capra, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sturges was described as the anti-Capra by French critic André Bazin. The village of Morgan’s Creek is not nurturing and kind. The inhabitants are quirky and irritable, revealing the turmoil beneath the facade of a placid rural life. Trudy’s shame would be unbearable in the small town where everyone knew her. Sturges had been mulling for years a modern day Nativity story with an unwed mother. WW II brought an opportunity to satirize the soldier-civilian romance, as well as the eternal conflict between the popular girl and the hapless nerd who idolizes her.
I have several fancy books on Edith Head, who did the costumes, and none of them mention this film! This is from the Betty Hutton Paper Doll Book by Judy M. Johnson. In The Dress Doctor (p. 73) Head says Hutton arrived wearing “pinafores and big organdy sleeves and bows and such.” Head tried to give her a more mature image, from “bouncy ingenue to stylish woman…she got one look at herself and became so style conscious that I doubt if she remembers ever having worn a ruffle.”
Paramount was about to demolish a small town set that had been built for another film, and Sturges asked to use it. And, use it he did, in a series of amazing tracking shots that give you a real feel for the fictional village. Betty Hutton in her interview with Robert Osbourne said that the cast was never told was the “Miracle” was. Sturges did not like to spend a lot of time filming, so he said to Hutton and Bracken, rather than giving them direction, “I want you to give it to me” trusting their instincts. He was confident that his script would somehow make it through the gauntlet of censors, “If it’s funny, they’ll never touch it” (Private Screenings).
Nowadays, the idea that unwed motherhood brings terrible disgrace seems rather quaint. But, at the time, the censors were just as upset that Sturges was making fun of the war effort, as much as that an unmarried pregnant girl was the heroine of his movie. Imagine, a GI getting a girl pregnant and leaving the parenting to a 4-F reject? But the hero and heroine illustrate one of Sturges most firmly held beliefs, that a father is not the person who gives life, but the person who gives love. The censors insisted on numerous changes, including “In view of the Government’s rubber-conservation program, it will be necessary to eliminate the screeching of tires, when dubbing” (Jacobs 301). But, for all the tampering, the basic idea, that Trudy had drunken sex with a soldier was crystal clear. And, even as it was abhorred by the Catholic Legion of Decency, they had to admit,” it was very funny…from a strictly entertainment standpoint” (Jacobs 299).
This film is a textbook on evading the censors, who, as a rule have very little imagination. His heroine’s name is Kockenlocker! How did he even get that approved? Because her name starts with the letter K and not C? A montage of frantic dancing represents sex, and Trudy is never seen in “a delicate condition” because that, too, was forbidden. When Trudy winces at the “Victory lemonade” is it because it is spiked, or because there is so little rationed sugar in it? People are drinking, but they weren’t allowed to appear drunk. One writer is convinced, every time somebody says “marriage” they mean “sex” (Grindon 108). When other films dealt with “unwed motherhood” it was always as a shame and a tragedy. Making this taboo subject a comedy is an audacious choice.
The film begins with characters from The Great McGinty (for which Sturges won an Oscar for screenwriting) and flashes back to Trudy’s story. Betty Hutton plays Trudy. Although her image on screen was peppy and joyful, her life was not. Born in Battle Creek, MI, her alcoholic father abandoned the family and she was singing in her mother’s blind pig, a speakeasy where she sold home brewed hooch (often one step ahead of the police) by the age of three. Hutton quit school in 9th grade and at 15 she was a boisterous big band singer with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra. She landed a supporting role in Panama Hattie (opposite Ethel Merman) on Broadway. Starting with The Fleet’s In in 1942, she added her unique fireworks on screen with her red hot songs. Miracle was her first giant hit, and she was on her way to becoming Paramount’s #1 box office star of the 1940s. In the early 1950s her career began a decline, likely because of mental illness and substance abuse. Married four times, she became estranged from her three daughters, but not from her devoted fans. A late in life conversion to Catholicism brought her comfort.
I have lots of scrapbook pictures of Betty Grable, and Ginger Rogers, but not so many of Betty Hutton. This was all I could find.
I bought this coloring book at a flea market. There was apparently (according to Pinterest) a Betty Hutton and Her Girls paper doll book, released at the same time. Betty did not have a good relationship with these girls, she blamed herself for being too focused on her career.
Eddie Bracken played her devoted beau, Norval. He had been a child actor on stage and the movies, and had already made 3 pictures with Hutton. He adamantly did not want to work with her again, because he felt her musical numbers upstaged him, and he had no comparable opportunity to do his thing. Sturges soothed his ego, promising that there would be no songs, and he would be the star of the picture. He was a “character comedian” essentially playing the same type in his films, the nervous, stuttering good hearted dumb cluck. In the two films he did for Sturges (The other is Hail the Conquering Hero) his 4-F character (unfit for active military duty) was a sympathetic one. He’s also remembered for his late in life performances as the creator of Walley World in National Lampoon Vacation and in Home Alone 2 as the owner of Duncan’s Toy Chest.
Not really a lot of scrapbook pictures of Eddie Bracken, either! Mostly heartthrobs end up in scrapbooks, not comedians.
Sturges wrote the part of Papa Kockenlocker for William Demarest, who gave the finest performance of his career. He’s an instantly recognizable actor, as vivid in the one silent film I’ve seen him in, as he was as Uncle Charlie on tv in My Three Sons in the 60s. With more than 140 films on his resume, he was a particular favorite of Preston Sturges, who gave him great roles in The Lady Eve and Hail the Conquering Hero, as well as this film.
Diana Lynn is delightful as Trudy’s tart-tongued sister. She was a child prodigy pianist, who first entered films as a musician under her real name, Dolores Loehr. After great reviews for her comic turn in The Major and the Minor with Ginger Rogers, she made a big hit with this film, as by far the smartest person in the entire town of Morgan’s Creek. She died young, at 45, of a stroke in 1971.
Diana Lynn is so cute in this film. I love this fancy fan magazine portrait of her. She was more of a scrapbook favorite than Betty.
The film cost $775,000 to make, and made $9 million, one of the biggest hits of the year. It’s useful to remember that the audience would have been predominantly female, as men were in the service. If the Hays Code was supposed to protect their tender morals, they clearly weren’t having it. Sturges was again nominated for a Best Writing Oscar, and the film won many awards that year, landing on the National Board of Review and the New York Times’ Top Ten Films of 1944. James Agee thought Sturges played comedy as if he wanted to get away with murder. The mayhem here is committed upon formula Hollywood conventions of patriotism, motherhood and romance.”
“Preston Sturges turns the home front romantic comedy on its head. Traditional small town values are a mix of sentiment, prejudice and habit, the benevolent father is a mercurial tyrant-protector, the liberated woman s sucker for a uniform, and the idealized lover a helpless fool” (Grindon 116).
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the peak of Sturges success in Hollywood. The only amazing thing about my career,” Sturges once said, “is that I ever had one at all.”
Hutton, Bracken, Lynn and Demarest try to sort things out.
(Illustrations include pages from a scribbled-up flea market find, Whitman Publishing, 1951, and an anonymous 1952 movie star scrapbook.) Sources include: Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges by Diane Jacobs, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges adapted and edited by Sandy Sturges, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey, Betty Hutton Paper Doll, biography by David Wolfe, Forties Film Funnymen by Wes D. Gehring, The Hollywood Romantic Comedy by Leger Grindon, Private Screenings: Robert Osbourne interviews Betty Hutton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GnBVUm1Axw, The Dress Doctor by Edith Head and Jane Kesner Ardmore.