The United States of America
It begins, like so many other great stories, with a misunderstanding. Well, perhaps more of a deception in this particular case. Jimmy MacDonald is a run-of-the-mill office worker who can’t keep his mind on his work. All day long he doodles “$25,000” on office stationary and fumbles his receipts. For although MacDonald is just another office lackey, he dreams of much, much more. He has recently entered the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest which boasts a grand prize of $25,000. MacDonald considers himself a shoe-in to win. The problem is that nobody else understands the pure genius of his slogan. Even his girlfriend Betty Casey doesn’t get it. But how could she not understand such a brilliant piece of marketing genius: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” See? It’s a play on words!
Jimmy MacDonald and Betty Casey
Well, MacDonald ends up getting the last laugh, let me tell you! One day he finds a telegram on his desk. What’s on this telegram, you ask? Why, nothing less than an announcement that he has won the grand prize along with a check for $25,000! See, what did I tell you?
MacDonald just heard the happy news.
But MacDonald’s good fortune doesn’t end there! He gets promoted to advertising executive with his own office! He goes on a lavish shopping spree at Shindel’s department store, buying gifts and toys for all of his neighbors and their children. He even picks out a futuristic sofa for his mother! You should see this thing. It turns into a bed with the press of a button!
It's the bed of the future!!
There’s only one small problem. See, it turns out that a winner hasn’t been chosen in the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest. The jury is deadlocked. They never sent a telegram to a Mr. Jimmy MacDonald. They don’t even know who Mr. Jimmy MacDonald is. And they certainly didn’t send him a check for $25,000. That telegram and check on his desk? Well, that was put there by a couple of MacDonald’s co-workers as a practical joke. Things got out-of-hand too quickly for the pranksters to come clean. So when Dr. Maxford, the owner of Maxford House Coffee, finds out that somebody has “won” the contest, it becomes all too clear that things are going to go sour very, very quickly. But...not quite yet.
This has all been the set-up for Preston Sturges’ second directorial effort, Christmas in July. Fresh off his Oscar-winning success with his first film, The Great McGinty (1940), Sturges continued to establish himself with Christmas in July as one of the most brilliant writer/directors of the 1940s. Though it barely clocks in at over an hour, Christmas in July is one of Sturges’ most memorable, and perhaps one his most criminally under-appreciated, films.
Christmas in July was early enough in Sturges’ career that it still retained a kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm and belief in the inherent goodness of mankind. Prolonged studio battles and box office failures would eventually drain Sturges to the point of cynicism, a trait that becomes increasingly apparent later in his career with such films as Unfaithfully Yours (1948). But Christmas in July’s optimism was characteristic of the times. The later years of the Great Depression may have been an unparalleled time of suffering in American history, but it produced some of the most upbeat and hopeful films ever made. It was a time when 60-80 million Americans went to the movies every week. This was the era of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, idealistic Capra-esque heroes, and Busby Berkeley excess.
But while Groucho indulged in comedic anarchy and Berkeley in costumed extravagance, the most excessive part of Sturges’ films was the dialogue. Sturges had a talent for lightning fast and witty dialogue and the ability to cram three hours worth of it into a single feature. Much of his writing is so good that it goes over your head until you really sit down and think about it. Take MacDonald’s slogan: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” That turn of phrase sounds like the last half of a badly translated zen kōan. MacDonald came up with it after he read a medical journal by a Vienna scientist who claimed that coffee puts people asleep instead of keeping them awake. So, MacDonald figures, if you can’t fall asleep after drinking Maxford House Coffee, it must be the bunk that you’re sleeping on that’s keeping you awake!
Like I said, MacDonald’s slogan makes no sense whatsoever. But he believes in it so passionately that the audience begins to believe it, too. And that’s what keeps the plot going: a willingness to go along with sheer enthusiasm. Dr. Maxford should have realized something was up when MacDonald’s check for $25,000 bounced. But instead he just insisted that he would cover it when the bank called. The Shindel department store should have been more suspicious when a random man walked in and went on a spending spree with a strange check. And MacDonald? Well, he shouldn’t have been so self-deluded as to think that his slogan had any chance of winning.
But much like Sturges’ own ambitions, Christmas in July is a film about impossible dreams coming true. It is a pure distillation of what made Sturges’ films so great: hysterical writing, sincere acting, and genuine heart. It affirms that American belief that if you work hard enough (and have a little luck) you can achieve anything. All we need, as Betty said, is a chance. Just...a chance.