Subversive Preston Sturges and Morgan’s Creek

Eddie Bracken just looks funny. It’s not in a physically distorted way; it has something to do with the innocent, cherubic quality of his face that makes you smile. And when he starts moving? You start to laugh.

When you bring that together with a mischievous writer-director like Preston Sturges, you don’t simply get one of the funniest movies ever made; you get one of the most charmingly subversive ones.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

Directed by Preston Sturges

“What Preston tried to do was obey the letter of the law for the Production Code, but ignore, in its entirety, the very spirit of that law.”
– Sandy Sturges, wife of Preston Sturges –

Without a doubt, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

For me, it is the funniest of all Preston Sturges’s movies – and that is saying something. I wouldn’t argue it is his best, not when he later went on to make Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, but it’s the funniest.

It is also one of the most subversive movies ever made as it blithely obeys the letter of the law while simultaneously thumbing its nose at it. In this case, the “law” is Hollywood’s Production Code, aka the Hays Office, that dictated what could and should be allowed on film.

Here, Sturges’ card sharp directing bamboozles them as he broke all the rules while sticking to them.

A disappointed Norval (Eddie Bracken) won't be taking Trudy (Betty Hutton) to the movies.

It’s the comedy that allows him to do this bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand. While never overtly stating something, the subtext is pretty obvious – unless you’re laughing so hard you forget to pay attention.

Starring Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is about Trudy Kockenlocker (Hutton), a wide-eyed girl determined to go to a dance “for our boys” who are going off to war. Her father, the suspicious and protective Constable Edmund Kockenlocker (William Demarest), nixes the idea.

But Trudy is resolved to go and, using her friend Norval Jones (Bracken), she does by pretending to go to the movies with Norval. The word “using” is exactly right because Norval is in love with an uninterested Trudy. She uses his devotion to her advantage because he’ll do just about anything for her.

Sisters Emmy and Trudy try to figure out what to do about Trudy's problem (Diana Lynn and Betty Button).

Unfortunately for Trudy, while at the dance she unwittingly gets drunk (though she denies she was drunk) and gets married, though she can’t remember the marriage or who the husband is. Whoever the someone is has likely gone overseas by now.

Trudy is also pregnant, though this isn’t stated overtly. She becomes so distraught over her situation, she even considers the idea of killing herself until her much smarter younger sister (Diana Lynn) suggests she marry Norval for the sake of propriety and appearances. But can she marry when she is already married, even if it was under an assumed name?

Keep in mind that all this plot information comes to us quickly and furiously and hilariously as we watch the movie. As we watch, we’re not really aware of how many taboo subjects (from the Hays’ perspective) that Sturges is playing with. Think of it: he has touched on a fatherless pregnancy, suicide and bigamy. Each on its own would have been verboten in 1944. All three together? Oy!

And the movie has scarcely begun!

While the comedy and his use of misdirection allow Sturges to handle subjects like these without eyebrows being raised, the innocence of his main characters (Trudy and Norval) also gives him some license. It’s impossible to think of either as a “wicked” kid trying to get away with something. They’re two young people caught up in circumstances.

Norval (Eddie Bracken - right) greeted by the Kockenlocker family (William Demarest, Diana Lynn and Betty Hutton).

The usual Sturges comic elements are here: smart, witty dialogue, pratfalls and reaction shots. But unlike a movie like The Lady Eve, for example, there is nothing sophisticated in his main characters; they’re too young and innocent for that. If there is something humourously clever in what they say, the character isn’t aware of it. (In The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean is always aware of her meaning and her double entendre’s.)

One of the primary reason’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is so damned funny is Eddie Bracken and the astonishing elasticity he brings to his face and body. It is pure slapstick and it is screamingly funny. His physicality together with his timing are nothing less than brilliant. In contemporary movies, the only actor (and movie) I can think of that even comes close to something similar is Lee Evan’s performance in Mouse Hunt (1997).

Any appreciation of an art form is almost by definition subjective but nothing seems to be more subjective than comedy. What causes one person to roll on the floor laughing may elicit no more than a yawn from someone else. Yet I find it hard to imagine anyone not finding Bracken funny in this movie. Personally, this is my favourite kind of comedy: slapstick mixed with verbal wit in a farce-like presentation. In other words, screwball comedy.

Raising daughters can be a challenge.

Hutton is equally good in her role as Trudy, a young girl who is innocent on one hand yet also manipulative on the other, at least where her father and Norval are concerned.

As her father, William Demarest plays his standard cross character though here he is much more engaged in pratfalls than I’ve seen him in other movies. I can’t help thinking he had a sore rear end at the end of the making of this one.

On so many levels and in so many ways, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek leaves other comedies in the dust. I think it should be required viewing for anyone even thinking about making a comedy.

Leave a Reply