Preston Sturges

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)

  • Born:  1898
  • Died:  1959
  • Rank:  47
  • Score:  580.20
  • Awards:  Oscar (for Screenplay)
  • Nominations:  3 Oscars (for Screenplay)
  • Feature Films:  12
  • Best:  Sullivan’s Travels
  • Worst:  The Great Moment

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. Sullivan’s Travels – 1941
  2. The Lady Eve – 1941
  3. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek – 1944
  4. Hail the Conquering Hero – 1944
  5. The Great McGinty – 1940

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1940 – 8th – The Great McGinty
  • 1941 – 3rd – The Lady Eve
  • 1942 – 1st – Sullivan’s Travels
  • 1942 – 6th – The Palm Beach Story
  • 1944 – 3rd – Hail the Conquering Hero
  • 1944 – 5th – The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

He started out as a screenwriter. and like two of the best other screenwriters at the time (John Huston and Billy Wilder) managed to turn that into a directing career in the early 40’s.  That began an artistic peak the likes of which have rarely been seen in Hollywood.  In the space of 5 years, he made 8 films, 5 of which are absolute classics of comedy – mixing screwball with satire, romance with social commentary.  He found hilarious ways to work around the Hays Code and to ridicule sexuality and romance without running afoul of the censors.

But then it was gone.  There was a large gap before he made his final film (The Diary of Major Thompson), a film almost impossible to find nowadays.  He still had hopes at the time (in 1957 he was quoted as saying “When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook, and start the whole thing over again.”), but two years later he was dead.  There would be no starting over again, but there would always be those magnificent 5 years.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek – #3 film of 1944

There is much talk these days about “comic timing” and actors who have it (my mother likes to claim Ryan Reynolds has it), but there is no better comic timing than is evident in the films of Preston Sturges.

While his two best films are Sullivan and Eve, there is no Sturges film that walks the line with the censors any finer than Miracle.  Faced with the problem that characters weren’t allowed to get pregnant out of wedlock (unless they were then punished), Sturges came up with the brilliant idea of having his main character, Trudy Kockenlocker, in fact get married to a soldier, get pregnant and then not remember who the soldier was (who had left for the war anyway).  So she is forced to lean on her close friend, Norval, played by Eddie Bracken.

Bracken never became a Hollywood star.  He wasn’t a great actor and he was far too strange looking to become a leading man.  But he had great comic timing (also proved in Hail the Conquering Hero, another Sturges film from 1944).  His reactions to almost ever realization in the movie are so priceless, so perfect.  He is the epitome of the poor schlub who is so in love that he will do anything, but then can’t believe what he actually is going to have to do.  And of course, there is the brilliant ending (a fantastic tie-in with McGinty) and Bracken’s reactions continue all the way to the final seconds of the film.

But Bracken isn’t alone.  Playing Trudy’s father is Sturges’ regular William Demarest.  In later years, Demarest would get an Oscar nomination and become heralded for smaller, more stolid supporting roles, but his best roles were playing completely off the wall characters in Sturges films.  Here, as both the confused father, and the town constable, his interactions with his daughters (Diana Lynn is absolutely brilliant as the younger daughter) are fantastic, especially the exquisite comic timing when he goes to kick his younger daughter in the seat of her pants and misses.

At a time when America was still fighting the war, Sturges found a brilliant way to satirize not only the American homestead itself, but also the patriotic fever that went along with everything in the country, and somehow managed to get it all past the censors.  The script itself was brilliant, but the movie owes much of its greatness to comic timing, especially poor Norval who has greatness thrust upon him.

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