Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and How Preston Sturges Had to Marry Off Betty Hutton, and Quick

Poor Preston Sturges.  All he wanted to do was to make a movie about a girl who gets pregnant and then proceeds to convince the boy next door (not the father!) to marry her before her father finds out.  Simple enough.  Now if this had been done in the precode days before the Production Code was put into effect in 1934, he would have probably been able to do it.  If it were made today, he of course would have had no problem.  But in 1942 Hollywood?  No way José!  When the director handed in his script to the PCA (Production Code Administration), as was the required course of action in these days, the censors, always such progenitors of sensibility and taste, he said tongue firmly in cheek, stopped Sturges short when it came to the possibility of of an unwed mother being shown to all of America up on the silver screen. 

Sturges was told he had to marry the girl off before she could become pregnant.  Because, as everyone knows, a girl cannot get pregnant without the sanctity of marriage in their hearts and a gold ring on their finger.   This quite ridiculous and outdated attitude (at least by today's standards) of course would be countermand to the story Sturges had written, but if he wanted to get his movie made in 1942, he had to go through the PCA to do it.  Even a director like Sturges, who at the time was one of the biggest name filmmakers in Hollywood, was still subject to the puritanical whims of the dreaded Production Code.  But this temporary impediment was nothing for a writer as slick and as sly, and as willfully antagonistic as Mr. Preston Sturges.   

Sure, this age of censorship may have been a bane in writers and directors' existence, but it wasn't all bad.  One thing the Production Code did was make screenwriters more creative.  As opposed to the precode days, when sexuality and criminality could be shown and discussed without ramifications (well, other than the ramifications that would eventually lead to the Hays Office and the Production Code and all that, but that is another story altogether), the Hollywood of the mid 1930's through when the code began to crumble in the late 1950's, was a place where writers and directors had to weave their way around such so-called ethical problems, and in doing so perhaps created more subtly damning works of sedition.  Works of sedition that went right by the rather ignorant blind eyes of the censors and onto the silver screens of the nation's movie palaces.  This is just what Sturges did with The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

What Sturges did actually, was to create for this oh so important marriage, the most ludicrous of circumstances.  The writer/director/producer gave his main character (the wonderfully named Trudy Kockenlocker, played with great feminine bravura by Betty Hutton) a night of promiscuous partying with a gaggle of departing G.I.'s.  Originally Sturges' intent was to "show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents' advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity" but since the censors were wary (and Paramount Studios as well), Sturges had poor simple Trudy getting married while wonky with the most convenient case of amnesia this side of screwball.  Now, with plucky Trudy's purity kept safely intact (though c'mon, a wedding night in a state of relative blackout is not exactly any more pure than Sturges' original idea) the movie could finally go on.  At least that was the plan.

With just ten or so pages of a script that were deemed appropriate, Sturges began filming in 1942.  Barely keeping ahead of the filming schedule, Sturges wrote furiously during the shoot.  Yet, even with winding around the problems brought on by the censors, and creating a screwball comedy that would go down as one of the director's best works, Paramount held the film until 1944.  Sturges would eventually leave the studio over problems such as these.  Upon the film's release though, critics praised the proverbial high heaven's out of the damn thing.  Many of them questioning how such a script got through the censors in the first place.  James Agee wrote of the film "the Hays office must have been raped in its sleep."  In the end, even with the censorship battles and the studio's changes, the film was heralded as a snarky masterpiece of depth and deception.  I will leave you with the words of New York Times über-critic Bosley Crowther: "Sturges has hauled off this time and tossed a satire which is more cheeky than all the rest."


Dave Enkosky said...

Great review. Reminds me why I love Sturges so much.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. Yes, Sturges has so many levels in his writing/directing. Sly sociopolitical dissension, insider jabs at Hollywood, sophisticated style inside balls out screwball. Great stuff indeed.

Chip Lary said...

I'm amazed he got away with as much as he did (like having her surname be "kockenlocker"). There were some period references in the film to the Dionne quintuplets that will probably be lost on a modern audience (i.e. the "Canada demands a recount" newspaper headline), but it otherwise still stands up today.

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