The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
In 1922, Hollywood was an incredibly sleazy town. How little things change. The studios were dealing with backlash from some risque films and the even more troubling private lives of their stars leaking into the tabloids. To deal with this problem, they enlisted the U.S. Postmaster General William Hays to write up a code of conduct that would get politicians and angry citizens off their backs. Thus, the Hays Code, the first piece of American film censorship, was born. The Code dictated that profanity, sex, or drugs be prohibited from films. Notice no significant rule on violence.
Furthermore, the Code stepped all over the Constitution by forbidding miscegenation (that’s interracial relationships), ridicule of the Church, and “white slavery” (the depiction of the human trafficking of women). Regular good ol’ American slavery was permitted. You can see why the Hays Code was trash and only held the film industry back while its European counterparts created some of the masterpieces of the art at this time.
Then comes Preston Sturges, a filmmaker who does not give a flying flip about the Hays Code but understands he works at Paramount Studios, so he has to navigate. Of all his movies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the most overtly subversive, an odd turn of phrase, yes. At the time of its release, critics were confounded about how this movie made it past the strict Hays Code. James Agee mused that the Code must have been “hypnotized into liberality” to release the film.
In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, we are introduced to Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), whose life is chaotic due to his two daughters, Trudy (Betty Hutton) and Emmy. It’s the middle of World War II, and the town is full of young men about to ship off overseas. Trudy sees it as her duty to go to every party in the city the night before they leave and party it up with them. When Trudy comes to the next morning, she realizes she’s married one of them but has no memory of who. Enlisting Norval (Eddie Bracken), a gawping hanger-on, Trudy reveals she’s pregnant and fears she’ll shame her family because she has no idea who the husband/father is. So we go through a series of delightfully silly mishaps as Trudy and Norval try one failing plan after another.
Not only did Sturges make a film that was about teenage pregnancy, but he also found time to mock shallow patriotism, the mob mentality of small-town America, and how this country glorifies war. This is a movie that’s third act includes cameos by Mussolini & Hitler. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was not a flop though and ended up being Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1944. I think it makes sense why the movie was so well-received because it spoke truth to its audience. It never talks down to them, though Sturges plays with the language so that he can slip content past the censors. He made a screwball comedy that was about the absurdities of real life, of young women left as single parents by a cruel war machine that keeps chewing up bodies to this day.
The performances here are broad, but pitch-perfect for the tone Sturges is going for. Betty Hutton continues the long line of women in these films who put their male co-stars to shame comedically. Hutton’s introduction lip-syncing a baritone jazz recording at the music shop where she works is so goofy and fun. She gives great reactions that range from over the top to subtly hilarious. Eddie Bracken once again knows he’s born to play nervous and does so here with superb quality. William Demarest constructs the archetypal father of only daughters that we’d see again in sitcom after sitcom, but the original is always the best.
What I love about this movie is that Trudy is ultimately rewarded and not punished. She gives birth and is happy with the promise of even brighter days ahead of her. The townspeople look to their humanity rather than their judgment and accept her with love in their hearts. Sturges also manages to incorporate two characters from his political satire, The Great McGinty, into the bookend structure of the film, giving it an even more excellent place in his canon. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek may feel sanitized when compared to the comedies of today, but it was more subversive and thumbing its nose at conventions than anything you might see in a modern cineplex.