Christmas in July has always been one of Sturges’ most overlooked (and best) films.
Preston Sturges’ 1940 comedy Christmas in July is a 68-minute, screwball opera of assumptions. A trio of office workers assume that their light-hearted joke will play out just fine. A narrow-minded boss assumes that his wage workers are only worth something if they’ve got the money and notoriety to back it up. A brutish company owner hands over a check for $25,000, assuming its recipient is honest. If to assume is to make an ass out of “u” and “me,” then consider this film a stable full of donkeys.
And where there’s an ass, there’s often a butt of the joke. In this case, it’s aspiring slogan writer and office worker Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), who can’t wait to hear the results of the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest, where he’s just sure people will love his pun-loving submission, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk!” Jimmy’s earnest enthusiasm to know the contest results seems to amuse three of his office workers, further prompting them to forge a telegram informing Jimmy that he’s won the $25,000 grand prize.
Being a Preston Sturges screwball comedy, this ill-advised joke quickly splinters off into zany and absurd directions. Jimmy’s boss, J.B. Baxter (Ernest Truex, playing the head of Baxter’s Coffee, the direct competitor to Maxford House), isn’t even mad at the contest results—he takes Jimmy’s prize as a promising sign that this lowly wage slave he knew nothing about before today must be worth something. Even though, mind you, Jimmy has visited the marketing team countless times about his slogans and was always dismissed as insignificant. Baxter quickly brings Jimmy into a marketing meeting to pitch slogans, promotes him with a raise and new private office, and even gives Jimmy’s co-worker and sweetheart Betty (Ellen Drew) a promotion to secretary. Afterwards, when Jimmy goes to collect the check from Dr. Maxford himself (Raymond Walburn, in the film’s most uproariously funny output of slapstick hilarity), things get a lot more hopeful for our protagonist yet far more somber for an audience that’s already aware of his fate.
Because, of course, this is $25,000 we’re talking about, which in today’s economy would fall just shy of half a million dollars. And while this monetary amount is adjusted for inflation, Sturges’ biting commentary on enterprise economics and classism still rings true. “What are you planning to do, now that you’re a capitalist?” Jimmy is asked early on, and Christmas in July finds its soul by examining how exactly this good and honest man handles his newfound fortune. While some may receive “a small loan of a million dollars” and use it for funding self-interests and indulgences, Jimmy uses his money to immediately buy an engagement ring for Betty, new home furnishings for his mother and gifts for every single person in his tight-knit neighborhood. Amongst the climactic gift-giving, there is a joyous shot of a young girl in a wheelchair who receives a doll, hugs it tight and looks up at Jimmy with teary eyes. And then, like clockwork, capitalism comes roaring in like the running of the bulls.
As soon as Maxford inevitably finds out the contest never concluded, and that Jimmy’s check was bestowed with false assumptions, he rounds up his cronies and calls up the business where Jimmy purchased all his gifts. Both groups come running to Jimmy’s neighborhood, tearing toys out of the hands of children and threatening Jimmy as a liar. Regardless of how this all turns out (the movie still has a few tricks up its sleeves), Christmas in July is ultimately a film about the duality of those who take and those who give; the exploration of how money changes our perceptions of not only other people, but also ourselves; and it’s also a riotously funny and profoundly moving film from one of the greatest writer-directors of comedy to ever gift us with his stories. Sturges is of course recognized for his more renowned works like Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, but Christmas in July has always been one of his most overlooked (and best) films.