Christmas in July (1940)
It’s not Christmas and it’s not July, but this movie isn’t about those either, so here we go!
Christmas in July was written and directed by Preston Sturges, whose career is astonishing both for its quality and its brevity. He wrote and directed several timeless classics like The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Sullivan’s Travels (1942), as well as working on the scripts for Easy Living (1937) and Love Before Breakfast (1936), but his extraordinary run of successful films only lasted about four years.
He’s also notable for using a “troupe” of actors. This movie features Franklin Pangborn, who made six movies with Sturges, and William Demarest, who appeared in eight. Sometimes you have to really look for these actors; for instance, in this film Pangborn is the radio show announcer, and in The Palm Beach Story he plays the apartment building manager. See how many of Sturges’ stock company you can spot!
Christmas in July was Sturges’ second writing/directing project, though it has its roots in a play he wrote much earlier. In 1931, long before The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, the budding writer penned a play called A Cup of Coffee, though it didn’t hit a stage until a 1988 Off-Broadway production in New York.
In 1934, Universal hired Sturges to direct a film version of A Cup of Coffee, but it fizzled before it made it to the screen. In the meantime, Sturges kept writing scripts and plays until he finally got the chance to direct his own screenplay of The Great McGinty (1940) at Paramount. After that film’s success, Paramount bought A Cup of Coffee for $6,000 and Sturges finally got the chance to make it into a movie.
Originally, Christmas in July was to star William Holden and Betty Field, but eventually Dick Powell was cast with Ellen Drew. The part was different from Powell’s usual fare because he didn’t have to sing. He’d become a star in the 1930s in Warner Bros.’ Gold Diggers series, though he would branch out quite a bit from those crooner roles in the 1940s. He enjoyed a long, varied career that included directing, producing, and several radio and television projects. Fun fact: when he made this movie, he was married to Joan Blondell, though they divorced in 1944 and he married June Allyson in 1945.
Ellen Drew was a relative newcomer compared to Powell. Born Esther Loretta Ray, she came to Hollywood and worked in an ice cream parlor where William Demarest befriended her and helped her get a start in movies. In 1938, she changed her stage name to Ellen Drew and got a contract at Paramount. This is probably her best known film; although she worked steadily through the 1940s, she never became a big star.
To the film! We open on a rooftop in New York City where Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew) listen with rapt attention to the Maxford House Coffee Radio Program.
Fun fact: during the Golden Age of Radio, commercials as we know them were very rare. Instead, programs sold the naming rights to companies who sponsored the show.
That’s why radio programs were called things like the “Champion Spark Plug Hour” (Champion sold–you guessed it–spark plugs), “Lux Radio Theatre” (Lux soap was a big brand at the time), and “King Biscuit Time” (named for King Biscuit Flour–it still runs to this day!). So contemporary audiences would have been very familiar with shows like the “Maxford House Coffee Radio Program.”
Jimmy and Betty are just two of thousands listening because the Maxford House Coffee Slogan contest winners will be announced on the air that evening. The top prize is $25,000 (roughly $430,000 in 2017 dollars!) with $5,000 going to the fifth place finisher.
That’s why taxi drivers, servants, shoe shine guys, and pool rats stare at their radios. Fun fact: the man in the boater getting his shoes shined (top right) is none other than Preston Sturges!
Jimmy entered the slogan contest, and he’s positive that he will win the grand prize. His jingle “If you don’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk!” fills him with confidence even though no one else gets it. They insist that coffee keeps you awake, so his slogan makes so sense. But Jimmy heard of one doctor somewhere who said that coffee actually puts you to sleep, so he went with the coffee/bunk pun.
As Betty and Jimmy wait through the announcer’s (Franklin Pangborn) patter, they discuss why so much depends on this contest. Basically, Jimmy wants a lot more money before he will marry Betty because he saw how difficult life was for his parents who scrimped and saved on small salaries. But Betty would rather go ahead and start their life together; after all, she makes $18 and he makes $22 a month, so that’s something! (about $690 in today’s dollars). They could be very happy on that, and at least they would be together!
But Jimmy shakes his head and goes into the old song and dance about how you need money to be happy. Usually this idea is expressed by a gold digger justifying her search for a rich man: she watched her mom and dad suffer and saw their love crushed by the stress of survival. She wants something different, and she is convinced that a big chunk of change will be the key to everlasting happiness. (See Hands Across the Table, Midnight, Moon Over Miami, The Palm Beach Story, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire). Of course, by the end she is deliriously in love with an average guy because Hollywood insists on love trumping material concerns, but that’s how the movies start!
Sturges was no stranger to this theme. His movies often explore the connection between money, love, and happiness, as you can see in Easy Living (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Although this was a common preoccupation in classic Hollywood, it’s a bit unusual to have these sentiments expressed by a man. Usually in movies of this era that gender is portrayed as more pragmatic, and as long as they can eke out a living they are fine.
Anyway, back to the film. Pangborn is ready to announce the winners when he receives the shocking news that the jury in charge of choosing the winning slogans is deadlocked! One would assume they would have checked on that little detail before going live, but oh, well.
Dr. Maxford, (Raymond Walburn) the head of the company, rushes to the jury room nearly apoplectic with rage. You can watch the opening of the movie here.
The foreman, Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest), is the lone holdout, but even Dr. Maxford can’t convince him to change his vote. So Pangborn explains to the listening audience that the results will not be announced that evening. Jimmy is disappointed, but still optimistic about his chances.
He and Betty say goodnight beside two bunnies in a cage on the rooftop. That may not seem like much more than a cute detail, but actually it was a big deal.
Donald Spoto wrote in his book Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, that the director was able “to retain an amusing shot in the early part of the film, an intercut from Powell and (Ellen) Drew on the rooftop to two snuggling rabbits in a corner cage. This particular visual allusion had been attempted by filmmakers and rejected by censors so often that virtually no director bothered to try to include it any longer. At the preview screening, however, someone nodded and it remained, to the censors’ later chagrin.” Ha-get it?!
The cuddling bunnies weren’t the only risky thing that Sturges slipped into the film. Much of his dialogue caught the censors’ attention, too. According to TCM, the Production Code Office asked that an Irish mother’s line, “God rest his soul,” be changed to “May his dear soul rest in peace.” And the word “schlemiel” was changed to “schnook” in “an attempt to avoid what is now known as racial profiling.”
The next day, Betty and Jimmy file into their office at a rival coffee company (nice touch, Sturges!). They sit at their desks as the bell rings to start the day and begin punching calculators and banging typewriters in their intentionally dull, anonymous jobs. You can watch it here.
Jimmy’s obvious distraction attracts his boss’ attention. When Jimmy explains about the contest, the boss softens and gives him some wisdom: he will probably never in his life have $25,000 (remember, it’s equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today), but that doesn’t mean he’s a failure. If he pays his bills and looks the world in the eye, he’s a success even if he is never rich.
While Jimmy is busy with the boss, three pranksters are making a fake telegram. They heard Jimmy talking about the slogan contest and decide to write a telegram announcing he won the grand prize. (For more on telegrams, visit this History Through Hollywood post.)
As you can imagine, Jimmy freaks out when he reads the telegram. He grabs Betty and they announce their tremendous good fortune to the room. Then Jimmy calls his mom and tells her that she is finally going to get the davenport (sofa bed) she’s been wanting for years, and all the other things she’s been dreaming of but has never been able to afford. And it’s not just about the money–Jimmy suddenly feels like a worthwhile person: “You see, I used to think maybe I had good ideas…but now I know it!” he says. It’s all rather poignant because the audience knows that the whole thing is a hoax.
Jimmy’s immediate unselfishness and new sense of self-worth make the prank considerably less amusing to its instigators. And it just gets worse: the president of the company, Mr. Baxter (Ernest Truex), hears the celebration and furiously chastises the workers. Then he fires Jimmy, but immediately re-hires him when he finds out about the contest. All this time, the three jokesters are trying to get Jimmy’s attention. Their prank has gone way too far, but they aren’t able to stop it. You can watch the scene here.
Mr. Baxter is impressed by Jimmy and invites him to share his ideas with the executive team. Jimmy immediately devises a new slogan: “Baxter’s, the Blue Blood Coffee: it’s bred in the bean.”
Mr. Baxter then promotes Jimmy to the junior executive level and gives him a private office. Things just keep getting better!
Then Jimmy and Betty go to Maxford House to pick up the $25,000 check. You’d think that there would be procedures in place for something like this, but all Jimmy has to do is show Dr. Maxford the telegram!
Dr. Maxford lost all confidence in the jury after they messed up the radio broadcast, so he assumes that they messed up the result announcement, too. That’s why he doesn’t think it’s strange that he wasn’t notified when they chose a winner. (One of the joys of Sturges’ films is the slightly sideways characters he creates. They’re not so kooky as to be unbelievable, but just weird enough to create comedy gold. So you believe that Dr. Maxford is nutty enough to still be so mad at the jury that he wouldn’t bother calling them.) He writes the check and off Jimmy and Betty go!
They head straight for a jewelry store. Jimmy is finally rich, so he is ready to officially propose. You can watch the scene here.
Then it’s shopping time! First they buy a fancy gadget davenport that turns into a double bed with the press of a button. Notice the shoe shelf, water pitcher and glasses, radio, lamp, and phone that emerge out of the sofa’s arms! Fun fact: Sturges helped design the tricked-out sofa.
When the salesmen learn about Jimmy’s check, they fall over themselves in an effort to help them. They give Betty and Jimmy anything they want on credit, and the pair head home in a taxi packed with presents for everyone in the neighborhood, followed by three other full taxis. And all without paying a dime! As Betty says, “It’s like Christmas in July!”
When they get home, Betty and Jimmy shower the neighborhood with presents. Soon, the street is full of happy people. Meanwhile, Dr. Maxford finds out that the jury hadn’t actually chosen a winner yet and that he wrote a $25,000 check by mistake. He’s pretty upset.
Word spreads to the merchants that Jimmy’s check isn’t real and they rush to the neighborhood to take back their goods. A screwball fight ensues. Eventually, Dr. Maxford arrives and tears up Jimmy’s check while cruelly announcing that he didn’t win the contest after all.
It’s a heavy blow. Fortunately for Jimmy, though, the merchants transfer their anger to Dr. Maxford. They tell the neighborhood that they can keep the gifts; they will send the bills to Dr. Maxford, and sue him if he doesn’t pay up. At least they recognize that it wasn’t really Jimmy’s fault…he truly believed he won the contest, and as far as he knew the check was legitimate. It’s a great twist because it would be way too sad if the salesman ripped toys out of kids’ arms or carted Jimmy off to jail.
After Dr. Maxford and the merchants leave, Betty (in her new fur coat) and Jimmy sit on the stoop in shock. They’re soon joined by the three men from the office who have come to apologize for their terrible prank. They also bring a davenport for Jimmy’s mom in an attempt to make amends. It’s an old one and the crank falls off, but it’s a nice gesture. Though it can’t make up for what happened that day.
Then Betty and Jimmy decide to torture themselves even more by visiting his new office. The painter has just finished putting Jimmy’s name on the door when they arrive. It’s incredibly poignant.
Mr. Baxter stops by to congratulate Jimmy once more–he hasn’t heard the news yet. Jimmy and Betty try to salvage something from the day by asking Mr. Baxter if it really matters if Jimmy won the contest or not because Mr. Baxter and the other executives liked his ideas. So he should be in his new job regardless? He proved he can deliver, so the contest doesn’t matter, right?
No, says Mr. Baxter. It would matter very much if Jimmy didn’t actually win because Mr. Baxter doesn’t trust his own decisions. He recognizes that he makes mistakes every day, and he hasn’t “held onto his father’s money by trusting his own judgment!” Basically, even though he likes Jimmy’s ideas, he needs the assurance of the contest to prove they are really good. So now it looks as though Jimmy will lose the promotion, too.
But then Betty makes a heartfelt speech about how all anyone wants is a chance to succeed or fail, just a chance to show what one can do. She begs Mr. Baxter to let Jimmy prove himself in his new job, or fail and be replaced by someone else. In the end, Mr. Baxter agrees to let Jimmy stay for a trial period! Hurray–all is not lost.
Cut to Dr. Maxford in his office. It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for him, but it’s about to get even worse. Mr. Bildocker bursts in with great news: they’ve chosen a winning slogan:”If you don’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk!” Jimmy won after all! The end!
This film was in production for about a month from June 1 through the 29th, 1940, and premiered that October. Along the way, the movie went through several alternate titles including “A Cup of Coffee,” “The New Yorkers,” and “Something to Shout About” before they landed on “Christmas in July.”
It did well at the box office and with critics. The New York Times‘ reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote in November 1940 that the screening was “a joyous occasion…For this trick and wrily [sic] titled film, which is another of those one-man creations by Preston Sturges for Paramount, is just about as cunning and carefree a comedy as any one could possibly preordain—the perfect restorative, in fact, for battered humors and jangled nerves. As a post-election jog to national sanity, we recommend ‘Christmas in July.'” (The country had just held an election on November 5 and re-elected President Roosevelt over Wendell Wilkie.)
Crowther continued, praising Sturges for taking a simple idea and making it crackle: “Out of such gossamer, really, he weaves a delightful comic fabric before your eyes. How does he do it? Well, through the creation of solid comic characters, for one. His hero—and inevitable heroine—are just nice, honest youngsters, that’s all. They want a break, so they can get married. But against them are arrayed such a scatter-brained lot of practical jokers, business tycoons and slightly off-center store clerks that the attainment of the break becomes a gantlet. Then Mr. Sturges contrives some wholly bewitching surprises. Details are worked out with elaborate ingenuity. Things pop when you least expect them. He keeps you laughing with, not at, his youngsters.”
“And his performers are directed to perfection. Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, neither of whom has ever been especially notable for dexterity, emerge as a couple of nimble and captivating babes in a madcap wood. Raymond Walburn plays a big coffee merchant as though he were almost ripe for the nut-house. Almost, but not quite—that’s the secret. And ever so many other characters are given subtly distorted shape…As a creator of rich and human comedy Mr. Sturges is closing fast on the heels of Frank Capra.”
High praise from Mr. Crowther! But most other outlets agreed. Variety wrote, “Preston Sturges follows up his initialer with Paramount with another piece of bright, crispy, and refreshing entertainment.”
Hollywood Reporter noted that the film has an “effervescence to it, a freshness, that makes it very pleasant entertainment.”
Box Office Digest called it “corking entertainment that registers two important facts, the consistency of Sturges, and the evidence that Dick Powell is on the way to something like a new career as an actor.” And “all the folks up there on the screen were so enjoyable you could have taken a reel more without complaint!”
And American Cinematographer reviewed the movie, too, and called it “a picture worth seeing” and noted that it “is designed for comedy, with just a few serious moments to bring out more strongly the lighter phases.”
Fun fact: four years after Christmas in July premiered, Dick Powell reprised his role opposite Linda Darnell for a Lux Radio Theatre version produced by Lionel Barrymore. In 1954, NBC made a TV version for The Lux Video Theatre starring Florenz Ames and Sally Corner with Raymond Walburn back in his role as Dr. Maxford.