The Funny Papers: A Christmas Miracle Comes for Trudy Kockenlocker
Many a cinephile enjoy debating what films merit the definition for a holiday movie. Ever since Preston Sturges directed The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), the controversy surrounding the film was less focused on whether it’s a Christmas movie, but more on the shock that it ever passed the production code under Breen’s watchful eyes.
Written and directed by the king of screwball comedies, Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) is a silly, madcap twist on a wartime immaculate conception like a Mayberry vision of the Hollywood Canteen crossed with the birth of baby Jesus. Well, not exactly.
Betty Hutton portrays Trudy Kockenlocker a small-town girl with a big, patriotic heart for soldiers going off to World War 2. Eddie Bracken is Norval Jones, the nervous, klutzy fella-next-door who has always been in love with her. Trudy is the prettiest gal in town who charms with a sweet disposition, high octane energy that thumps like a snare drum, and emotions ready to bubble up at the drop of a hat. Trudy’s family includes her fourteen-year-old sister Emmy (Diana Lynn) who is mature beyond her years, level-headed. and dry-humored and her overly strict cop dad, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest). There are many character roles of note that frequently pop up, including Brian Donlevy (as “Gov. McGinty”) and Akim Tamiroff (“the Boss”), reprising their roles from Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty (1940).
After Trudy convinces Norval to go solo on their date so she can sneak away to entertain the deploying troops at a dance, what she believes to be her patriotic duty, things don’t exactly go as planned. At the dance, she drinks spiked lemonade and receives a head injury on a mirrored ball while dancing with a constant stream of dancing soldiers. Trudy meets up with Norval at eight o’clock in the morning with an intoxicated glow and a very foggy memory of the night’s events. Norval gets her home and takes the heat, despite his complete lack of any wrongdoing.
Confiding privately to her little sister, Trudy reveals a wedding ring with a vague memory of giving pseudonyms for a marriage ceremony. She admits she has no memory of who her ‘husband’ actually is. Sure enough, Trudy and Emmy visit both the town doctor and attorney to reveal that Trudy’s pregnant, and with no clue or recourse of what to do next. Emmy is confident that Trudy must marry Norval immediately to hide this secret.
Emmy (on Papa’s reactions): “He won’t say much, he’ll just shoot Norval so full of holes he’ll look like a swiss cheese.”
Emmy (on how Norval fits into this): “He brought you home at 8 o’clock in the morning, didn’t he? He fits in like a skin on a wienie.” (On Norval’s suitability to marriage) “He was made for it. Like the ox was made to eat, and the grape was made to drink. I’ll get you the swiss on rye.”
As Trudy tries her best to recall her mystery husband, all she can remember is that his last name was something ending in a “z” or “ski”, like “Private Ratzky-Watzky.” Things grow more chaotic and screwy from there, as Norval and Trudy attempt to elope. In a hilarious scene of nerve-wracked nuptials, Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken stutter and stammer through this scene like none ever witnessed on the big screen. Their covert attempt to salvage Trudy’s reputation is interrupted with a bevy of various law enforcement that results in Norval being taken to jail. Equally funny is the scene where Constable Kockenlocker helps him break out of jail and into a bank. Needless to say, everything goes all haywire.
You may be asking yourself by now, where does this film become a Christmas movie? Everything gets resolved on Christmas day when Trudy- and Norval, by proxy- become parents, in the most extraordinary way that becomes a world-wide event. Even Hitler himself becomes rattled. For the sake of those who haven’t seen this screwball delight, I’ll keep some details and the ending our little secret.
No one is safe from satire in this classic slapstick. This film mocks motherhood, marriage, shotgun weddings, small towns, the criminal justice system, law enforcement, unrealistic and repressive societal morality codes, and, frankly, pretty much everything.
If you pause to think about it, it’s not exactly the most flattering view of our servicemen going off to war. I’m still amazed this passed the censors in 1944. Consider the portrayal of the mystery military serviceman- who essentially took advantage of a girl (who was either loopy from spiked lemonade and/or a concussion from a disco ball- regardless she was not in her right head), then marries her after he suggested doing so under phony names. To recap, our Ratsky-Watsky gave false names for a fast wedding to a compromised young woman that he just met that night, which results in pregnancy, knowing he was shipping off to war the next morning and made no attempt to contact her or leave even a note, let alone a copy of the marriage certificate. The film simply assumes they’ll never see this soldier again, which is hardly a vote of confidence that he ever had any decent intentions. Trudy’s limited memory only recalls his name as “Ratzky Watzky” and the fact that his name begins with “rat” doesn’t seem like merely a coincidence.
Meanwhile, nervous Norval’s inability to serve his country is explained as an extreme case of anxiety-driven nerves and hypertension, where he envisions ”spots” every time he attempts to sign up. He’s a jumpy, bundle of overly-excited energy. And yet, not only does he consistently do the honorable thing at every turn, he stands up for Trudy no matter what. He displays the most clear-headed, calm confidence when defending his love for Trudy. Despite his frequent fears, Norval faces them, time and time again. Ultimately and unexpectantly, he’s the cowardly lion that turns out to possess more courage than them all.
Norval (dancing around the topic of marriage on the porch): “Can’t expect a girl to see much in a civilian, these days. Even an unwilling civilian. If they had uniforms for them, it might be a little different.”
If anything, this film seems to be championing the unsung heroes of the war. Who is braver? The one in the uniform who goes off to war but lacks honor back home? Or the men and women who must continue forging onward back home but exhibit their honor and bravery without a uniform? I don’t think The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) is actually suggesting all soldiers were engaging in dishonorable send-offs or lacked integrity as a whole. In fairness, we never meet the mystery GI so his side of the story is impossible to assume.
This is an all-out, belly-laughing, screwball comedy, after all; not a societal morality bellwether. But, to this day, I find it to be a startling surprise in the Hays Code annals of golden Hollywood history. If you’re a fan of screwball classics like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), I think you’ll really enjoy Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, especially during the holidays.
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing as her day gig, Kellee Pratt teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and more). She’s worked for Turner Classic Movies as a Social Producer and TCM Ambassador (2019). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayhawk66 or her own blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com).