Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: Christmas In July

christmas in july indexDespite the title this is one of the least Christmas-y films to ever have the word Christmas in its name, and it’s only called such a thing after the lead character is led to believe he’s won a huge prize and so buys everyone he knows a present or two. A fairly short, lean effort from Preston Sturges of Sullivan’s Travels fame, this was the second film he directed based on a script he had written several years prior to its making, and while slow to get going it’s all but certain to leave you with a grin on your face by the end.

The lead character is one Jimmy McDonald (Dick Powell), who has entered a competition to come up with a slogan for a brand of coffee, but the jury can’t make a decision as to who should win it thanks to Mr Bildocker (William Demarest) being an irritating twat who won’t go with the choice of the other eleven men. Meanwhile three guys at Jimmy’s work, Tom, Dick and Harry, think it’s hilarious to play a prank on Jimmy, so they fake a telegram and trick him in to thinking he’s won the competition. Because the company that ran it is so poorly organised when Jimmy turns up with the telegram the boss Doctor Maxford (Raymond Walburn) thinks it must be real and he’s once again been left out of the loop, so he gives Jimmy the cheque. A crazy shopping spree ensues with Jimmy and his gal Betty (Ellen Drew) buying all manner of mod cons, and presents for everyone they’ve ever met, though of course soon the truth about the fake telegram is realised and Jimmy’s unfairly in hot water.

A tight 67 minutes, this is an amiable effort from Preston Sturges though it’s one of his flimsiest films, and the first half takes far too long to get going as Betty and Jimmy have a long, drawn out conversation at the beginning where Jimmy’s all kinds of surly and a reasonably shit boyfriend, moaning away about life and trying to convince Betty that the slogan he entered in to the competition – “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk!” – does make sense, even though she disagrees and can’t really understand it. That’s a running joke throughout the film, though most of the characters claim they get it and that it’s brilliant just because they don’t want to look stupid.

That includes Jimmy’s boss Mr Baxter (Ernest Truex) who’s already to fire Jimmy when he stands on his desk to announce that he’s won the competition, but when he hears about the money he instantly warms to Jimmy, to the extent that he gives him a promotion and a pay rise and suddenly thinks everything he says is wonderful, despite the opposite applying. Sturges is a little heavy handed when it comes to this idea, repeating the message constantly throughout the movie that if someone is confident enough they must be right, and those in power are often too stupid to query the idea, but there are definitely a good few scenes where the joke works.

Once Jimmy is armed with the cheque and goes on a shopping spree it becomes a far more entertaining movie thankfully, as certain individuals are obnoxious until they see just how rich Jimmy is, and there’s an entertaining selection of mod cons including a motorised sofa bed along with all of the various other presents he buys for everyone in his neighbourhood. When he arrives back home to his sceptical mother and dolls out the gifts the joy shared by all really is infectious, and even cynical neighbour Mr Zimmerman (Julius Tannen) and Jimmy’s mother (Georgia Caine) fall in with the happy atmosphere, until Doctor Maxford discovers that Jimmy wasn’t the winner, and he and the owner of the shop Jimmy purchased his goods from turn up wanting the man arrested.

This is Preston Sturges so there’s eventually a happy ending for nearly everyone, with Betty giving a speech that wins over Mr Baxter and saves Jimmy’s skin, but the way it ends in general is very strong. It’s a little frustrating that it is a film which takes so long to get going as after the half way point it sprints to the finish line, there’s a lot of great gags, cute visuals and appealing performances from everyone involved, with the local policeman being especially amusingly snarky, while the denouement with the ever frustrated Doctor Maxford is laugh out loud funny.

With a more appealing lead and a sharper first act this could have been a contender for one of the best family friendly movies of the period, and the rest of the cast give it their all, so if you can make it through that opening it is a film which delivers and then some. Sturges isn’t the most subtle of directors when it comes to parlaying his message, at least at this point in his career, but at least the one he imparts is an interesting one, and in the final thirty minutes there’s enough laughs to make this more than worthwhile.

★★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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