That crafty writer/director, Preston Sturges, knew that "Kockenlocker" was a most apropos surname for his main character, but Judge George Hatch still thinks it sounds like your basic chastity belt.
"The Hays Office had either been hypnotized into liberality, or had been raped in its sleep."—Film Critic James Agee
"Every single argument or complaint that was singled out by the Production Code was changed by Preston Sturges in a way that made the Hays Office look like idiots."—Actor Eddie Bracken
"What Preston tried to do was obey the letter of the law for the Production Code, but ignore, in its entirety, the very spirit of that law."—Sandy Sturges, the director's widow
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek completed filming in 1943, but its theatrical release was postponed for a year because The Hays Office considered its dialogue too risqué and its content too audacious. As Andrew Dickos, author of Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies, notes in one of the Extras, "Small-town life, marriage, family, service in the military—all of these American sacred cows—[were] turned upside down in a way that hadn't been done before."
Sturges also tackled other Code-forbidden topics such as bigamy, drunkenness, suicide, lewd behavior, and pre-marital pregnancy with such inventive and intuitive aplomb, he was able to slip this "unsavory" material past the censors by deploying old-fashioned slapstick routines and smart rapid-fire dialogue packed with innuendo.
Facts of the Case
Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton, The Greatest Show on Earth) sincerely feels it's her patriotic duty to send U.S. soldiers off to war with something to help them remember what they're fighting for—and it ain't Mom and apple pie. She regularly attends local USO-sponsored dances in church basements and country clubs, teaming up with as many G.I.s as possible, and sometimes going so far as to give them a peck on the cheek. The only beverage served is "Victory Lemonade," but the wincing expressions on those who imbibe suggest the punch bowl may have been spiked with something more potent than a sweetener.
During one exceptionally randy boogie-woogie number, Trudy's energetic partner tosses her in the air, and she bangs her head on a chandelier, rendering her unconscious. When she wakes up, she discovers that she's wearing a wedding ring, and, a few weeks later, learns that she's pregnant. But who and where is the husband and father? Confiding only in her younger-but-wiser, wisecracking sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay), they conspire a plan to defer the wrath of their father, the town Constable (William Demarest, The Lady Eve: Criterion Collection), and set out to salvage Trudy's reputation.
Time to call upon Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken, We're Not Married!), the town bumpkin who's had a crush on Trudy since they were teenagers. Norval desperately wants to enlist in the service and become one of the military men Trudy so admires. Unfortunately, when he becomes too agitated, he "sees spots," and is regularly rejected with a 4F status due to high blood pressure. So it looks like no uniform and no Trudy.
Norval has helped Trudy outwit her father in the past, but her latest scheme to use him as a dodge and go to the dance could result in his being charged with bigamy, impersonating a soldier, resisting arrest, perjury, impairing the morals of a minor, and an arm's-length rap sheet of other misdemeanors and felonies. Using crocodile tears and empty promises of true love, Trudy plays Norval like a violin, suckering him into her and Emmy's sly scenario. But when Norval comes up with an even cleverer ruse, Trudy realizes his genuine sincerity and finds that she's falling in love with him.
Have I given away too much of the plot? Nah! That's not even the half of it in this classic, subversive screwball comedy.
Preston Sturges was not only a director extraordinaire, but also a wizard at mischievous misdirection, using his cast and crew as shills and accomplices to distract the Hays Office away from what was actually being delivered in the subtext of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Following up on James Agee's comment (quoted above), James Ursini (author of The Fabulous Life and Times of Preston Sturges: An American Dreamer) agrees with critic James Agee that "The Hays Office had been raped in its sleep"—and adds that "they couldn't believe that this movie had been approved!"
Morgan's Creek opens with a manic telephone conversation between the town's local newspaper editor and the state's Governor McGinty (Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste), and continues to play out frantically behind the opening credits. When the word "Miracle" appears on screen, it glows and radiates with solemn religious significance, as if to prepare the audience for a film like The Song of Bernadette, released the year before. McGinty has never even heard of Morgan's Creek, but the editor is so agitated, the governor assumes the town has been flooded or that someone has struck oil. "No, Mr. Governor, what we've got here is—" McGinty becomes so apoplectic by the editor's revelation, that he thinks he's stubbing out his cigarette in an ashtray, but it's actually fallen into his lap and his crotch starts smoking. He calls in the media because Morgan's Creek has now become a matter of "state pride, national pride!" He wants to make sure the small town is on the state map. "If it ain't, maybe we can persuade them to move over or something."
We don't immediately learn what this earth-shattering event is because, as the editor relays the details, we're instantly taken back in time, turning the majority of the film into one long flashback. The editor had been writing a story about the girls in Morgan's Creek and soldiers camped out around the town. "I was looking out the window and there I saw Officer Kockenlocker, our town constable…"
So just how did a name like Kockenlocker slip past the ears of the censors? I believe the answer lies in razor-sharp editing, snappy dialogue, and the performances of a stellar cast. As the editor narrates his story, the image slowly dissolves into the scene he's talking about involving "Officer Kockenlocker." The name registers almost subliminally at this point, and it's quickly taken over by the constable bad-mouthing a few recruits who are looking for some girls to take to that evening's dance. "Shut up, rookie! Listen, cookie, I was in France before you was housebroken."
When two MPs stop and ask about the squabble, one of them recognizes Kockenlocker, as "a sergeant from the other war. It's all different now, Ed. It's all done with kindness. It's all psychological."
Psychological, indeed! With a subtle dissolve, during which the name may have barely been noticed, and then hearing it spoken by an Army official, this inside joke, clearly pornographic for the time, has now become acceptable. But how will it affect the constable's daughter, burdened with the same last name?
A young woman directs the soldiers to Trudy Kockenlocker. "She's one of the prettiest girls in town and she works right there in Mr. Rafferty's music store." To subvert the name again, we are introduced to Trudy entertaining some troops by lip-syncing a morbid dirge sung by a basso produndo. "Boom, boom. Boom, boom. Tolled the bell in the bay…" Betty Hutton throws her heart in soul into this piece, using exaggerated facial expressions and overly dramatic gestures. When she hits the last and lowest note (one that sounds like a burp), it becomes one of the funniest scenes in film history. I guarantee you'll find yourself replaying this scene over and over.
With a roar of laughter and a big round of applause, the soldiers ask if she'll be at the dance. They all want the first and, especially, the last, so Trudy has a full night ahead of her. Enter Norval, pushing his way through the troops. On the pretext of buying some photograph needles, he's actually come to invite her to a triple-bill at the local theater. Incidentally, those features are hilariously titled, "The Bride Wore Purple," "The Road to Reno," and "Are Husbands Necessary?" Sturges never missed a beat and worked every angle in this wicked satire of American values.
Trudy is genuinely apologetic, but Norval still feels the sting of rejection, not simply because of his nerdy personality, but for his failure to be accepted into the military. "Gee, you'd think they'd throw a party for those of us who have to stay behind. 'They also serve,' and do, oh, whatever they do. I forget."
So, using comedy and pathos, Kockenlocker becomes a surname almost as common as Jones or Smith.
Back in the Kockenlocker household, the constable is reading an editorial, "Are Military Marriages a Menace?," while his youngest daughter, Emmy, is playing "Here Comes the Bride" on the piano. "You ain't thinking about getting married, are you?" "Papa, I'm only 14. But it's all right to think about it, isn't it?" she asks coyly. "It doesn't cost you anything. It's only when you do it that it's costs two dollars." Emmy obviously knows more than she should for a girl her age. And when Trudy is all dolled up for the dance that evening, her father forbids her going because he knows "what happens at those things." Emmy chimes in with, "People aren't as evil-minded as they were when you were a soldier, Papa."
In the Extra, "Censorship: Morgan's Creek vs. the Production Code," we're shown some of the small changes requested by The Hays Office. Emmy's sarcastic comment was changed from "dirty-minded" to "evil-minded"—implying you can have dirty clothes or dirty hands, but not a dirty mind. It's a solid example of how the censors nitpicked minutia while, thankfully for us, they missed the big picture.
Several scenes between the constable and the smart-alecky Emmy end with his trying to give her a swift kick in the ass, but he ends up delivering major classic pratfalls. William Demarest was a pro at physical comedy, from slow-burns, double-takes, walking into walls, and these falls that would suspend him in the air about four feet before landing. Here again, some standard vaudeville shtick provided a diversion from Code-questionable material.
Sturges also pokes fun at his own title when the annoyed constable tells his daughter, "Someday they're just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. It'll be 'The Mystery of Morgan's Creek.' "
After Trudy's mysterious midnight tryst with, and marriage to, a soldier whom she can't even remember, Norval accuses her of drinking. "I only had lemonade!," she pouts. There's no doubt in the viewer's mind that the beverage was laced with alcohol when a few soldiers return to base and tell the sergeant about the great time they had the night before. The sergeant says, "If I had that much lemonade, I'd be sour for a week."—making a sly reference to a long and painful hangover. James Ursini notes that "the Hays Office actually thought it was more appropriate to have Trudy banged on the head and suffering from temporary amnesia, rather than acknowledge that she was actually drunk."
In the following scene with Emmy, Trudy remembers only that she was "dancing, and then driving down Main Street, and then Norval was waiting." This one-night stand angle is also handled gingerly when Emmy asks, "You didn't go to sleep somewhere or something, did you?" "No. Well, I don't think so. But someone said, 'Why don't we all get married!' Can you imagine getting hitched in the middle of the night with a curtain ring to somebody that's going 'way and you might never see again?"
Cue the suspense music. Both women do indeed see a curtain ring on Trudy's finger. It's a really clever touch, because this cheesy looking ring makes everyone laugh and forces them to forget (at least temporarily) Trudy's dire and Hollywood-unacceptable situation. Sturges also brings in another outlandish name as Trudy tries to remember whom she may have married. So many soldiers, so many names—but she does recall "a Z. Ratziwatski? Pvt. Ratziwatski? Or was it Zitskiwiski?"
Trudy's situation becomes even more complicated after a visit to her doctor, who gives her a list of instructions to follow. Although Sturges never mentions pregnancy, we know Trudy desperately has to marry someone—and fast!—because it's implied that a nine-month clock is ticking, and her small-town reputation is at stake. She consults an attorney on "behalf of a friend." The lawyer advises her, "Your 'friend' was very careless. The responsibility of recording a marriage has always been up to the woman. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future. It's up the woman to knock him down, hog-tie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses."
Sturges's hilariously brutal comment on marriage is immediately followed by an even more vicious attack on the legal system. Trudy asks about the possibilities of divorce, annulment, or even suing the man. "Annul who? Divorce who? Your 'friend' doesn't even know his name. I practice the law and I'm not only willing, but anxious, to sue anyone, anytime, for anything! But they have to be real people, with names, and meat on their bones. I can't work with spooks. Your friend doesn't need a lawyer, she needs a medium."
Of course, Trudy turns to old reliable Norval, but even he's smart enough to realize it would be bigamy for her to marry again. Sturges now boldly introduces two forbidden topics: bigamy and thoughts of suicide. The conniving Trudy tries to convince Norval that he's her only hope.
"Oh, Norval, it would be my dying wish that when they fish me out of the water, I would want you to know that my last thought would be of you."
"Fish you out? You mean the creek? What are you talking about, Trudy?"
"It's the only way when everything else has failed. Maybe we could jump in together."
"Well, there's not much water in the creek this time of year, Trudy."
Again, Sturges diffuses some touchy subject matter with a funny punchline. He also used extremely long panning takes of the couple during many of their walks and conversations. Difficult on the actors, to be sure, but it also made their budding romance and Trudy's gradual change of heart toward Norval more believable. Both Hutton and Bracken were adept at comic timing, both verbal and physical, and the chemistry between them is undeniably heartwarming without being overly sentimental.
Interestingly enough, in an interview, Bracken said he didn't want to work with Betty Hutton again. They had already co-starred in several films including The Fleet's In, Star Spangled Rhythm, and Happy Go Lucky, and Bracken felt that Buddy De Sylva, the head of Paramount Pictures, was using him as a segue character to promote Hutton's big song-and-dance numbers as the studio was intent on turning her into major star material. Sturges himself promised Bracken that The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was to be a "serious comedy [and] that Hutton would have only one song that she would lip-sync to a male voice." Bracken took the role, and you'd never know there was any conflict or resentment between the two actors. (You can find a more detailed account of this actor's interview under Accomplices, "Eddie Bracken: Miracle Man.")
I've gone into detail of only a half-hour of the film's running time and I don't want to spoil any surprises. For all of the ensuing zany situations and hectic plot twists, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and experience it for yourself.
While Preston Sturges virtually challenged every aspect of the Production Code with The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, he kept the audiences laughing. He also included more timely and relevant matters, such as the rationing of sugar ("Save it for our soldiers!), cotton and wool used for uniforms, rubber, and gas. I'm sure this pleased—and blind-sided—the Hays Office as it added some homefront appeal to the one of the most flagrant and funniest screwball comedies ever to slip past the Production Code.
Betty Hutton doffed her dancing shoes for this role because Sturges wanted to work with her. Playing such a provocative character, she may have been risking her career and incurring the anger of her fans who expected the usual singing and light-footed girl-next-door. But I'm certain this was part of the director's plan to waylay the censors. The following year, Eddie Bracken would star in Sturges's next film, Hail the Conquering Hero. Having outwitted the Production Code by getting away with a name like "Kochenlocker," the director made an apologia of sorts by calling Bracken's character "Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith." You can't get more patriotic than that!
Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels called upon many of his reliable regulars, including William Demarest, to fill out the supporting cast. He even had Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff reprise their characters as The Governor and The Boss, respectively, from his film The Great McGinty. And watch for a few quick cameo appearances by Hitler and Mussolini!
Paramount's transfer is excellent with sharp definition and balanced contrast. It's a beautiful presentation of cinematographer John Seitz's concept and interpretation life in a small town where cars and horse-drawn carriages shared the same street. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack is also fine, enhancing the perfectly cued score by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken, two more of Sturges's alumni. The manic dialogue is crisp and clear so you'll catch every bold-faced joke and subtle innuendo.
The two Extras, "Preston Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Censorship: Morgan's Creek vs. the Production Code" were obviously filmed at the same time and, together, run just under a half-hour. It's your basic talking-heads interviews with Sturges biographers James Ursini and Andrew Dickos, and the director's widow, Sandy, intercut with appropriate clips. The discussion has been neatly edited into two parts, concentrating on the two most important aspects of the film.
For more background about The Hays Office and the Production Code in general, I recommend reading The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and The Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons. If you're more interested in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek specifically, I would suggest Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey.
Words like "pregnant," "in the family way," or "with child" are never used in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. And toward the film's end, we see only close-ups of Betty Hutton's face, never a full body shot. Did The Hays Office really think they could hoodwink an audience into believing this "miracle" was the result of some kind of immaculate conception?
Rather than use "shock and awe" tactics, Preston Sturges stayed within the stodgy rules and requisites of The Production Code, and played his cards close to the vest. With a poker face, he chose to "misdirect and diffuse" controversial topics by using sophisticated, overlapping dialogue that crackles with realism, and he kept the film moving at a breakneck pace. Sturges was nominated for an Oscar for his original screenplay, and in 2001, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was included in the National Film Preservation Board's Official Registry.
Not guilty! But I do sentence The Miracle of Morgan's Creek to be screened at revival theaters, college film seminars, and in your own home on a regular basis.
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• Preston Sturges and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
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