Absolutely no one did for American comedy what Preston Sturges did throughout his relatively short but brilliant career that brought forward many astonishing and unforgettable works. He is on the same level of wit and complexity as the likes of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, who are often seen as among the greatest comedic minds of their generation. Perhaps hyperbolic, but there has yet to be a film in which Sturges was either at the helm, or at least working on the screenplay, that didn’t feel enticing, compelling and utterly exhilarating. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek may not reach the heights of some of his other films (including Hail the Conquering Hero, which was produced in the same year, alongside the more melancholy The Great Moment), but it is still a delightfully charming comedy that sees the esteemed director doing what he did best, crafting an off-kilter story of small-town mentalities and those with enormous ambitions that extend beyond the corners of their homes, which lead to the kind of hilarious antics we have grown to expect from the director. It’s a wonderful and compelling comedy that once again proves that Sturges was undeniably amongst our finest writers and directors, and even if my perception of him is somewhat obscured by the bias that comes with the deepest reverance and devotion to his ideas, even from an objective perspective, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a terrific film, the kind of sincere comedy that feels like it was built from a place of genuine interest in the subject matter, and the bold desire to go beyond what we’d expect in favour of subversion, which was amongst his greatest gifts as an artist.
Sturges’ films were always so delightful due to the fact that he never needed to resort to excess to entertain the viewer. While several of them are quite audacious and take a very interesting approach to certain subjects, there was never any need to go above and beyond our expectations to evoke humour, since we knew that, regardless of the specific story or socio-cultural milieu in which he was working, Sturges would produce something captivating and wickedly funny. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is one of his more experimental films in terms of the story, since it focuses on a young woman who, in a drunken haze, not only accidentally marries a complete stranger but finds herself becoming pregnant with his child, leading to a series of misadventures that eventually involves half the town as they scramble to help her resolve this issue without encountering too much trouble. At the time in which this film was made, the idea of an unwed, single mother was not something that was particularly appreciated by the puritanical standards of the time (as defined by the Hays Code, which was quite combative with Sturges throughout his career, but only led to him making more subversive films to further prove the relentless ineptitude of these censors in adjudicating what was supposedly decent, and what crosses the boundaries of morality), but yet it is all so delicately handled in this film, with the director ensuring that there was never anything less than total respect given to the main characters, with all judgment being reserved for the slightly villainous figures that seek to dictate how one goes about their lives.
This film sees Sturges assemble a cast of excellent but lesser-known character actors, many of whom are amongst his regular coterie of players. No one here is particularly well-known outside of the context in which the film was made, but there were also not entirely obscure – Eddie Bracken was considered a Broadway legend that had a relatively successful career in Hollywood, while Betty Hutton held court as one of the most endearing entertainers, capable of everything from slapstick comedy to heartbreaking melodrama – and this isn’t even mentioning the sprawling cast of supporting players, all of whom are absolutely delightful from beginning to end. Sturges’ films may not have always been known for the calibre of fame when it comes to the actors, but rather the quality of their performance – and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek certainly does not fall short where it matters. Bracken is hilarious, and manages to play the part of the hesitant young man with such aplomb, taking us on this journey of misadventure – but its Hutton who is the beating heart of the film, the complex heroine with a heart of gold and a warm sense of humour. She’s a revelation here, playing the part of the anxious protagonist with such detail. Both of the leads (in addition to the supporting cast) handle Sturges’ writing beautifully, rising to the occasion of working under his rhythmic dialogue and challenging scenarios without any hesitation, and turning in profoundly strong performances that feel genuinely insightful and wickedly funny. They’re more subtle in comparison to other screwball comedies, but there are innumerable moments of absolute hilarity that feel truly exceptional, and make for a profoundly interesting experience in terms of characterization.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek may not have the blatant social commentary of Sullivan’s Travels or the wall-to-wall humour of The Palm Beach Story, but it does possess something just as important – it has a real, genuine sense of heartfulness that propelled the story. All three of the films Sturges made in 1944 feature the same kind of peculiar attention to emotions, often being an abstract combination of absurd humour and very tender, melancholic human connection, which is not entirely foreign to his work (he was one of our great social critics, and captured the human experience like few other comedy-inclined artists), but was still quite surprising considering how much of his work verged on cynical. This is the most gentle of satires, a film where even the most despicable characters turn out to have compassion, and where the resolution is both surprising and genuinely moving, which may not be predicted from a surface-level glance. There’s a lot of value in centring a film of this calibre on its characters, who are shown to be far more than just thin archetypes – Sturges’ modus operandi when it came to putting characters together was to take conventional figures and facilitating their growth – absolutely no one in his films remains stagnant, and they all show growth, even those who are coded as villains. Its an intriguing concept that may not be entirely revolutionary, nor particularly notable (since it doesn’t factor too heavily into the plot for the most part), but it helps when the director is showing his intention to explore deeper issues from the perspective of characters who are far more complex than we’d expect based on a cursory glance, which is always something we should expect from a filmmaker this subversive and experimental in how he captures the human condition.
It is obvious that The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek can never be proclaimed Sturges’ masterpiece, despite being a very good film that is effective in everything it aims to do. The question here isn’t whether or not he is capable of handling the material, but rather the extent to which he can push this relatively conventional film to the limit, exploring issues around social decorum with a degree of elegance and humour, something we don’t often come across in terms of this wildly entertaining films about ordinary individuals who may live in small towns, but have broader ambitions that keep them active, avoiding the dangers that come with a very unconventional mindset. It’s a quaint film that doesn’t run too long and is filled to the brim with jokes that are both hilarious and meaningful – and what else would we expect from a director like Sturges, who frequently and without any hesitation provides us with a delightfully irreverent tale of individuality, humanity and deep compassion? It’s a terrific film, and one of the many pieces of evidence towards Sturges’ status as one of our great masters, a director whose name will always be associated with strong, well-formed stories that blend human drama with outrageous comedy, and which always, regardless of subject matter, manage to entertain audiences from all generations, proving to be works that are timeless and universally resonant.