Christmas in July Review

This title is only available as part of the 'Written and Directed by Preston Sturges' boxed set.

At 64 minutes Christmas in July is a spry affair and can’t help but feel a minor work in the Preston Sturges oeuvre. His follow up to The Great McGinty (made the same year), it softens that films unrelenting sourness with a fair dose of sentimentality and even chucks in Dick Powell, at this point in his career best known for his clean cut appearances in numerous Busby Berkeley ventures, as the leading man. Yet whilst Christmas in July may pale in comparison to this earlier picture, Sturges hasn’t softened up completely. Indeed, it once again takes us through a character’s rise and fall, but here the trajectory feels all the more calculated. Powell plays a lowly dreamer who’s entered a contest to come up with a new slogan for a giant coffee firm. Unbeknownst to him, the competition’s jury are still deliberating on a winner when he is informed, via a practical joke telegram, of his success and a prize of $25,000. Our “winner” then heads off with Ellen Drew in tow to spend his fictitious earnings…

What we have then is a film which merely masquerades as a happy picture. Whilst Powell and Drew are out buying toys for all the kids on their overcrowded block, we’re constantly aware their celebrations could be swiftly curtailed at any moment. Indeed, what we’re truly looking for is the bile underneath – in this case Sturges pot shots at the twin evils of capitalism and commercialism.

Interestingly, Powell doesn’t spoil the recipe. Christmas in July marked a transitory phase for the actor as he left behind the comparatively cosy world of the Busby Berkeley musicals and strayed into tough guy territory with the likes of Farewell, My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet), Johnny O’Clock and The Tall Target. His performance here is therefore something of a combination of the two – he’s not quite so bland as he was in Dames, say, or 42nd Street, whilst the brutal edges of his noir characters haven’t quite come too prominence yet. What we have then is the perfect Sturges everyman, and one at odds with the Frank Capra model. Over the course of these 64 minutes Powell is alternately anxious, deluded and bitter (he’s of immigrant stock and had a father who died in his early forties owing to their meagre existence), but with a cuteness which shines through on occasion and ultimately wins us over.

Importantly, however, this latter aspect doesn’t seem out of place as Christmas in July is in possession of a more cartoon-ish aspect to sit alongside its edge. Sturges’ roster of supporting players eagerly transcends the one-dimensional nature of their individual characters, yet they remain lightweight nonetheless. Indeed, much the same could be said of the film itself which perhaps makes it a perfect addition to the ‘Written and Directed by Preston Sturges’ collection. Too flimsy to warrant an individual release, it instead serves as an intriguing diversion when put alongside the classier likes of The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story.

The Disc

Christmas in July arrives on disc in reasonable, if far from perfect, condition. As with the other titles in Universal’s Preston Sturges collection we get the film in its original Academy ratio and with the original mono soundtrack (spread over the front two channels). In both cases the presentation is okay, though both are blighted by flaws. The image is the worst affected with rampant artefacting proving distracting as the result of a grainy print. The clarity of the image and contrast of the black and white is perhaps as should be expected from a film, and a minor film at that, from this time. As for the soundtrack, what we have is mostly agreeable without ever truly impressing. Certainly, every word can be heard, but the overall clarity is not on a par with The Great McGinty, the other 1940 Sturges picture to be issued by Universal. With regards to the extras we get a longwinded theatrical trailer, whilst the boxed set within which this disc appears also comes with an accompanying 20-page booklet which provides potted biographies for various cast members.

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