In 1934, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association began enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code. Its goal was to “govern the production of talking pictures,” to bring them to a “higher level of wholesome entertainment for all the people.” As the Code reduced the quality of cinema to the inoffensive homily of a Sunday school lesson, dissidents could skirt around sticky issues through double entendres, elaborate metaphors, or killing off the gangster in the final reel. Only the occasional filmmaker would attack the Code head on.
My initial reaction to Preston Sturges’ 1944 comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, was, “How the hell did this get made?” The story centers on goodtime gal Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) — the name alone! — who, in the interest of supporting the troops, gets impregnated and married while out on a wild night with a group of soldiers headed overseas. She lives in a picket-fence town that would frown on her condition and so, she tries to finagle schnook Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), with whom she was supposedly at the movies on her fateful night, into marrying her. But he only ends up entangled in a variety of legal troubles, including bigamy.
As pointed out in the brief documentary, “Censorship: Morgan’s Creek vs. the Production Code,” included on Paramount’s DVD reissue, Sturges stitched jabs at the Code into his screenplay. The idea that the soldiers would all marry their party paramours before having sex with them is clearly ridiculous. Likewise, Trudy’s shaky memory is directly credited to hitting her head on a chandelier, not the “victory lemonade” everyone was drinking. This did not go unrecognized at the time; the documentary quotes James Agee writing upon its release, “The Production Code Office has been raped in its sleep.”
But in the end, the movie holds up the “higher aims” of the Hays Code, in that it is a “powerful force for the improvement of mankind.” Sturges says in his memoir, “I wanted to show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity. As I do not work in a church, I tried to adorn my sermon with laughter so that people would go to see the picture instead of staying away from it” (Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, Touchstone 1990: 300).
Far from being a sermon, the movie is no bromide against girlish promiscuity, but a mature consideration of love found through “unconventional” means. Sturges doesn’t dispute the Code’s disapproval of fickle matrimony, but he sees Trudy’s marital blunders as a natural progression towards a responsible one. Her transition affects the entire Kockenlocker clan, as her sharp-tongued 14-year-old sister Emmy (Diana Lynn) and violently protective father (William Demarest), journey from selfishness to familial warmth.
Many of Sturges’ other films, including The Lady Eve and Remember the Night, are about a heroine’s journey to love from cynicism or selfishness. But unlike these films, Morgan’s Creek isn’t an out and out screwball comedy. It’s not set in a flighty world of urban sophistication, but a judgmental small town, and Sturges treats the subject seriously, even if the dialogue is dialogue (“The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman… No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to”).
Despite frequent critical claims that this is one the funniest films to come out of classic Hollywood, I’d have to disagree. In its balance of high comedy and quotidian misery, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek anticipates the humanistic satires of Alexander Payne more than it forms an apex of its era. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t funny. Particularly in the first act and in the minutes leading to the smash-bang closing punch line, it features Sturges’ usual brilliance — a coterie of bright, original supporting players and breakneck overlapping dialogue.
Lynn delivers her lines with the gum-snapping verve of a teenage Barbara Stanwyck and Demarest’s insanely physical pratfalls help to make up for Bracken’s underwhelming performance. While a capable average Joe, he never had enough tricks in his bag, frequently resorting to desperate exaggeration. In her first major leading role, Hutton finds an ideal outlet for her exuberant persona. Her enthusiasm could be cloying, but in Morgan’s Creek, it lends Trudy an endearing awkwardness of the naove girl bursting to bust out. It’s easy to understand why she wants to go out with the soldiers and to sympathize with the burden of her mistakes.
How did Morgan’s Creek get past the MPPDA? After watching Trudy fall in love, I’d like to imagine that the censors found it hard to give a damn about what the Hays Code said about the proper conduct of marriage.