Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), a low-paid clerk at the Baxter Coffee Company in New York City, is a habitual contest participant, always trying his luck at lotteries, drawings, and slogan contests. His favorite daydream is to one day win the top cash prize for his efforts so he can move out of his noisy tenement apartment on the East Side and marry his girlfriend, Betty (Ellen Drew). Suddenly, Jimmy's fortune changes drastically when he is informed his jingle has won the $25,000 grand prize in his rival company's Maxford Coffee competition. Little does he realize that his sudden fame is completely bogus; it was an elaborate joke engineered by three fellow office workers. But before he learns the truth, he goes on a massive buying spree for his poor neighborhood, compounding the financial problems he will soon be facing.
Christmas in July (1940) was Preston Sturges' second feature film and was completed just before the director's career entered the fast track to success with his subsequent feature, The Lady Eve (1941). In many ways the film shares key similarities to other Sturges' films with its sharp satire of American materialism and its love for eccentric characters, but the tone is closer to the movies of Frank Capra and straddles a fine line between sunny optimism and hopeless pessimism.
Christmas in July celebrates an American dream that is still popular today - that of winning a fortune and discovering overnight fame. But as experienced by the naive Jimmy MacDonald, the price of success is an ambiguous one. His excitement over winning the contest isn't simply about the money; it's about self-worth, something a lot of people lacked in the demoralizing atmosphere of the Depression years. As Jimmy says, "To be poor and unknown one minute, and to be sitting on top of the world the next minute, that's a feeling nobody can ever take away from me." Even more important to Jimmy is the fact that he won the contest for his originality - "You see, I used to think maybe I had good ideas...but now I know it!" Of course, the irony is that Jimmy doesn't yet realize that the congratulations telegram is a hoax. Nevertheless, his unlikely winning jingle for the Maxford Coffee Company - "If you can't sleep, it's not the coffee, it must be the bunk" - has a resonance no one could have foreseen.
Sturges began adapting Christmas in July for the screen while working on his debut feature, The Great McGinty(1940). The script was based on his original three act play, A Cup of Coffee, which was originally purchased by Universal; it was the project that first brought Sturges to Hollywood. Luckily, Paramount was able to secure the rights from their rival studio and Sturges went to work writing specific parts for his favorite characters actors, an ensemble that included William Demarest, Harry Rosenthal, Byron Fougler, Arthur Hoyt, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin and numerous others. For leading actor Dick Powell, Christmas in July was quite a departure from his usual roles in that he wasn't required to croon any songs. While he still played a variation of the happy-go-lucky chorus boy that was his trade in the Warner Brothers musicals, he also revealed a flip side to that character, one who could sink into the blackest despair over his poverty-ridden existence.
During the course of its filming, Christmas in July went through various titles changes - from A Cup of Coffee to The New Yorkers to Something to Shout About before its final naming. The filming went fairly smoothly, but according to writer Rob Edelman in MaGill's Survey of Cinema, "Paramount...went to great expense to produce a still photograph that hangs in a wall moulding in Betty Casey's apartment. The shot is of Hester and Essex Streets circa 1900. A group in period dress (including character actors Richard Denning, William Frawley, Jean Cagney, Lillian Cornell, and Douglas Kennedy, who are not in the film) is pictured in and around a gasoline buggy. It took an entire morning to shoot and cost Paramount a day's salary for more than a score of actors and technicians. Also, Sturges uses an Alfred Hitchcock trick when he plays a bit part in his film, as a man having his shoes shined at the beginning."
The director did run into a little trouble with the censors at the Hays Office over some dialogue in his script of Christmas in July. They demanded that several lines be omitted or revised; "God rest his soul" (uttered in the film by an Irish mother) was changed by Code administrator Joseph I. Breen to "May his dear soul rest in peace" and "schlemiel" was substituted with "schnook" in an attempt to avoid what is now known as racial profiling. Sturges did manage to have the last laugh though. In Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, author Donald Spoto wrote that the director managed "to retain an amusing shot in the early part of the film, an intercut from Powell and (Ellen) Drew on the rooftop to two snuggling rabbits in a corner cage. This particular visual allusion had been attempted by filmmakers and rejected by censors so often that virtually no director bothered to try to include it any longer. At the preview screening, however, someone nodded and it remained, to the censors' later chagrin."
When Christmas in July went into general release, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. The Hollywood Reporter labeled it "a ten-strike for Sturges as a writer-director." Time magazine wrote, "As director, Sturges converted this unpretentious plot into a happy, slightly noisy comedy with a Chaplinesque background of pathos....A good dramatist, Sturges kept his characters credible by the simple but neglected technique of letting them act like people." While Christmas in July is just a warm-up for Sturges' best comedies, it strikes a wonderful balance between the director's urban sophistication and his compassion for the "common man."
by Jeff Stafford, TCM