WEIRDLAND: "Christmas in July", "Johnny O'Clock": Dick Powell & Ellen Drew

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Christmas in July", "Johnny O'Clock": Dick Powell & Ellen Drew

Christmas in July (1940): Based on Sturges’s unproduced play A Cup of Coffee (written in 1931), the screenplay is primarily focused on the miserable social-economic context of the Great Depression, where lowerclass characters struggle with financial difficulties and unemployment, while they are constantly reminded by their superiors that every single working individual should believe they are a success. Once again, Sturges shows how values such as money, success, and self-esteem are mere pretexts that capitalism waves in front of the workers’ eyes. If, in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Harold’s boss makes clear that capitalism does not “start people at the top” as “That would be too easy. We do it the American way… from the bottom,” in Christmas in July, Jimmy’s supervisor theorizes: “No system could be right where only half of one percent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right.” As a consequence: “I’m not a failure—I’m a success.” Sturges shows how individuals belonging to opposite social classes end up sharing the same illusory beliefs.

When Betty and Jimmy discuss their future, the girl tries to convince her fiancé that they could live happily together in a hyper-functional oneroom apartment where the corner turns around and transforms into a bathroom, a kitchenette or a living room. The young man first opposes these foolish ideas with grounded skepticism, pointing out that the requirements for any successful marriage are work and money. His alternative solution, however, is not less improbable than the one devised by the girl: to invent a good advertising slogan and win the first prize in a coffee contest. When Jimmy receives a phony telegram forged by his colleagues, notifying him that he has won the contest, the news quickly spreads and it gains him a promotion, a raise, and the admiration of colleagues and neighbors.

The orgy of shopping, consumerism and gift-giving that follows will be as brief as Harold’s triumphal day, and it will soon bring everyone back to their miserable reality, and to a quick re-evaluation of Jimmy’s skills as an advertiser. As soon as the truth comes out, Jimmy, his boss, his girlfriend, his family, and the whole neighborhood will have to recognize not only the uncommonness of success and its illusory aspect, but also their own lack of good judgment in having conferred special talents on someone who did not actually possess any. Sturges does not provide the characters (and the viewer) with any form of consolation. Instead, he leaves them to face their own naiveté and superficiality, and to reflect on the vacuity and relativity of those values that society creates and believes in. In this way, the misunderstanding does not become the pretext for a moral lecture on money and real values, but is used as an occasion for a complex reflection of the effects of capitalism.

It is in this ambivalent representation of a world not based on any binary opposition of values and social classes, and in a general relativism that subscribes to no particular moral position, that we can trace an attitude extremely different from that of other movies of the same period. Gianni Vattimo labeled this kind of cynicism, that does not provide alternative solutions, with the term “weak thought,” a concept that invokes an end to all categorical pronouncements about the nature of the real and new respect for the finite foundations of human projects, where judgments of value are outcrops of care, and the differences among them are most sensibly to be negotiated by discursive, democratic interaction. James Agee or Manny Farber interpreted it as a contradiction, a dangerous ambiguity which made of Sturges a “humanist who resisted fleshing out his characters, an artist whose view of the world as well as his style was fragmented, who couldn’t or wouldn’t express a cohesive vision.” Rather than lacking a cohesive vision, Sturges did not adopt the simplistic black-and-white approach to which Classical cinema had made its audience accustomed.

That is why, in contrast to other classical fables of poverty rewarded by a benign fate, Christmas in July does not provide us with any sort of illusory relief. In the end, Jimmy is still granted the chance of a lifetime (Dr. Maxford, after all, decides not to pull back his promotion—only the raise), but he is deprived of that enthusiasm and confidence in the system and his own self that his boss wanted to instill in him. Jimmy not only learns that chance and opportunities seldom turn dreams into reality, but he also faces the contradictions of a system based on the power of self-deception.

(Ellen Drew) Betty’s final plead to Mr. Baxter clearly reflects this disillusionment: Jimmy (Dick Powell) belongs in here because he thinks he has ideas. He belongs in here until he proves himself or fails… because it’s one thing to muff a chance when you get it … but it’s another thing never to have had a chance. —"The Cinema of Preston Sturges" (2010) by Alessandro Pirolini

Ellen Drew read through the script to Johnny O'Clock (1947), a major project at Columbia, and saw possibilities. The film would be screenwriter Robert Rossen's first directorial assignment. Rossen's script told the story of Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell), partner of gangster Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez) in the operation of a gambling casino. Ellen zeroed in on the character of Nelle and went directly to Robert Rossen, asking him to test her for the role. Rossen acquiesced, but was skeptical; he thought Drew a little too genteel to portray the femme fatale.

All doubts were erased by the test and Ellen went on to deliver an electrifying performance ("a sleek and slinky vixen", The New York Times). Clad in sexy Jean Louis creations, with her hair cascading well past her shoulders, she talked tough as she toyed with the men in her life, managing to be seductive even when plastered. Along the way Johnny has made it clear to Nelle that he is on to her and not interested in her advances.

The murdered girl's sister (Evelyn Keyes) has become his romantic focus. The melodrama draws to a close with O'Clock and Marchettis involved in a deadly shoot-out, with Nelle having played one man off the other. Johnny O'Clock remains a noteworthy example of film noir. Despite a somewhat untidy storyline, its dialogue, direction and performances are first-rate. It's quite remarkable watching Drew and Dick Powell together in their sexually-charged, hard-edged scenes, remembering that seven years before they were the wide-eyed kids of Christmas in July! Ellen's work in Johnny O'Clock greatly impressed the Columbia front office.

"Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), a hat-check girl at an illegal gambling casino, apparently commits suicide using gas. Her sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) shows up and becomes attracted to Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell), a junior partner in the gambling den. Harriet was dating Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon), a crooked cop who is trying to persuade Johnny’s longtime partner, Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez), to let him take Johnny’s place.

Though Johnny tries to resist, little by little, he falls for Nancy. Meanwhile, Marchettis’s wife Nelle (Ellen Drew) is still in love with her former boyfriend, Johnny. When Marchettis finds out, he tries to have his rival killed, but Johnny survives. Johnny decides to leave town with Nancy, but not before cashing in his share of the casino. When Marchettis objects, they shoot it out; Marchettis is killed and Johnny wounded. Afterward, Nelle offers to testify it was self-defense, but only if he will come back to her. He refuses, so she lies to Koch, telling him it was murder. Johnny’s first instinct is to run away, but Nancy and Koch convince him to give himself up.

Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell) and his partner Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez) operate a gambling casino that has seen better days. Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon), a cop on the take, wants in on the casino, and he makes friends with Pete while trying to convince him that Johnny, the smarter of the two, should go. When Chuck's girlfriend Harriet (Nina Foch) is found dead, a supposed suicide, his sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes) smells a rat, especially after Chuck skips town. Screenwriter Robert Rossen made his directorial debut with this film, 14 years later, he would return to this film's tough, gritty style for his best picture, The Hustler. Source: movies.nytimes.com

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