The Comedy of Grace
Preston Sturges' Theatrical Theology
By: Gary D. Robinson|Published: October 8, 2009 5:45 PM
Recently, my wife and I discovered the films of Preston Sturges, whose career flourished during World War II.
Sturges, who’d already made his mark in Hollywood as a writer, enjoyed his greatest triumph when he turned to directing his own scripts. His films are delightfully clever comedies with wonderfully witty dialogue. Take this exchange from the political satire The Great McGinty:
As one critic wrote, “His dialogue shoots and shoots and never misses.” It’s funny, clever, and memorable, just as the situations Sturges’ heroes find themselves in are improbable, scandalous (for the time), yet ultimately marvelous.
Some consider Sturges to be only a clever satirist who tipped over sacred cows. As I’ve watched these movies, however, and as I’ve thought about them as a Christian, the common thread I’ve found running through is grace. Grace is the surprising turn of events, the delightful, undeserved present that lands in the lap of the loser, the beatific beam from beyond. God has shot the world through with grace like stained glass shot through with beams of sunlight. In the Preston Sturges comedies, the projected beam of grace not only illuminates a dark theater, it fairly dances on the screen.
“Unmerited favor”—that’s the definition of grace I grew up with. It’s another way of saying that God smiles on the most unlikely candidates. The leaves of the Bible rustle with stories of losers becoming winners, sinners becoming martyrs, and nobodies becoming somebodies. Walk down the Hall of Fame of faith and look at the portraits: scaredy-cat Gideon, hopeless Hannah, Sir Peter the Impulsive, Captain Saul of the Jerusalem Thought Police, Mary the poster child for teen pregnancy. A more improbable bunch of heroes you’ll never find.
Similarly, the heroes Preston Sturges created are often non-entities on their way to becoming full-fledged nobodies—until something intervenes. For example, in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Eddie Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the son of a WWI hero.
Unfortunately, Woodrow hasn’t lived up to his portentous name. Washed out of the Marines with hay fever, too ashamed to come home, he’s spent a year working at a shipyard. One night in a bar, he buys some penniless soldiers drinks and sandwiches. They hear his story and become his pals, pushing him into going home. There they pass him off as a decorated hero like his daddy.
One thing leads to another and, soon, Woodrow becomes a most unwilling candidate for mayor. Woodrow knows he’s a fraud, but he can’t get his Marine buddies to stop this train. Hungry for heroes, the townspeople are bent on catapulting the abashed youth into office.
Some say this scenario, coming at a time when patriotism and heroism were regarded so highly in America, call both into question. I believe they’re right, so far as it goes. If you dig beneath the surface of some of our most cherished cultural notions, you’ll find fault lines. Nevertheless, however cynical Sturges may have been, however perceptive of American foibles, his hero at least is sincere. The agonized Woodrow publicly confesses his lie and trudges off the platform in shame. Still, the U.S. Marines come through for their boy. The Sarge convinces the crowd that Woodrow is a man of integrity and courage. Now he’s sure to win the election.
Speaking of election, it’s also the term Paul uses to describe the unassailable position of God’s chosen ones: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). Some criticize Sturges for using the deus ex machina, “the god out of the machine,” i.e., a simplistic rescue. Yet, isn’t it true that through the machinations of the living deus, the God and Father of Jesus Christ came onstage to rescue the players in His own production?
He pulled us ne’er-do-wells out of the pit of despair and set us on a higher plane, seated us, in fact, “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). Like Woodrow, however, we’re not anxious to be so set and so seated. Grace is often too great a gift for us to handle. Not only is it improbable, it can be downright scandalous!
Such is the case in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Small town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) goes out to dance the night away with some departing soldier boys. She winds up pregnant, not knowing who the father is. Trudy finds a substitute in Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a stuttering wreck who’s loved her since childhood. He agrees to marry Trudy.
One big obstacle, however, is that, since Betty supposedly married the father of her child, such a union would be bigamous.
If this stretches credulity, it at least pleased the Hayes office (read: Department of Censorship). Amazing, the dance Sturges performed with the censors! Nevertheless, at no time was the word “pregnant” used. Further, he couldn’t even show Hutton “great with child.” At this stage of the game, she’s photographed from the behind and, later, swathed in a coat in the back seat of a car.
Though these things are interesting from a historical perspective, the movie plays like anything but a relic. The dialogue crackles. The set pieces scintillate. Even the names Sturges came up with are hilarious. Trudy Kockenlocker thinks the name of her child’s father is Ratzenkatski. Of course, he has no first name, so Norval supplies one–Ignatz. The attempted union of stammering Ratzenkatski and nervous Kockenlocker before the Justice of the Peace is a hoot. Norval appears disguised as a soldier, but of WWI vintage, complete with puffy trousers and broad-brimmed Boy Scout hat. On the verge of fainting throughout the ceremony, his fiancée frequently hefts him by the seat of his pants.
Intriguingly, Trudy’s “blessed event” comes on Christmas Day. Sturges seems to be drawing a parallel between his heroine’s plight and that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. With her constable dad having lost his job and the town’s disapproving gaze set firmly on the Kockenlockers, they move to a farm outside of town. William Demarest, who plays her gruff but loving father, says, “Don’t lose your confidence in the Almighty–or whatever turns the wheels. That King was born in a cowshed. You might have a baby who’ll grow up to be president.”
Meanwhile, Norval, who’d gone off to try and find the real father, returns empty-handed–only to wind up in jail on a charge of bank robbery. But he gets out. He has to. For the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek has occurred! The headlines scream and the bullies of the world–Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini–tremble. Trudy’s given birth to sextuplets! Naturally, Norval doesn’t learn he’s the father of six boys until after he goes to the hospital. He promptly suffers another of his hysterical fits. But, as the epilogue reads, Norval recovered and became increasingly happy for, as Shakespeare said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
That’s a pretty good summation of Paul’s marvelous treatise on grace, Ephesians 2:1-10. We’re often discomfited by God’s grace. It pushes us, as, indeed, it pushed the writer of Ephesians, down harrowing paths. But neither men nor circumstances can thwart God’s purpose in us—to show off His intricate workmanship through endless ages. The miracle of grace, like the miracle of Morgan’s Creek, makes us more than we ever imagined we’d be.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, this grace thing, no more sense than “Can’t sleep? It’s not the coffee; it’s the bunk!” should win $25,000 in a coffee slogan contest. Or that a black cat should be a harbinger of good news. But both occur in Sturges’ Christmas in July—and both are exactly how grace works. It doesn’t make sense that, in this wounded world, laughter should have the last say, as it does in Sullivan’s Travels, but that’s what happens.
In the climactic scene of Travels, a gang of chained prisoners is welcomed into a black church to see a movie. The pastor leads his people in singing “Go Down, Moses.” As the powerful old spiritual, sung a capella, dies away, the poor wretches come shuffling two-by-two up the aisle into the front pews. The scene is poignant, but what follows is truly inspired.
Watching the antics of cartoon Pluto, the haggard, beaten prisoners are transformed into children. The house explodes with the laughter of the whole congregation. Suffering hero Harry Sullivan bursts out with a guffaw. Incredulous, he asks his neighbor, “Did I just laugh?” Grace is as amazing, as unexpected, as laughter in prison.
They say that, at the foot of the cross, all stand on level ground. Grace is the great leveler, first exposing our nakedness, then dressing us in robes of comfort and joy. As the church of Sturges’ imagination shows, though all shuffle through the door in chains, all are set free by the comedy of His grace.
As far as I can tell, Preston Sturges neither claimed faith in Christ nor attended church. Today, his films are lauded as clever exercises in iconoclasm. Perhaps despite himself, he created a body of work that improbably but irresistibly stands on the side of the God of grace. Despair won’t have the final word. Joy will win and reign forever.
Gary D. Robinson, a preacher and writer in Xenia, Ohio, is frequently in need of a good laugh. Check out his blog at garydrobinson.com.
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