“Is it good luck or bad luck when a black cat crosses your path?” asks Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), only to be told by the office janitor (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), “That all depends on what happens afterwards.” That and other pearls of wisdom are found in Preston Sturges’ second film, Christmas in July — probably the most overlooked and underrated of his major works. It is also one of his most ingratiating movies — certainly his sweetest film — and, in many ways, my personal favorite. It’s based on a 1934 screenplay called A Cup of Coffee that Sturges had tried to sell to Universal — with the stipulation that he direct it. When they wouldn’t go along with that, he held onto the script and reworked it in 1940. It’s a simple story about a young man (Dick Powell) who is addicted to trying to make it big by entering contests and is after the big $25,000 prize in the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest — with the dubious entry, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.” The trouble starts when some co-workers (named Tom, Dick and Harry) send him a fake telegram announcing he’s won. Suddenly, he’s an important person — being given a job at his company (a coffee maker rival) in promotions. He’s even awarded the check by Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn) who also thinks the telegram is real, so he and his girlfriend (an unbelievably good and touching performance by Ellen Drew) go on a spending spree, buying gifts for everybody in their neighborhood. Of course, the deception finally comes to light — with ultimately surprising results. It’s very funny in the Sturges’ tradition with the usual clever dialogue and eccentric characters, but it’s also unusually charming and even moving on occasion — one of the few films that pulls off being sweet without being cloying. Frankly, it’s kind of magical.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Christmas in July Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.