It’s always a delight to find a terrific film when you’re just surfing the channels. This treasure from Preston Sturges was his first (released in 1940), but it already has his trademark rapid-fire shouted dialogue, mordant humor and sudden tonal shifts that characterized his entire – yes, I must say it – oeuvre.
But I’m not doing a review here. If you love Sturges, as I do, you’ll welcome it. Okay, I’ll summarize this: it’s about a low paid clerk in a coffee company in New York and his girlfriend, who works for the same company. He’s entered a slogan contest for a different coffee company, and top prize is $25,000. In the depression, you can imagine why tens of millions of “have-nots” applied. The story shows what ensues – hilariously! – when some co-workers play a cruel gag on him with a phony telegram telling him he won.
What I find fascinating, though, is Sturges’ concept of the rich, and what the average American thinks of them. Sure, they show themselves to be as corrupt, stupid, greedy and craven as you might expect, and I’m sure audiences lapped it up (it led to a long-term contract with Paramount). But what intrigues me is the assumption by Sturges that the average, struggling citizen has no particular animosity towards them. The “system” may be rigged, but people did not seem to want to change it….except to have the chance to become part of it themselves.
The film concludes — happily! — with the hero’s boss giving him the “chance” to prove himself as an ad writer even though he got the job through a colossal mistake. This reflects a decidedly conservative perspective that believes in a free market that will eventually become “enlightened”, and start opening up the process so that the “average Joe” (no Jills yet; this is 1940!) can show his stuff. In fact, the tone of the film suggests that he’ll succeed in America because he’s just a regular guy.
So what’s missing here? I mean, can we see a meaningful difference between that time — when we were just emerging from a depression — to today’s time, with a depression of its own. Stepping out on a limb, I think not. I don’t know that the general mood of the country is any more outraged by the wealthy than it was then, even with the even greater gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. I think the core strength of the “small government” movement is that it reflects an uneasiness with major federal regulation of private business. I don’t think the liberal establishment has made a dent in that general distrust, no matter how often it demonstrates, with, I admit, strong statistical evidence, that it the “wealth gap” is hurting this country.
But, you may ask, isn’t this just a denial of reality? Can’t people see that the current system can no longer sustain even this inadequate distribution of basic resources, like health care, unless it comes under federal control?
That’s a serious question, and I don’t have an answer. All I know is it’s good to have someone like Preston Sturges around to make us feel good when we’re confused and miserable.