Friday, July 01, 2016

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek / Ordet

Two miracles

Warning: plot of both The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Ordet discussed in close detail)

Maybe the funniest joke in Preston Sturges' classic comedy--about Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton wearing one of the most salacious monikers in all of cinema) who after a night of drunken partying with a band of soldiers finds herself pregnant--was that it got made in the first place, in 1944, under the supposedly watchful eyes of the Hays Office (and in fact they were watching: when the picture was being developed the Office approved of only ten of the script's pages). 

Film critic James Agee managed to upstage (or top) the joke, though, with his appreciative quip: "the Hays Office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep." 

I dearly love the film but do feel that both film and Agee's topper were topped in turn by the Office itself when it cautioned the filmmakers (sometime during script development) to depict the men as "normal, thoroughly fit American soldiers who have had an evening of clean fun."

Agee had few other kind words, chiding the film for its 'avoidance of commitment' and 'artful-dodging,' and you do sense a European-style decadence in Sturges' refusal to take a moral stance for or against Trudy's delicate condition, not even against the society that backed her into a corner where she has to consider her condition 'delicate.' Most recent articles I've read talk about how the film 'slipped one past the censors;' none I can think of actually discusses what got slipped past other than the hilariously lurid premise, if it slipped anything at all. Sturges himself maintained in his biography that he wanted to show what happened to girls who 'confused patriotism with promiscuity.' The crucial scene where a pastor explains all this was cut by the studio, however, because it was too funny. 

It's still an intricately well-made gem, with interlacing dialogue and slapstick funnier than any half-dozen comedies today. Sturges' accomplishment is all the more impressive considering single mothers no longer suffer as much shame, even in today's relatively conservative small-town America; watching the film you have to stop and remember what the fuss was about in the first place (now if Trudy had wanted an abortion that would be a whole other can of worms). 

I think Agee could be forgiven for thinking the film does sidestep the issues--when things are pushed as far as they can go before the ultimate collapse into bathos (or perhaps a few moments after we have wallowed in that bathos) the 'miracle' happens and all is swept aside in the enormity of the event's unlikeliness (not as unlikely today, what with fertility drugs and Octomom). Was Sturges only responding to Agee's complaint when he confessed his true intent (Come to think of it was Agee the only critic on record who actually had a complaint?)? Was Sturges' real purpose--or moral point if you like--to refrain from judging Trudy, to say that her 'predicament' is ultimately inconsequential in the face of life and its myriad surprises? Who knows?

Watching the early scenes in the Borgen household in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet one can't help the nagging thought: where have I seen this before? Took me all of twenty minutes to realize I was watching a Danish version of Morgan's Creek complete with serenely pregnant woman, fuming irate father, ardent young suitor, even a cow--not standing in the kitchen, alas, but sounding so close you can imagine it having wandered in from the back door. 

Ordet does play like a domestic comedy albeit at a decidedly different pace and tone from Sturges. There's the same sense of an oddball if ultimately comforting world where obstacles are just contrivances meant to make the ultimate union between young lovers that much sweeter, and characters are presented not as actually crazy but perhaps mildly kinked, bent hairpins helpless to change the way they are. 

Then the birth, the more horrific for being all suggestion; the desperate gasps for breath (Brigitte Federspiel was pregnant during shooting and Dreyer reportedly recorded her labor sounds), the terrible snip of shears into flesh--and everything is changed. Death has entered this Sturges-like fairy-tale and the lovable irate father is all twisted in his grief; he would seem grotesque if he wasn't so unbearably sad.  

If Dreyer has a moral it isn't as obvious as Sturges' stated 'nice girls shouldn't put out.' Yes Dreyer's miracle is thoroughly foreshadowed; yes the miracle worker Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) in claiming to be Jesus declares he's helpless in the face of (their, our) skepticism. Dreyer stops short of declaring "The power of Christ compels you!"--as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his comprehensive analysis of the film Johannes was already sane by the time he wrought his miracle, and theoretically (since he's no longer Jesus) should have no such power: the miracle happens whether we believe in him or not.

A comedy where tragedy is averted by a miraculous birth, another where death is averted by a miraculous resurrection; an ostensibly amoral satirist, a supposedly religious aesthete. Is there an obvious lesson to be drawn from the comparison?

Possibly none, only I can't help but think that Trudy like Johannes share an innocence, an excess of faith--Trudy in the goodness of American soldiers and general benignity of the world, Johannes in the idea that he's Christ; both are forced to modify their belief (Trudy by said soldiers' subsequent behavior (they abandon her), Johannes by the questions of a little girl and the prospect of a death (the former forces an intellectual response, the latter an emotional one). Both--and this is my own theory on the subject--are granted their miracles anyway, because while the world is too vast and complex to attribute everything to God, it's also too vast and complex to exclude the possibility of His existence. 

Sturges sells his miracle under the guise of uproarious gaiety; Dreyer sells his as unflinching realism (straight, no chaser). Dreyer is too great an artist not to consider the sensibilities of both atheist and faithful; the small miracle is that Sturges--'uncommitted' and 'dodgy' though he may be--shows the same generous impulses. 

First published in Businessworld 6.24.16