Movie Night with Urbaniak: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

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urbaniak and I have an ongoing game, where we try to draw parallels between actors of one generation and another. Certain "types" are always needed for one kind of narrative or another, and so it stands to reason that Cary Grant gets re-born as George Clooney, Robert Redford gets re-born as Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen gets re-born as Daniel Craig, and so forth.

The sad thing is that some actors are never re-born. I’ve searched for decades and not found a replacement for Myrna Loy, or Carole Lombard, or Gene Kelly.

I had actually never seen The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek before, Sturges being an unfortunate blind spot in my cinematic education (especially in light of my interest in the Coen Bros). It should not have been a surprise to find that Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the key to understanding the Coen Bros’ The Hudsucker Proxy. Sturges in general informs much of Hudsucker, but Miracle is the linch-pin. Miracle features a performance by Eddie Bracken, perfectly cast as a schlemiel who gets dicked around every which way by life before he finally triumphs. Hudsucker features a lead performance by Tim Robbins, playing the Eddie Bracken part. The Coens even point to the distinction, naming their protagonist "Norville Barnes" after Bracken’s Norval Jones.

When I read the script for The Hudsucker Proxy (they gave me the whole thing, even though I only had a one-line part) I was struck by its clockwork humor but also its naked emotionalism, its warmth and compassion for humanity. I read it and thought "oh my God, this is going to be the biggest movie of all time." But Hudsucker‘s warmth did not successfully make it to the screen, and the problem is that the Coens wrote a part for Eddie Bracken when Eddie Bracken was no longer available.

Eddie Bracken is a loser — a stuttering, nervous, dim, bumbling, hatchet-faced also-ran. And yet, when Sturges reveals Bracken’s heart, we find that he also has a tender, loving, forgiving, endlessly sympathetic soul. Sturges plays many brutal tricks on poor Norval in Miracle, but after subjecting him to the torments of hell, he eventually rewards him with everything he’s always wanted. The comedy of Miracle runs with the precision and cruelty of a Swiss watch, but we are ultimately moved — and greatly so — by Norval’s salvation in the final act. Tim Robbins, on the other hand, is a technically proficient, polished, eminently intelligent actor pretending to be Eddie Bracken. When Bracken acts like an idiot we love him all the more for it, but when Robbins does it we feel the distance of "performance." It’s too much to say that Robbins holds his Norville at arms length, because his performance is too committed and detailed for that, but it’s still an intelligent man’s approximation of stupidiity. The result is that, to feel the emotionalism of Hudsucker, the audience has to first "break the code" of Robbins’ performance — a kind of work that audiences of 1993 were unwilling to do (including myself). The result is that, on first viewing, Hudsucker — in spite of the brilliance of its script, and its otherwise-impeccable casting, production design and so forth, feels cold, remote and schematic at first — an art film instead of a populist comedy, which is what it actually is. Once the code of Hudsucker is broken, it becomes one of the Coens’ most successful comedies.

What Does The Protagonist Want welcomed Lee Costello, LA theater-maven and old-friend-from-New-York, as the newest member of the Movie Night with Urbaniak club. Having an audience spurred Urbaniak and I to new heights of theorizing and film-geekiness. After the movie, we babbled at length about the emotionalism of the Coens work, which often gets overlooked due to their more obvious intellectualism. We also went on about comparing the casting of the Coens movies and Sturges’s, how both directors managed to get complex, multi-layered performances from character actors who otherwise had unremarkable careers in Hollywood programmers. Which brought us to Tarantino, a filmmaker who watches unbelievable amounts of weird cinematic garbage and transforms his love of that garbage into weirdly moving works of cinematic art — his vocabulary is all low-culture hokum, but his aesthetic is closer to the classics of the French New Wave, and the tension between his material and his approach produces thrilling, mind-bending juxtapositions both satisfying and edifying. And we had a detailed discussion about the complicated aesthetics of a performance, the way an actor can be technically "bad" and yet reveal an aspect of a character that says more about it — and about the life of the soul — than a technically "good" performance can. Which brought me back to The Spirit, which operates on exactly this level — technically, it’s about as "bad" as a movie gets, and yet its creator — and its cast — are trying for something joyful, illuminative and artful, which is why it still stands out for me as something special in the current crop of releases.


44 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”
  1. gilmoure says:

    I don’t really know much about movies (not a thinking viewer (or reader); I just like to get lost in a story) but I do watch a few. From first time I saw Hudsucker Proxy, I’ve loved it. And it is hilarious. ‘Course, I team it up with Lion in Winter as my Christmas movies, that I watch every year. Maybe I’m weird. Will have to check out Miracle. Sounds cool!

  2. stormwyvern says:

    While we’re on the subject of The Hudsucker Proxy, I’d like to point out that “Memoirs of a Mailroom Screamer” would be an excellent title for….well, just about anything.

  3. I love Hudsucker, and I guess I probably didn’t love it so much the first time around and you’re right and you’re brilliant, etc.

    I wonder: how long do you take to watch a film on one of these occasions? Are you pausing constantly to discuss what you’ve just seen, replaying scenes, stuff like that?

    • Todd says:

      It depends on the movie. If Urbaniak and I get chatty and we’ve both seen the movie many times, we can yak all the way through it and never really shut up. But if a technical issue rears its head and merits detailed discussion, we’ll pause the movie and babble on “offline,” as it were.

      And then there are things where we have to re-play the scene over because something extraordinary happens in it that we need to see again.

  4. travisezell says:

    Hudsucker was, for me, one of the only times I felt like I got a Coen movie the first time I saw it. Up until No Country, I always had an easier time with their films on second viewing, since the first I just couldn’t keep up. I think, or I’d like to think, that I’ve got enough of a hold on what they do now that I don’t get so easily lost.

    Anyway it was about a year after Hudsucker came out that I saw it on video — so I guess about 1994. I was (showing my age here) a sophomore in high school, an intellectual brat who hadn’t really learned how to express emotions that weren’t either ironic or cynical, and I guess I just had absolutely no problem seeing through the veneer of the smart man acting dumb. I connected immediately with something in the core of this film, the emotionalism and compassion, as you say, and they did it without making the cynical angry youth I was feel silly for enjoying it. (Another movie of roughly the same time to accomplish this was Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, a deeply sentimental love story about the magic of love that had enough cleverness and wit that I could safely gush along with it.)

    And I’m fully with you on The Spirit. It’s hard to want to recommend it to people but I had so much fun watching that film, and I think you’ve hit on what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.

  5. jbacardi says:

    I do that re-born thing sometimes too, and you’re right, there is no Gene Kelly replacement. I guess it’s because of the dearth of musicals in recent years…plus I can’t think of a single major actor that’s as interested in dance and choreography as Kelly was. Travolta has maybe 1/100th Kelly in him, I guess, but he doesn’t have Kelly’s wit, grace and class. Maybe one will pop up when and if Hollywood ever makes big budget musicals again. I won’t stand on one leg waiting…

  6. malsperanza says:

    I like your actors’ game. You might enjoy its corollary: Theo Black’s One Universe Theory of Movies:

    which is actually a theory of movie-watching, more than of movies (blahblah Cinematic Gaze yaddayadda).

    Carole Lombard (and Jean Harlow and Judy Holiday) is a type that has almost disappeared: the blond bombshell with perfect comedic timing and high style. I think Marilyn Monroe took the Carole Lombard idea to the far edge of pathos and sweetness, and after that it was impossible to combine blonde dizzyness with razor-sharpness. So we get Reese Witherspoon and Goldie Hawn and so on instead. Or Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.

    But I could draw a link between Myrna Loy and Catherine Keener: something about acerbic style, snappiness, speed, and owning the screen.

    As for Gene Kelly: I never know what to make of him when he isn’t hoofing.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think the closest we’ve got is probably Tea Leoni. Lisa Kudrow could probably do this kind of role if given the right script, too.

  7. Hunh. I recently wrote a little bit on this film (one of my all-time favorites) to encourage people to see it at Film Forum. A lot of people seem to consider Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve the best of Sturges’ films, but I don’t think anyone pulled off the Sturges lead better than Bracken.

    • Todd says:

      I have problems with both Henry Fonda and Joel McCrea in those movies, although their performances are quite good.

  8. eronanke says:

    Chris Walken = Gene Kelly, but with a twist.

    Also, no way in hell is Craig equitable with Steve McQueen. Other than the blondness it’s beyond me.

    Cary Grant and Clooney? Hrm. There’s a suaveness they share, sure, and style, but Clooney’s got more smirk, more smug. Can’t stand him, myself.

    Let’s talk about Hepburns. Where is my modern-day Audrey or Katherine? If there were one young actress who came anywhere near, I would be shocked.

  9. rxgreene says:

    I would like to propose that George Clooney is in fact closer to Clark Gable than Grant. Watch him closely, he has the square Jaw of Grant, the eyes are similar too, and he stole Grant’s double take – but his delivery is closer to Gable to my eyes.

    • Todd says:

      Well, that and he also did a movie-length impression of Gable — for the Coens, no less.

      • Anonymous says:

        … and then did a movie-length impersonation of Grant, also for the Coens, in Intolerable Cruelty.

        — N.A.

        • Todd says:

          And now he’s done a movie-length impression of Eddie Bracken in Burn After Reading. Or maybe that’s what Brad Pitt is doing.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’d say Brad Pitt is in the Eddie Bracken role and George Clooney is in the Rudy Vallee role.

  10. leemoyer says:

    You know, for kids!

    You are right about Hudsucker not reaching its written potential, but I’m shocked that no one has mentioned the biggest reason why ~ J. J. Leigh. She’s simply not Katharine Hepburn (or Rosalind Russell for that matter) and she just shouldn’t have even tried to go there. The rest I loved well enough, but I simply could not abide her.

    • Todd says:

      Re: You know, for kids!

      I disagree with you about Leigh’s performance, which is simply one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in American film.

      • leemoyer says:

        Re: You know, for kids!

        Wow. That’s totally awesome!

        I’m really pleased that someone likes it so much (as I’m sure the Coens must). But it was, for whatever reason, so so false to both my wife and me. It is in fact the only reason I don’t watch the movie yearly. She seems to be in a separate “manic” gear that doesn’t suit the rest of the film. Maybe it’s that I often feel the same way at parties that seem like they are not working out… 🙂 I’m delighted to hear it and may have to give her another chance. I do own the film after all.

        In any case, I greatly enjoy your analyses whenever i remember to check for new stuff. Just recounting the plot of The Dark Night is an act of real patience and care on its own. I’m struck by the extent of the Nolan Brothers’ ambition and success.

        Happy New Year!

  11. Anonymous says:

    This begs the question: Who is our Eddie Bracken?

    • Todd says:

      When I read the Hudsucker script, I thought that if Tom Hanks was Norville, it would be a smash hit. Hanks ended up working with the Coens, of course, but as the bizarre, inscrutable antagonist of The Ladykillers.

      • robjmiller says:

        Crispin Glover?

      • Hanks is more of a Henry Fonda – he’s too earnest to be a Bracken type-
        I hate to say it but I think our Eddie Bracken lies somewhere in the vicinity of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell…although in 1993 perhaps Michael J. Fox would have been a better choice?

        As far a the ladies go- I don’t think we’ll ever get another Myrna Loy or Carole Lombard- I think the closest we get is someone like Drew Barrymore- maybe Cameron Diaz on a good day…but there was a knowing otherworldliness to the female comedic actors from the 40’s that I don’t think we can replicate in today’s environment- sass and gumption have been replaced with sarcasm.

        • Todd says:

          The Adam Sandler parallel is interesting. I’m not a fan of his work, but I think his performance in Punch-Drunk Love is one of the most amazing things ever captured on film. I can only imagine what the Coens could have gotten out of him.

          • I agree- not a fan, but imagine a world where in 1993, just after the Coneheads movie, a young Adam Sandler was swept up into the Coenverse – I can see him bowling with the Dude or singing hillbilly hits on the radio with Everett Ulysses McGill…fate is cruel.

            Anyway – I was going off of what you were saying before about an intelligent man’s approximation of stupidity- not a problem for Mr. Sandler…he does stupid right

  12. Anonymous says:

    “The sad thing is that some actors are never re-born. I’ve searched for decades and not found a replacement for Myrna Loy, or Carole Lombard, or Gene Kelly.”

    I think the fact some actors are so 1 of a kind in their ability & personality is a very good thing.
    I add Peter O’Toole to that list.

  13. popebuck1 says:

    Have you also seen The Great McGinty? It’s useful for understanding the finale of Morgan’s Creek, since otherwise you have no way of knowing who the two “machine” politicians are who show up like a deus ex machina at the end and fix everything.

  14. r_sikoryak says:

    Speaking of The Spirit, it occurred to me after seeing the Sturges festival at Film Forum last week that he might have had an interesting take on the character.

    And Eddie Bracken could’ve played Gerhard Shnobble!

  15. ajr says:

    urbaniak and I have an ongoing game, where we try to draw parallels between actors of one generation and another.

    This is something I often do myself, unintentionally. I’ll be watching an old movie and suddenly find myself thinking that someone in it reminds me of a more contemporary actor.

    I haven’t seen The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek yet, but when I watched Hail the Conquering Hero Eddie Bracken put me in mind of Milo Ventimiglia, circa the first season of Heroes. I think it was the hair more than anything else that did so.

    Along similar lines there was a time when, if I could make any one film I wanted to, I would’ve made The Longest Suicide in Hollywood, a biopic of Montgomery Clift, starring Luke Wilson. (But then *that* incident happened and it suddenly seemed in rather poor taste. Drat.)

  16. Anonymous says:

    After recently seeing Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” I was struck by how much of that film the Coens also appropriated for Hudsucker — including the whole notion of a fast-talking reporter gal who’s assigned to cover a mysterious ingenue who’s just ascended to fame and fortune; goes undercover working for him by playing on his sympathies with a hard-luck tale; and ultimately ends up falling for his goofy sincerity. The two scenes in both films in which cranky editors berate their reporters for not getting this guy’s story are eerily identical.

    I have loved The Hudsucker Proxy since I first saw it on video sometime around ’93. At the time, Waring Hudsucker’s suicide plunge was maybe the most stunning and thrilling bit of cinema I’d ever seen.

    — N.A.

  17. rennameeks says:

    I’ve been looking for a new Myrna Loy too, but have been sorely disappointed thus far. I don’t believe that there’s an actress out there currently who has her cool, reserved manner.

    Who have you two pegged as the new Jimmy Stewart? He was supposedly reborn as Tom Hanks, but I’ve never bought into that one personally. they might have been offered similar roles, etc., but they just don’t mesh as a type. Perhaps these pairings could be the subject of a future post? 😀

    • Anonymous says:

      Will Smith is almost the new Jimmy Stewart, but he’s too cool — part of Jimmy’s appeal was that he was always a bit of a stammery nerd. And Jim Carrey really desperately wants to be the new Jimmy Stewart, but hasn’t really come close since his nicely down-to-earth turn as Stanley Ipkiss in “The Mask.”

      — N.A.

  18. meghan_sfz says:

    I haven’t posted on LJ in a looonnnggg time, and recently dropped a hello on our mutual friend Josh E’s page, but wanted to just say “Thank you!” for enjoying “The Spirit.” Once the kitchen sink got pulled into the fight, I was along for the amusingly odd ride. And “Hudsucker” is a movie I deeply cherish (tho’ for me, on the FIRST viewing). I haven’t read your posts often, but based on these two . . .you might be my new hero.