Christmas in July; and The Palm Beach Story 

A double feature of my two favorite Preston Sturges comedies, both of them sublimely wacko. Christmas in July, his second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.), is in many ways his most underrated movie, a riotous satire of capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious office clerk (Dick Powell), determined to strike it rich in an advertising contest with his stupid slogan ("If you can't sleep, it isn't the coffee, it's the bunk"), is tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he's actually won, promptly gets promoted, and goes on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like all of Sturges's finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more succinctly than most pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero's dim-witted slogan so many times that eventually it becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, the supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and Sturges uses them like instruments in a madcap concerto. In the simultaneously tender and scalding The Palm Beach Story (1942, 88 min.), Rudy Vallee turns in his all-time best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker. Claudette Colbert, married to a penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by the millionaire, and when McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother. Also on hand are such indelible Sturges creations as the Weenie King (Robert Dudley), the madly destructive Ale & Quail Club, Hackensacker's acerbic sister (Mary Astor), her European boyfriend of obscure national origin (Sig Arno), and many others. Vallee's character may be the closest thing to self-parody in the Sturges canon, but it's informed by such wry wisdom and humor that it transcends its personal nature (as well as its reference to such tycoons as the Rockefellers). With Demarest, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, and Jimmy Conlin. Both films will be shown in 35-millimeter prints. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St., Wednesday, April 24, 7:00, 773-702-8575.

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