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Six decades before Diablo Cody and 'Juno,' Preston Sturges carried unplanned comedy to term

Juno
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Juno (Ellen Page, second from left) gets a peek at her "baby" in "Juno."

 

A commercial movie about unplanned pregnancy, "Juno" is unlikely to keep pro-lifers from visiting the box office when Fox Searchlight delivers the film to theaters nationwide Friday.

Director Jason Reitman called it a "movie about characters" rather than politics when he introduced "Juno" and screenwriter Diablo Cody at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Fox's big daddy Rupert Murdoch, encouraged by early grosses from the coasts, might refer to it more simply as good business.

(Full disclosure: I met Cody once and edited her work a few times when we worked at City Pages.)

Within the long history of American comedies about girls getting knocked up by accident, "Juno" — whose teenage title character (Ellen Page) comes to agree that hers is "one doodle that can't be undid" — is a post-post-feminist movie that mainly endorses the right to laugh.

In this, the movie has been widely compared to last summer's "Knocked Up," which acknowledges a female's other choice only as "shmashmortion," and less widely to Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982), which today looks like a film not from Universal Pictures but from another galaxy. In "Fast Times," a high-school girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets an abortion and lives to enjoy a happy ending.

The Boston Phoenix's Gerald Peary recently collected a pointed quote from Leigh about Hollywood's new treatment plan for teenage pregnancy: "I find it really upsetting. ... A fetus is not a human being. It's a frightening time when the word 'abortion' cannot even be said in a movie."

Release of 1940s movie was a miracle
Oddly unlinked to "Juno," as far as Google and I can tell, is the great-grandma of unplanned pregnancy comedies and, given its vintage, the gutsiest as well: "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" from 1944. Not for nothing did pioneering film critic James Agee famously opine that "the Hays Office had either been hypnotized into liberality" when it judged the movie suitable for release "or had been raped in its sleep."

Agee's choice of words may or may not have been intended as a dark reference to the particular "miracle'' that visits young Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) at a wild party for departing soldiers. Trudy gets unwittingly plastered on "lemonade" while "kissing the boys goodbye," wakes up with a ring on her finger and finds herself in "terrible trouble" a month or so later.

Pushing every conceivable envelope of the time, writer-director Preston Sturges came as close as he could to endorsing both sides of choice — arguably closer than Cody and Reitman six decades later — in a scene where Trudy briefly tries to persuade her sweet but hapless beau, Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), to consider joint suicide.

Even before the opening credits, "Morgan's Creek" refers to its comic situation as a "matter of life and death" — which, at the tail end of World War II, it surely was. Nervous Norval can't get himself into the Army, but, standing by his pregnant woman, he surely supports the war effort at home.

Sturges, in my mind the most ingenious writer of comedy that Hollywood has ever known, didn't live to see Juno MacGuff. But Trudy Kockenlocker deserves props as the pregnant movie heroine whose choice — to deliver sextuplets(!) — carries the greatest historical weight. "Terrible trouble" it may have been, but the Hays Office, as Sturges shrewdly imagined, wouldn't fail to give a big push to the baby boom.

Note to readers: The Walker Art Center's Dec. 13 screening of "Juno" and post-film discussion with Diablo Cody, a former City Pages writer, is sold out.

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