Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) gives us a nostalgic wartime Christmas, but in curiously modern wrappings. Its charm is its coy look at exploitation, of the holiday, of the war effort, and of human nature. Never was cynicism presented so cheerfully.

Also, the movie is all about food. Food is discussed, eaten, and analyzed constantly, and this is a film which must be viewed with plenty of snacks on hand or you’ll go crazy.

Another feature is that this is one of the few films of the era that introduces two African-American actors in walk-on roles which are not stereotypes. One is a female delivery person, taking over a traditional man’s job as was typical in the war years, and one is a cook in Felix’s restaurant named Sam, who responds to Felix’s question about what does the word “catastrophe” mean, with a concise dictionary definition. Both characters are seen for only moments, but they are clearly in positions of responsibility and are intelligent. It should be noted if only because it is so rare in this period.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a magazine columnist who writes about food. She is the Martha Stewart of her day, a woman with a knack for planning the perfect party, preparing the perfect menu, and running a perfect home. The problem is she can’t do any of this. The recipes she writes about are actually the work of her friend restaurant owner Felix, played by S. Z. Sakall. Her home is a cramped city apartment, where we see her watching someone’s laundry flap outside the window on the line while she bangs away at her typewriter, scarfing a plate of sardines.

A sailor, played by Dennis Morgan, survives the sinking of his ship and is offered a hero’s homecoming by magazine owner Sydney Greenstreet, who insists Miss Stanwyck invite the sailor to her famous Connecticut farm for Christmas. A boost for circulation is his motive.

There is no farm. She lied. Fortunately, the delightfully dull and self-important architect played wonderfully by Reginald Gardiner, whose marriage proposals Miss Stanwyck keeps refusing, owns a Connecticut farm and he agrees to help out. The rest of the film is all screwball mistaken identities, with Stanwyck and Gardiner pretending to be married, Sakall pretending to be a visiting uncle, but who is really on hand to do the cooking, and the babies left by local women who work in the war plant to fill in for their child. Una O'Connor is delightful as the housekeeper.

All have something to gain. Stanwyck wants to keep her job, not wanting to let her boss know she lied to him and her magazine persona is a sham. Reginald Gardiner wants to really marry Stanwyck, and wants his own column with the magazine. Mr. Greenstreet wants his magazine, “Smart Housekeeping” to beat its competitors to the newsstand with a heartwarming Christmas story. It’s interesting that Gardiner’s farmhouse becomes like another character in the story, its picturesque colonial homey setting morphs into everyone’s ideal home. Greenstreet’s opulent mansion is a cold prison where he will be alone on the holidays, so he invites himself to spend Christmas with them. The sailor has never had a home of his own, so this is his ideal. It allows Stanwyck to experience a contented and orderly home life she can only invent in her writing.

Stanwyck tells Sakall that she would like to learn to cook someday, and he warns her off it, telling her that she will discover real cooking is not how she writes it. To keep her fantasy alive, she can’t risk making it real.

Her boss Greenstreet tells her, “You’re a fine American wife and mother,” and we know this is not true. She knows it too, and one of the funniest aspects of the movie is Stanwyck’s discomfort not only at accepting undeserving praise for what is really a self-serving adventure, but her hilarious panic at taking care of the baby. The first baby, a placid dark-haired girl she at first thought was a boy until the diaper was removed for bath time, is a real trooper. This baby is handed off, bathed, manhandled and takes it like a pro.

When the sailor asks if the baby talks yet, Stanwyck, baffled, looks into the baby’s face and uncertainly guesses, “No.” Then shrugs. Caring for the baby has reduced her to pathetic helplessness, and she appears nearly ill with anxiety. It is one of the many deft comic touches to this film of non-stop hurdles each character must face down.

Thrown into each other’s company, Miss Stanwyck and Mr. Morgan’s growing attraction to each other is irresistible in its forbidden context because she is supposed to be married, but because the audience knows she is not really married and not at all in love with the fussy Mr. Gardiner, it makes their flirtation okay. There is poignancy in their relationship too, because we see that they are both a bit lost and painfully unhappy with their private lives. This homey Christmas, as fake as tinsel, has given each a glimpse into the kind of life they would like but seems unattainable.

The deeper Stanwyck gets into the ruse, the more she enjoys her naughty flirtation with the sailor, the more unhappy she becomes. Finally she confesses her disgust and anger at the perfect magazine persona she has created, “She’s so smart, knows all the answers. Gets herself into a mess and hasn’t the moral courage to get herself out of it.”

When she and the sailor slip away from the town hall dance and war bond sale to be alone together and end up spending the night in jail, the pace of the movie quickens even more and the fireworks at the end emboldens her, and the rest of the Christmas guests, now transformed into a kind of grudging family, to get what they want.

When the sailor’s former nurse and fiancée shows up unexpectedly and asks if he lives here, Felix mumbles with resignation, “Everybody lives here.”

The movie successfully gets away with winking at self-serving human nature while celebrating the possibility of the best of human nature, including our resilience to adversity. It is funny that Sydney Greenstreet keeps referring to his employees as his possessions and calls the baby (or babies) The Smart Housekeeping Baby. Here we have an actual magazine ad for Mennen baby lotion using the images of Stanwyck, Morgan, and that sweet, good-natured baby from “Christmas in Connecticut” to sell a product. Art imitating life? Or just the American way?

4 comments:

Laura said...

This sounds really good! Believe it or not I haven't seen it yet. (I have avoided Stanwyck movies in the past but am learning to appreciate some of her earlier work...) I'll be watching it this year. :)

Best wishes,
Laura

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Laura, thanks for stopping by. I hope you get a chance to see it. It's fun and fast moving, and probably one of the last of the screwball comedies of that era before films took a more realistic turn after the war.

bettye griffin said...

A marvelous movie, and as a black person, I've always applauded the film's portrayal of the female deliveryperson and the male waiter. And the performers were wonderful. I just loved S.K. Sakall and Una O'Connor. Barbara Stanwyck and Sydney Greenstreet showed real versatility.

I could go on and on . . . .

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Bettye. I agree with you, I could go on and on about the little merits of this movie. It's the kind of film where you have to watch it more than once to catch everything. I appreciate your perspective as an African-American, regarding the small roles of the delivery person and Sam the waiter. There weren't many roles for blacks in that period which were not presented as a stereotype, so when we find them it's nice to be able to point them out.