Directed By: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay By: Lionel Houser, Adele Commandini
Story By: Aileen Hamilton
Produced By: William Jacobs
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 102 minutes
Review Date: December 17, 2010
I’m not going to pussyfoot around it for the sake of being politically correct; this is a Christmas movie, not a holiday movie, and those that take offense at that idea can suck it.
Christmas in Connecticut, starring the lovely Barbara Stanwyck, is a charming, enjoyable little comedy that’s not quite Frank Capra and not quite Billy Wilder, but ventures into either territory on more than one occasion and is welcomed with open arms.
The question is, does this film deserve to be ranked amongst the more widely recognized cable-slot icons of the season such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, A Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas? Should it be considered mandatory Yuletide viewing?
Indeed, after walking away from Christmas in Connecticut you’ll be ready to celebrate the season even if your reality is a post-Black Friday retail hell. You might even find yourself looking forward to whichever D-Day gathering of friends and family you’re counting down to this year.
While it has a limited window of watch-ability that declines exponentially after the 25th of December, I found more of its elements in common with Some Like It Hot than I did It’s a Wonderful Life. You’ll be surprised how many of the jokes still work, and work well. It’s your classic “how long will the charade last” setup, adding unstable elements to the volatile mix in layers of progressive difficulty for Stanwyck’s character.
The premise is simple enough, but the exposition moves fast and frequently switches narrative mechanisms on you. We meet Dennis Morgan’s character first and stay with him just long enough so that the transition into Barbara Stanwyck’s world is a jarring one.
There’s a lot thrown at you to keep in mind during the first twenty minutes: nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) wants Jefferson Jones (Morgan), a debilitated war hero, to experience a good home-cooked Christmas dinner so that he will appreciate the values of a domestic life and thus consider marrying her. She sees a column penned by Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck), the model American housewife, who would be perfect for the task and contacts magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) to set the plan in motion; Yardley owes her a favor after she nursed his granddaughter through the measles. Since Yardley’s own Christmas plans fell through, he decides to have Lane entertain Jones and himself at her quaint farmstead in Connecticut. Yardley is a stern and impersonal man who only asks two things of his editors — “print the truth and obey my orders.” Elizabeth Lane, as she appears in her column, is actually a fictional character and the real Elizabeth shares almost none of her traits: she’s single, can’t cook, and lives in a New York high-rise apartment. Lane’s inspiration for the column comes from two real-life sources: the five-star cuisine of her friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall), who owns a Manhattan bistro, and an actual cabin in Connecticut owned by John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), a haughty architect who continually solicits her with bland marriage proposals.
Predictably, these elements come together at the end of the first act to complete the formula for Lane’s ruse: cooking, farm in Connecticut, husband, baby. Check, check, check, and…well, check. The hoax is not that elaborate. Antics ensue under one roof in the middle of the wintry countryside. Lane’s motivation initially is the prospect of keeping her job, and later the inevitable romance with Jefferson Jones.
Right off the bat it’s clear this is a movie about food. In a sea-starved hallucination, Jones lays out the courses of a savory French banquet with the attention to detail of Patrick Bateman. Throughout similar monologues to follow, I felt like a food critic being welcomed into an upscale restaurant, finding myself reaching for phantom wine glasses. A word of advice: don’t watch this one on an empty stomach.
For a sailor, Jones is refined and cultured. He has a sophisticated palate, the domestic know-how of Martha Stewart, and a taste for the finer things in life. He plays piano, he sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” he’s the perfect gentleman. With each plot development, we’re offered a glimpse into how a Jones-Lane marriage will work: he’s doing all the cooking, cleaning, and child-care, she’s bringing the bread to the table.
Their one common thread is their resistance to the idea of marriage itself. Lane expends much of her energies dodging Sloan’s wedding plans and Jones has no particular desire to settle down with Mary Lee, who only won him over because he does a lot of thinking with his stomach.
Most of the humor comes from Lane’s clever improvisation as she struggles to keep her cool, dropping the ball many times, and so obviously that the characters she’s trying to hoodwink must be wearing blinders. Lane and Sloan spend much of the time scurrying around behind the guests’ backs in unfulfilled efforts to make their sham of a marriage legit.
Felix is the comedy’s comedic relief, an oafish, endearing “uncle”-type character, with high standards for both his own cooking and for his “niece” Elizabeth. He waddles around, a nasally, thick-accented Hungarian, sweating bullets to keep up the charade, giving her helpful shoves in the right direction every now and then.
Overall, it’s hard to dislike Christmas in Connecticut. My only problem is that the climax is too easy. It just fizzles out, like air out of a balloon. I won’t spoil how the secret is finally let out of the bag, but the actual event leaves much to be desired, considering the energy of the first two acts.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.