It's time for holly berries, cinnamon, listening to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Elvis, and snuggling up under a thick blanket to watch great old movies together. Join us once again for our annual Christmas Watch.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a noteworthy food writer, known for her prowess around a kitchen and competence in the home; sort of a wartime Martha Stewart type. Women and men both read her monthly columns with a sense of envy and admiration; there’s just one problem, and it’s a big one. She doesn’t live on the farm that she so vividly describes monthly, nor is she married to the husband that she dotes upon in her columns, and she does not have the child that she describes rearing so capably. Also, she can’t cook. In a nutshell, she’s a fraud. She lives in a small New York City apartment and her noteworthy recipes all come courtesy of her good friend, Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). One of the people deceived by this façade is Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), a veteran of the war that spent 18 days on a raft in the middle of the ocean awaiting rescue.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Like Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.
RB: One of the things that got him through this trying (to say the least) time was dreaming of Lane’s elaborate dinners. When the publisher of her magazine Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) hears of this, he concocts a scheme to bolster circulation for his magazines, namely that Jones will spend Christmas on the Connecticut farm that he believes Lane resides upon with her architect husband and child. To add a further complication, Yardley decides to join them.
Once the plot kicks in, which does take over a quarter of the film to happen, it largely becomes a charming screwball comedy. An additional subplot involves keeping up the ruse of the baby belonging to Lane and her husband, whom she was not married to, and had just gotten engaged to the day before (Reginald Gardiner) and his attempts at getting married quickly before the facts about their lives get found out. It moves briskly and the various subplots intertwine together effortlessly making the hour and forty-five-minute run time fly by. The casting is largely perfect, Stanwyck handling the light comedy beautifully, and while some contemporary reviewers have found flaws with Dennis Morgan, I think he handled his role well. His somewhat wooden style of acting works here because it allows Stanwyck, Greenstreet and Sakall to really take the spotlight. Morgan and Stanwyck’s chemistry may be suspect, but when she works with her other co-stars, it’s positively delightful.
SG: Morgan is okay looking in black and white, but he is a revelation in color. When I saw him in Ride, Cowboy, Ride at Capitolfest, I did a double take. Ever since then his value has increased in my mind. He is the right amount of likeable in this movie. He doesn't come off as too perfect or too smart; he has a distinct personality without overpowering the other actors, as you said.
This movie is chock full of incredible character actors performing on all cylinders. Greenstreet commands authority as the boss who could get Elizabeth fired. Una O'Connor is appropriately shrewish and prude, threatening to quit if Stanwyck and Gardiner's characters dare to sleep under the same roof without benefit of clergy. Frank Jenks is one of those faces that pops up in a ton of movies and it is always a pleasant surprise. No matinee idol, his distinctive underbite and comedic delivery cause him to stand out in a crowd like your favorite brash uncle. He gives us the "ol' Magoo" in spades. Dick Elliott plays the judge with a jolly affability heralding his distinctive voice. Sakall is always a joy. His ethnic Hungarian character may put some people off for relying on a stereotype, though not a particularly well-known one, but I smile at his mention of adding paprika to Irish stew to turn it into goulash, his exasperation with Elizabeth taking credit for his cooking skills, and his odd way of interrupting the marriage ceremony by feeding the baby his watch. He is a staple of Doris Day movies which have a similar light-hearted atmosphere. If I could only get my hands on his memoir Cuddles, I'd be a happy girl.
Joyce Compton is delightful as nurse Mary. Her southern drawl and wide-eyed innocence are terribly appealing. She represents the many young women who thought they were destined for wedded bliss and motherhood and whose plans the war dashed, turned to service instead. She is a pretty thing forced into adulthood and responsibility and probably seems juvenile by today's standards, but her youthful qualities make me feel maternal and protective.
RB: A lot of modern reviewers tend to take umbrage with the film as they read a subtext into the film about women being forced to leave the workplace after the war. Emanual Levy is one that accused the film of perpetuating “obviously propagated conservative ideology, sending women to the kitchen to dutifully play their roles as housewives and mothers after tasting some emancipation during the War years”. This argument, which isn’t uncommon doesn’t hold much weight with me, because while of course Lane and Jones wind up together at the end of the film, there is no attempt at making anyone think that she would be a perfect housewife. She gets a fat raise at her job and there are no qualms about her being a lousy cook.
SG: I think modern "progressives" like to view the past through their lens which isn't fair. Many women did want to be wives and mothers, or at least thought they did. And what does a man know about what women want anyway? I for one love to cook. Food is a major part of the holiday season, especially once-a-year treats, so the fact that this movie addresses food directly on multiple occasions satisfies an itch for complete representation of this time of year. The scene where Mr. Yardley asks Elizabeth to flip pancakes for him is very memorable and I'm the proud owner of the lobby card depicting it. I do find reading old menus to be confusing. Are they serving all of that stuff?
The Connecticut house is very impressive with a huge fireplace, a high-ceilinged living area, and a cozy functional kitchen. Charlene Reid of Chicago was so enamored with it she wrote to Movieland asking for details, and they directed her to contact art director Leo Kuter at Warner Brothers. Unfortunately for her, it was a set created on a soundstage.
The alternate title for this film is Indiscretion, which I find to be misleading. This is one of the few Christmas movies of this era that includes the holiday in the title. Oddly, it was released in August, like Miracle on 34th Street was released in June. Hollywood hadn't yet figured out that people want their Christmas movies served with the actual holiday.
RB: The film was a massive hit both critically at the box office upon the initial release and has gone on to become a consistent holiday classic in the ensuing decades. “This was a surprise to me as I had heard some not too complimentary remarks on same, but to me, these remarks were not warranted as this is a very good comedy. My patrons enjoyed every minute of it. Play it,” advised A.L. Dove of the Bengough Theatre in Saskatchewan. “Full of laughter for the audience. Warners have a winner in this one,” noted Thomas di Lorenzo of the New Paltz Theater in New York.
SG: Barton for Film Bulletin called the movie, "Frequently frantic, only occasionally amusing, and mostly a pretty dull time," adding, "Why this change of pace for Fat Man Greenstreet? He's too exciting a menace to be wasted in comedy." So much for not getting typecast.
"Christmas in Connecticut is whacky, while retaining intelligence," wrote Box Office Digest's reviewer. "Skillfully guided in scripting by producer William Jacobs and adroitly directed for full farce values by Peter Godfrey it seems a trouper’s banquet as the players romp through one belly laugh after another."
The Rialto manager in Allentown, Pennsylvania had a clever idea to advertise the movie. He had thirty wallets in the lost and found at the theater, so he put a note in each one saying, "Christmas is here. Return this wallet to the Rialto, where it will be redeemed for two passes for Christmas in Connecticut." He put them in various places around the city and 90% were returned.
Mennen Baby Oil issued ads promoting the film using scenes of bathing Roberta to claim theirs as the best baby oil brand to use after a bath. There was a radio adaptation on Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre starring Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan when they were still married and another for Stars on the Air starring Gordon MacRae and Phyllis Thaxter.
RB: I’m a sucker for Stanwyck, and she looks positively beautiful in this film and handles the light comedy proceedings with expert timing and precision. The setting and supporting cast are all wonderful and I found this movie to be a delight, well deserving of the status it enjoys as a classic holiday favorite. Five stars for a practically perfect movie.
SG: This movie is one I return to year after year. It holds up and is a pleasant background for wrapping gifts or for a family movie night. It is one of those rare movies that becomes a part of the fabric of your life. Five stars.