Christmas in Connecticut is a lighthearted, lovely holiday film. But upon closer inspection, it has a far more serious cultural resonance. And before you roll your eyes and grumble at the fact that I’m making a serious, real life connection to a romantic comedy, please hear me out. While the film is full of laughs and a wonderful lead performance from the irrepressible and incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, it’s also about the post war situation of women.
During the war, women were financially independent. They had full time jobs in factories, as nurses, fire officers, mechanics and air raid wardens. They had to take up the reins (which they did extremely competently, proving they should have been allowed to do so all along!) that the men who were in active service had left unattended. But after the fighting was done, women were expected to climb back into their domestic cubby holes and be wives and mothers, and no more. They had to pick up the frying pan and rolling pin, nappy and pacifier, rather than munition, wrench or forceps as they had during the war, and act as if they had never been able to be apart of the wider world. More free than they had ever been before. Suddenly they had to be “domestic goddesses” and wear aprons during the day and cocktail dresses and practiced smiles in the evening, and listen to their husband go on about his job. And while the film is set during the war, it was released quite soon after it had ended, and so my point, I think, stands.
But what the film also shows, is that once women had gone out into the workplace, had “spilled” into the “hallowed” territory of the opposite sex, they were not going to just retreat into the kitchen and forget all the independence and fulfilment they had felt during the war. And while that is not to say that World War II was a good thing, it would be utter lunacy to even suggest such a thing, it gives one perspective on how a seemingly inane film can actually have so much bubbling (pun intended) under the surface.
Pitfalls and Pie Crusts
Elizabeth Lane (played by Barbara Stanwyck) has a secret: although she is a successful and celebrated food writer for Smart Housekeeping magazine, she does not live on a sprawling, rustic farm in Connecticut, and most importantly, she can’t cook or grow her own vegetables. She lives in an apartment in New York and doesn’t even have a window box. Instead of raising a baby and looking after a loving husband, as she writes in her column, she’s actually paying off a snazzy mink coat and getting all of her recipes from Uncle Felix (played by S.Z. Sakall), who owns a lovely little Hungarian restaurant. And while I am not a lover or condoner of fur nor am I knocking wife and motherhood, I have to say that Elizabeth sounds like she’s doing it for herself (cue music).
However, the jig is swiftly threatened when a husband hunting nurse, Mary Lee (played by Joyce Compton), who wants to coax (read push) war hero, Jefferson Jones (played by cute as a button Dennis Morgan) into marrying her; writes a letter to Smart Housekeeping because a) Jefferson loves Elizabeth and reads all of her articles, and b) she thinks that if he is exposed to a real home, he will suddenly want to marry her. Can you tell that Mary hasn’t thought this through all of the way?
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, tyrannical and circulation obsessed Alexander Yardley (played by Sydney Greenstreet in a rare comedic role), owner of Smart Housekeeping, decides that Elizabeth should host a Christmas dinner for the returning war hero in order to drum up more readership, and so that he can escape the horror of parsnip fluff which his doctor has prescribed for Yardley’s rather large waistline.
Elizabeth and her editor, Dudley, go into a full scale panic and realise that it’s tickets for them unless they come up with a full proof plan to ensure that Yardley doesn’t discover that they’re basically a couple of hucksters. So poor Elizabeth agrees to marry her stuffy, unlikable architect on-again-off-again boyfriend, John Sloan (played by Reginald Gardner) because she needs a husband and he just happens to have a farm in Connecticut.
All seems set. Even the trickiest part of the situation, the fact that Elizabeth has never even given birth, never mind has a baby, is sorted by the fact that John’s housekeeper, snarky Norah (played by Una Merkel) looks after babies whose mothers are working in the local munitions factory. But then Jefferson pitches up and Elizabeth realises that she doesn’t really want to marry stuffy John, but wonderful, sweet and naturally caring Jefferson, who can bath a baby like no one’s business and change a nappy without impaling the poor infant with a safety pin.
Hijinks ensue when another baby, who looks nothing like the other one, either in regards to sex or hair colouring, is given to Norah to look after. And when the baby’s mother collects it from the Sloan farm and Yardley mistakes it for a kidnapping. As if things couldn’t get anymore hair raising, Elizabeth is asked by her truculent employer to flip a pancake. An endeavour she undertakes under the weary eye of Felix and with both her eyes firmly closed, miraculously managing to get the pancake back in the pan and not on the stove. The hijinks increase when Elizabeth and Jefferson do two things by moonlight: put away a cow that likes to leave the barn (firm rumps are involved), and go on a sleigh ride due to it being pulled by an equally wondering horse, and being accused of trying to steal both the sleigh and the horse.
Things finally deflate like an undercooked soufflé when Yardley accuses Elizabeth of being an unfit mother and a lackadaisical wife to John, who’s trying to make sure he marries Elizabeth so he can be a regular contributor to the magazine in his capacity as an architect. Elizabeth has had enough of the entire charade, and admits that she is a fraud of the first order and proud of it. Yardley is furious and fires her, but Uncle Felix intimates that another, rival magazine is waiting to snap Elizabeth up, fraud or not, and Yardley recants when Felix butters him up with some lovely, juicy kidneys. No innuendoes intended.
But Jefferson’s would be fiancée, Mary Lee, appears at the farm, and all seems lost in terms of Elizabeth’s newfound love. However, Mary admits that she is now married to Jefferson’s friend and fellow soldier. Jefferson, who is delighted, decides to get Elizabeth back for her deception, and pretends to want to pursue her despite her supposed marital status. Felix, Yardley, John and Mary all listen outside of the door as things go suddenly quiet. What could possibly make it all so quiet? A kiss methinks.
Barbara whipping up a light turn
Known for her decidedly dramatic roles, such as her Oscar nominated turn as the deadly, complex femme fatale Phylis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Barbara reportedly enjoyed pursuing comedic roles in order to vary her output and also avoid being overtaxed by dramatic films. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Christmas in Connecticut. Along with White Christmas, Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, it was on my list of classic Christmas films to watch for the first time at the end of 2018. I was rather apprehensive because I’d only ever really seen Barbara and Stanley Greenstreet in serious films and roles. And while I knew I could rely on S.K. Sakall for wonderful comedic timing, one comedic actor a romantic comedy does not make.
But I am delighted to say that not only did I love Sydney Greenstreet as a scary, but funny character, but I think that Barbara had real comedic timing. Her facial expressions are timeless, especially in the scene when she thinks that Dennis’ character is complimenting her derriere. And she also manages to elevate a role that could have easily been subsumed by Una Merkel, who is so wonderfully dry in her role that I was grinning every time she was on the screen, and S.K. and Sydney. She doesn’t oversell it. And what I also adore about Elizabeth is that she doesn’t suddenly become an amazing chef by the end of the film. Sure, she can flip a pancake, but she can’t suddenly cook dauphinoise potatoes and fillet mignon.
She also isn’t “punished” or humiliated for being found out. She quite soundly and smartly defends herself against Yardley’s high handed manner towards her when he thinks she’s acting “inappropriately” (I’m using a lot of inverted commas, I am aware). And she also calls him out on his overreaction and inclination to jump to conclusion. And I also really like how at the end of the film it’s quite clear that Elizabeth and Jefferson like each other for who they are, not who they thought the other was: a domestic high priestess and Captain U.S.A.
It’s a wonderfully frothy festive film that I highly recommend at Christmas, but at any time of the year really. Especially when you’re fed up with how women are still being relegated to being bare foot and pregnant, instead of being encouraged to make a break for it and pursue whatever they want in life, whether that’s being a domestic goddess and raising little piglets on a farm or being an astrophysicist. Barbara and Elizabeth have you covered.
This is my second and final contribution for The Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy Loves her Classic Films. Please visit both of their blogs for more information and to read everyone’s contributions.