Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Bros., 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we watched last night was one Charles had requested: Christmas in Connecticut, which I knew I had on an old commercial VHS tape and it turned out I had on DVD, too — I had recorded it on December 24, 2008 from TCM right after the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol directed by Edwin L. Marin with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Christmas in Connecticut is a modern-dress comedy, directed by Peter Godfrey from a script by Adele Commandini (writer of Deanna Durbin’s early vehicles, and it shows) and Lionel Houser from a story by Aileen Hamilton. According to, it was based on a columnist in Family Circle magazine named Gladys Taber, who lived in Connecticut on a farm called Stillmeadow (as opposed to all those moving meadows we’ve seen lately?) and wrote a column on cooking and farm life and taking care of a family.

The conceit Hamilton, Commandini and Houser came up with was that their character, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), really lives in a ratty New York City apartment and can’t cook at all — this would-be Martha Stewart (the modern-day person people who watch Christmas in Connecticut today are instantly reminded of) is faking it all, getting her recipes from local restaurateur Felix Bassenak (S. Z. Sakall) and making the rest of it up. Meanwhile — in fact, this is how the movie opens — sailors Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and “Sinky” Sinkiewicz (Frank Jenks) are shipwrecked when their destroyer is torpedoed and they spend 18 days on a raft without food. (In an hilarious and inventive sequence, Jones dreams that he’s sitting at a table on the raft and being served a gourmet meal by Sinky in waiter’s drag.) Recuperating in a naval hospital, Jones gets upset that he’s being fed only milk while Sinky is getting full-course meals, and on Sinky’s advice he decides that the way to get decent food is to cruise the nurse who’s taking care of them, Mary Lee (Joyce Compton).

Only Mary is so resistant that in order to get to her he has to promise to marry her — and she decides that the problem with him is that he’s never had a family (he was an artist and a drifter before he enlisted) and therefore she’ll write a letter to Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), publisher of the Smart Housekeeping magazine for which Elizabeth writes her column, and get her boyfriend invited to Elizabeth’s farm for the Christmas holiday. Since she already knows Yardley — she once took care of his granddaughter — the plan works, and now Elizabeth and her editor, Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne), have to come up with a Connecticut farm, a husband, an eight-month-old baby (since Elizabeth has written in her columns that she has one) and some absolutely astonishing holiday meals to fool Jones and also Yardley, who will fire them instantly if he realizes they’ve been faking her columns. In a way the opening of this movie is a parody of Meet John Doe — another film in which Stanwyck played a journalist who faked a big story and then worried about the reaction of her corpulent, hard-hearted boss when he found out — though soon enough Dudley comes up with solutions to the various dilemmas involved.

The farm will come from John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), foofy architect who’s been after Elizabeth to marry him for years — though he lets out a homoerotic yelp of delight when he finds out that his Christmas guest will be a sailor — the baby will be one of the local kids, whom Sloan’s maid Norah (Una O’Connor) babysits; and the dinners will come from Felix, who’ll be invited to tag along and pose as Elizabeth’s uncle. Complications ensue — including the rather delightful one that there are two babies, of different hair colors, facial appearances and, most importantly, genders — and Yardley himself also comes up for the weekend, while John and Dudley summon the local justice of the peace (Dick Elliott) to tie the knot between John and Elizabeth — only they’re always getting interrupted, and any hardened moviegoer will realize that’s because Elizabeth is destined to fall for that hot, hunky sailor and want to marry him at the end.

Christmas in Connecticut isn’t exactly on the level of It’s a Wonderful Life or the various Christmas Carols as a holiday institution, but on its own merits it’s a quite good movie — surprising from a usually lackluster director like Peter Godfrey. No, he’s not Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks (for whom Stanwyck made her two best comedies — The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, respectively), and Christmas in Connecticut would have been an even better movie than it is if they’d let Sturges loose on it (though it would also have been considerably quirkier and possibly less of a box-office hit), but on its own merits it’s a quite charming film and noteworthy not only for Stanwyck’s comedic skills but Greenstreet’s as well.

On stage Greenstreet had been best known as a comedian — his signature role was Shakespeare’s Falstaff — but when he was recruited for his film debut (at age 61!) it was as the black-hearted criminal mastermind of The Maltese Falcon and that became his film “type.” Seeing him here is a real treat and makes the whole idea of Greenstreet as Falstaff seem much more credible than it does in his other movies. The movie is generally well acted — though Dennis Morgan is a bit hard to take as the irresistible man who’s got both sex appeal and war-hero status on his side in the romantic conflict (Sturges would probably have wanted Joel McCrea for the part, which would have been better) — and Godfrey actually moves the camera and dollies through the house to discover the characters (and give this an air of French-style bedroom farce at times) instead of just doing traditional shot-reverse shot edits.

The real hero(ine) of this film behind the camera, though, is probably Commandini — she gave Stanwyck’s character here the same nervy combination of indomitability and vulnerability she’d given to Deanna Durbin in her Universal vehicles a decade earlier, and though she had two collaborators the general aura of the story seems to be hers. Christmas in Connecticut was remade for cable TV in 1992 with Arnold Schwarzenegger directing (his only shot behind the cameras) and Dyan Cannon in the Stanwyck role, and according to another version is slated for next year, but this one is quite good enough and a welcome holiday-themed audience diversion.