Saturday, June 27, 2015

Christmas In Connecticut a.k.a. The Christmas Movie According To Babs by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Cook your own kidneys." S.Z. Sakall

"Cold chicken is my weakness." Sydney Greensteet

"It's always important to keep promises, especially the ones you make to yourself." Barbara Stanwyck

"Honesty is the best politics." Stan Laurel, Sons Of The Desert

Our contribution to the 2015 Classic Movie History Project Blogathon reviews this much-shown WW2 era holiday stocking stuffer from Warner Brothers. Within the guise of fluffy Yuletide entertainment, Christmas In Connecticut presents a jaunty look at outrageous ruses, the social order, creation of fantasy worlds, the fear of being unmasked and embarrassed publicly about one's own life, mass media, shameless big business, sham marriages, moral responsibility, the nature of truth, the inability to listen to others, New York City, New England in winter and, most importantly, food and chefs.

No, Christmas In Connecticut does not star Lon Chaney Sr. and include a scene in which he is dramatically unmasked to be revealed both as a hideous monster and a lousy musician who plays the organ in a tragically unhip and most unrhythmic style, but it does, in the velvet glove of a light romantic comedy, take on a few of our greatest fears (will anybody love me and if so, why? can I do anything right? am I, professional success notwithstanding, a failure as a person?).

The matinee idol headliners in this Christmas classic are one of the greatest and most versatile Hollywood stars, Barbara Stanwyck and, as the handsome American soldier, back from World War II and yearning for a delicious home-cooked meal, Dennis Morgan (as opposed to Dennis O'Keefe or Dennis Day - we're spared a hard-boiled Anthony Mann "Christmas noir" as well as a truly odd holiday episode of The Jack Benny Program).

The Christmas season offering offers quite the vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck's formidable talents as a light comedienne. Ms. Stanwyck was on quite the roll at the time this film was made, having starred in the remarkably funny The Lady Eve (written and directed by Preston Sturges) and Ball Of Fire (directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett). In both, as well as the earlier 1940 Mitchell Leisen film Remember The Night, she portrays a scheming con artist, shamelessly fleecing a bumbling scion played by Henry Fonda in the former (Fonda: "Snakes are my life." Stanwyck: "What a life") and, as the salacious singer/moll "Sugarpuss O'Shea", attempting to take a band of college professors, led by an uncharacteristically - and not that convincingly - nerdy Gary Cooper, for saps in the latter.

In Christmas In Connecticut, she nails the role of Smart Housekeeping magazine's star columnist, Elizabeth Lane, a very good writer possessing active imagination - and just a touch of the con artist.

As always, Ms. Stanwyck gives a performance with honesty and conviction - and, in an art entirely lost in the present "Too Much Information - no, make that WAY Too Much Information" era, manages to be genuinely sexy every step of the way.

Providing expert support of the two headliners throughout: the usually menacing Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner (The Great Dictator) and a first ballot selection for the Comic Character Actors' Hall Of Fame, the inimitable and roly-poly S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.

Also among the stalwart supporting players are Una O' Connor, Frank Jenks and ace comedienne/comic actress Joyce Compton, notable for her hilarious my dreams are gone with the wind number in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, as well as leading lady turns in short subjects starring McCarey's frequent silent era collaborator and prolific director-writer-comedian for the Hal Roach Studio, Charley Chase.

It's quite a kick to see Greenstreet, bad guy we know and love from The Maltese Falcon and other intrigue-filled tales, in a comedy.

Greenstreet plays a very wealthy, blustery and stubborn publisher-magnate who can be clueless at times - and is quite funny.

The essential premise of Christmas In Connecticut: a quarter century before Betty White played randy Sue Ann, "The Happy Homemaker" on TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barbara Stanwyck's food writer columnist presents a picture of New England domestic bliss that makes the fantasy world hawked by the Martha Stewart Inc. juggernaut of 40+ years later look like the less bucolic milieus of humorist Erma "The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank" Bombeck and wisecracking standup comedienne Phyllis Diller. Elizabeth Lane presents herself as "America's Best Cook", the ULTIMATE homemaker, whose picturesque columns come straight from her ultra-idyllic Connecticut farm, where she cooks 5 star meals 365 days a year for her fawning husband and cutesy cute baby.

Alas, the column is fiction, ALL fiction. The author lives alone in a NYC apartment and drinks double martinis. There's no adoring hubby, no farm, no gorgeous country home, no vegetable garden, no state of the art kitchen - and no bouncing baby boy or girl. Worse yet, Ms. Lane can't even cook - all of the column's recipes and menus come from friend and nearby restauranteur Chef Felix Bassenak (played with extra paprika by Sakall).

The plot thickens when the publisher of this magazine (young readers: this is a reference to the then enormously popular Good Housekeeping, an institution, especially in the 1940's and 1950's), completely and entirely unaware that Lane's column is 100% fabrication, arranges for a returning war hero to have his first home cooked meal, an unbelievably scrumptious repast courtesy of Happy Homemaker Liz.

The plan does go a tad awry at the last minute, causing all kinds of comic complications. Reginald Gardiner's character, a process-obsessed and detail-oriented architect who simply does not comprehend that when a gal says no to multiple proposals annually several years in a row, that means "give up, you dope", in return for the wholly uninterested Ms. Lane to finally agree to marry him, offers his state-of-the-country home Connecticut farm and even manages to rustle up a baby - then TWO babies - for the ruse. However, when the columnist and war hero Jefferson Jones (who tacitly agreed to marry southern belle Nurse Lee in the opening of the film) become passionately smitten with each other on first meeting. . . hoo-boy!

The key phrase is "let the games begin" and the entire cast, plus Mackooshka The Cow and the local gendarmes, become active participants in putting the kibosh on Lane's marriage to the professionally skilled but utterly deluded architect. For everybody but Gardiner's character, it's a happy ending - and even Greenstreet's "time is money" magnate has a good time of it.

Characterizations are seldom strictly by the book (thanks, screenwriters Lionel Houser, Adele Comandini and Aileen Hamilton). Dennis Morgan's war hero is a cool guy, an artist, singer, pianist, overall sensitive soul and most of all A FOODIE, whose his very first sentence in the movie includes the word "bordelaise". While Elizabeth Lane loves a mink coat and a stiff drink, she is also a generous and good-hearted gal who loaned the money for her pal Felix to launch his successful restaurant. Indeed, the practice of writing characters that an audience can actually sympathize with is yet another lost art.

Of course, everything ends swimmingly and Happy Homemaker Liz and the war hero no doubt (post fade-out) live happily ever after, teaching each other to cook all the while - BABY, and how!

Such tidy scenarios would definitely not be the road Ms. Stanwyck's career or American cinema would take as the 1940's progressed. Through the 1940's and 1950's, she would go on to star in many more classic film noirs, none of which have happy endings or qualify as "foodie flicks", as well as such gritty modern westerns as Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns, before a successful career in television.

Her subsequent films with the director of Christmas In Connecticut, Peter Godfrey, are the substantially darker The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Cry Wolf.

Here's the trailer - and readers note, this holiday classic is finally out on Blu-ray. It's a good double bill with Remember The Night, or, if you're as twisted as this author, Double Indemnity!


Christmas In Connecticut: Directed by Peter Godfrey. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, S. Z. Sakall, Robert Shayne, Una O'Connor.

Again, we extend big time thanks, with a CHEERS and ceremonial clink of Nick & Nora Charles' Glenlivet-filled tumblers, to Fritzi, Aurora and Ruth from Movies Silently, Once Upon A Screen and Silver Screenings for hosting this blogathon, which has posted many fine pieces by top-notch writers - and to Flicker Alley for sponsoring it.


Silver Screenings said...

Wait a minute.

Did you say this is out on BLU-RAY? No fooling?

You are so right about Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist in this film – a con artist we cheer for all the way. She is marvelous with this cast.

This film is so much fun to watch, and I enjoyed your review every bit as much. Thanks for adding this to the Classic Movie History Project.

Citizen Screen said...

WHAT A HOOT!! Fantastic read on a delightful movie. And the cast is a dream! I'd forgotten the "My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind" connection in this although I've seen it several times. Thanks so much for sharing this as part of the blogathon. I must visit you more often!


Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you for the kind words! I sincerely hope our local Stanford Theatre does an "every movie Barbara Stanwyck ever made" series sometime. Enjoyed contributing to the blogathon and reading the many posts - you have quite a few heavy hitter scribes and film historians on board. And yes, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is on Blu-ray, for the delight of all of us BABS fans.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Gotta love Joyce "my dreams are gone with the wind" Compton in the sublimely goofy 1935 comedy short PUBLIC GHOST #1, the one in which Charley Chase (a.k.a. Charles Parrott) sings "Looky Looky Looky, I'm A Spooky."

Crystal said...

Excellent post. I am a huge fan of Barbara Stanwyck, so I highly enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting.

I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon in August. The link is below with more details

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you, Crystal and this looks like a fantastic blogathon!