Thursday, December 6, 2012


Holiday movies were big business throughout the 1940s. Part of their appeal was predicated on the fact that WWII had created a rift in the traditional American family unit; a wound generally acknowledged by Hollywood with a proliferation of introspective family dramas. Some were more serious than others. Few focused on the hardships inculcated by the war, instead referencing the European conflict merely as backdrop; a built in emotional crutch onto which many a simple narrative found more enriching subtexts to extol.  But the intimacy within these various excursions also had another champion: the Catholic League of Decency who imposed their own seal of approval on any film that extolled the virtues of marriage, ma, the American standard of living and the divine sanctity of a Christian society. Director Peter Godfrey’s Christmas In Connecticut (1945) may be a strange amalgam of all these virtues, but it remains one of the most devilishly handsome holiday farces; a sunny ball of fluff ably aided by an all pervasively absent-minded jovial holiday spirit that permeates the Lionel Hauser/Adele Comandini screenplay from beginning to end.
As such, it matters not a whit that our heroine, newspaper columnist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is an unrepentant fraud, perpetuating the delicious myth of the divinely contented homemaker on both her readership and her boss, Alexander Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet) who has reveled in her printed words from afar and cannot wait to experience Liz’s prowess in the kitchen first hand over the pending Christmas holidays. Nor is the film particularly keen on affording our liar any comeuppance befitting her deceptions.
No, the story is, in fact, one of grand, and grossly improbably wish fulfillment. Our panicked heroine is, at first, rescued from complete disaster by wealthy architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardner) who offers to furnish Elizabeth with every luxury she requires to continue to pull the wool over Yardley’s eyes. In exchange for this nicety Liz agrees to marry Sloan, then, most deliciously does everything she can to delay their nuptials. In the meantime there’s congenial young buck, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who has been dreaming of Elizabeth as she reports herself to be, only to discover that he loves her passionately just as she is.
In all Christmas in Connecticut is about establishing the perfect alibi for the holidays – believing in the fanciful and, in the end, getting exactly what you wished for on the 25th. The sheer joy in the exercise does not derive from watching Elizabeth squirm as her fibs grow large and unravel into sheer slapstick, although herein Stanwyck is ably aided by two of the most beloved buffoons in movie history; S.Z. Sakall (as her bumbling and easily flustered Uncle Felix) and Una O’Connor (as Norah, Sloan’s own frazzled housekeeper).
But the comedy takes a definite backseat to Stanley Fleischer’s pastoral production design. Like virtually all movies made throughout the decade, Christmas in Connecticut is studio-bound; its snowy landscapes an artificial panacea of plaster and gypsum built inside a cavernous soundstage, its romanticized moonlit horizons mere cyclorama painted onto plywood. If anything, the film is as much about make-believing as is our heroine; the two working in cahoots to fool the audience with a perfect escapism. And Christmas in Connecticut is damn near perfect indeed.      
The story concerns all-American able-bodied seaman Jefferson Jones who, through a gracious whim of fate, and the flawed logic of a nimble-minded nurse, Mary Lee (Joyce Compton), is invited to the idyllic country estate of syndicated columnist and homemaker Elizabeth Lane for the Christmas break. Lane is the Martha Stewart of her generation – a highly successful, hugely popular contributor to Alexander Yardley’s monthly magazine. Yardley is a loveable curmudgeon, virtually ignored by his own family and destined to spend the holidays alone. Under the pretext of being a lonely widower, Yardley finagles an invitation to Elizabeth’s home in the country. What a story! What publicity! What goodwill! One problem: Liz is a fake!
She has no husband, no children, no picturesque farm nestled in the sweet wood of New England’s winter playground. Fortunately, what Elizabeth does have is John Sloan, a stuffed shirt architect who would love to make Liz his wife. She reluctantly agrees to his proposal of marriage to gain use of his idyllic country estate for her weekend ruse.  But Liz does not love Sloan. Hence, at every turn she delays their wedding and, through a series of rather contrived complications, easily falls in love with Jefferson instead.
The film loosely flirts with a series of “what if” scenarios: what if Elizabeth was single? (which, of course, she is): what if Yardley finds out that his most popular featured writer is a fraud? (which he does); what if it could all turn out just fine in the end? (like, no kidding – it will). It must be said that the Houser/Comandini screenplay (hacked together from a story by Aileen Hamilton) has great difficulty getting off the ground; particularly during a lengthy and thoroughly misguided prologue that opens with Jones' harrowing near death experience as a sailor surviving a U-boat torpedo and being rescued from a floating raft at sea.
From this rather auspicious wartime introduction we segue into a most unconvincing screwball between Jefferson and Mary Lee while he recuperates from his injuries inside the army hospital. The real problem with these early machinations is that, like the characters themselves, they lack conviction. Are we experiencing a wartime melodrama? Well, no. Is this going to be a screwball romance? Uh…partly. Is any of this making an iota of sense? Regrettably, not!
But once the story moves from New York to Connecticut its various narrative threads begin to crystalize in unexpected and very satisfying ways. Jones meets Elizabeth for the first time and we sense their immediate chemistry, much to Sloan’s bitter, but mostly obtuse regret. Sloan is a loveable fop – too self-appointed and proud to allow his supposed wife and mother to fly the coop after taking advantage of his goodwill, yet too in love with Liz to do either her or her career any deliberately malicious damage. And then, of course, there is Yardley – the somewhat stern, though ultimately benevolent Santa Claus figure of the piece; fascinated that his most prized columnist should live up to his expectations, but equally satisfied upon realizing she’s been severely fudging the truth all along.
In the final analysis, Christmas in Connecticut is a featherweight charmer; occasionally a tad too precious in its not terribly clever, and oft’ deceptively silly scenarios. The crisp Stanwyck and congenial Morgan have that spark of elusive chemistry that makes everything click as it should. Sakall and O’Connor are inspired comedians – great fun to watch and laugh at. Greenstreet and Gardner offer winning support. Does it work? Mostly. Is it fun? Definitely. Will you enjoy it? Undoubtedly. Am I recommending it? You bet!
Warner Brothers DVD exhibits some forgivable flaws. The gray scale has been impeccably realized with deep solid blacks, very clean whites and a smattering of film grain inconsistently rendered. The image is infrequently soft with a loss of fine detail and age related artifacts crop up now and then. Undoubtedly, Christmas in Connecticut would benefit from a digital restoration and is certainly deserving of one if the film ever makes it to Blu-ray. But for now we must content ourselves with the DVD – available as a single disc and also as part of the TCM four pack series with The Shop Around the Corner, It Happened on Fifth Avenue and MGM’s lavish version of A Christmas Carol. The audio is mono and adequately represented. Extras include a vintage featurette and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

David M. said...

I saw this on a cable channel back in the 90's, and the first eight minutes or so were missing! After the credits, the first scene of the film became Jeff's nurse telling him she's "feeling mighty blue tonight". Oddly, the friend I saw this with didn't notice anything wrong (she'd never seen it before), so I think you may have a point about that prologue.