Sunday, November 6, 2016

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1945) Warner Home Video

Peter Godfrey’s Christmas in Connecticut (1945) reminds me why I used to like movies set in and around the pending holiday season. Whereas today’s holiday fare – if even it continues to be produced – has frequently been distilled into exemplifications of the worst about humanity at large; people behaving like disgruntled farm animals, fighting tooth and nail for the latest scraps at their local retailer (Jingle All the Way, 1996); greedily invested to outdo, discredit and humiliate their neighbors (Deck the Halls, 2006), or even furthermore, showing us dysfunctional families begrudgingly reunited and desperately struggling to think of even one good reason to gather around the table for a turkey dinner (Home For The Holidays, 1995), Christmas in Connecticut leans to that once prevalent cultural strain of celebrating the most sacred of holidays with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, cajoling with its light romanticism and nimble nuggets imbued with the spirit of a classy screwball comedy, bringing warmth to our hearts and, on occasion, a tear to the eye. Exactly how or why such tales have fallen out of fashion in liberal Hollywood these days is beyond me. I really have no stomach for the aforementioned ‘other ilk’ of holiday-themed pulp that has infested pop culture these days. Keep your Cranks. The fruitcake belongs on the shelf – not in your Blu-ray player!
Christmas in Connecticut bungles its sentiment ever so slightly with a wartime scenario – a strapping soldier’s story for Christmas, quaintly out of sorts with its otherwise featherweight and fun plot: all about Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck as a pre-Martha Stewart-esque maven of social etiquette) who, regrettably and much to the chagrin of her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot even boil water without almost burning down the house. Lane writes the most popular lady’s column for Yardley’s syndicate. Too bad it is all a ruse: a fib, or rather, a figment of Liz’s wondrous imagination. She doesn’t live on a rustic farm in Connecticut with sprawling bucolic acreage, but inside a cramped rented tenement, her only window facing the brick wall and cluttered clothes line attached to an adjacent building. Her roaring fireplace is actually a noisy steam-generating radiator. And her emblematic vision of the ideal wife, mother and housekeeper (the pre-feminist poster child for all a woman could – or rather ‘should’ be) is actually a concept this single-minded glamor girl knows virtually nothing about. Liz cannot even change a diaper, much less whip together a five-course turkey dinner with all the fixings, in addition to maintaining a sweet smelling babe with an immaculately groomed husband she has, in fact, yet to procure for herself but writes as though she knows her way around both the nursery and her ‘wifely duties’ in the kitchen.
There is something deliciously insidious about the way the Lionel Houser/Adele Commandini screenplay (based on a story by Aileen Hamilton) punctures the balloons of these varying hypocrisies one at a time; Yardley, inadvertently setting into motion an even grander deception with his self-invite to Liz’s fictional home for the holidays. Elizabeth desperately conniving friend/architect, John Sloan (Reginald Gardner) into allowing her the use of his escapist Connecticut retreat for the weekend. But Sloan is no fool. Moreover, he is in love with Elizabeth and seizes the opportunity to force her into a proposal of marriage. It all sits with the sour aftertaste of turned milk for Liz’s uncle, Felix Bassenak (the marvelously comedic curmudgeon, S.Z. Sakall); a master chef who, along with Sloan’s housekeeper, Norah (Una O’Connor) endeavor to revive Liz’s reputation as the undisputed mistress of the culinary arts. There are numerous flies in this ointment, not the least, Yardley’s insistence Liz open her home to returning war hero, Jefferson Jones (amiable love interest and resident Warner contract player/heartthrob, Dennis Morgan) who has expressed a desire to meet Elizabeth in the flesh. Alas, Jones has already begun something of a mildly obtuse affair with Mary Lee (Joyce Compton), the nurse responsible for his care since being rescued, along with fellow soldier, Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) from a floating raft after their ship was torpedoed by the Nazis.
Either out of a sense of nostalgia for home, hearth and all those other uniquely American virtues (most astutely heralded in songs by Irving Berlin) homesick servicemen were fighting for over in Europe, or perhaps simply to cater to the Christian principle in celebrating the most obvious holiday on the calendar with glittery heartfelt aplomb, holiday-themed movies were big business throughout the 1940’s. Then, as now, part of their appeal is predicated on the fact WWII had created a rift in these traditions; a wound to America’s patriotism shored up by Hollywood’s proliferation of introspective ‘feel good’ family dramas. Some were more serious than others. None 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 and similarly themed plot found far more enriching subtexts to extol.  The Christmas movie also found its champions in the Catholic League of Decency; a self-governing body of censorship with their own gold star seal of approval given to any story extolling the virtues of marriage, ma, the American standards and the divine sanctity of the Christian faith. Christmas In Connecticut may seem a strange amalgam of these virtues, but it remains one of the most well-heeled holiday farces; a sunny ball of fluff ably enveloped in an all-pervasive, if absent-minded and thoroughly jovial holiday spirit.
So it matters not a whit that our heroine is an unrepentant fraud, perpetuating her delicious myth to scores of aspiring women as the supremely contented/accomplished homemaker. Nor is Christmas in Connecticut particularly keen on affording this liar any comeuppance befitting her deceptions. No, the story is, in fact, one of grandly improbably wish fulfillment. Thrice, our panicked heroine is brought back from the brink of disaster: first, rescued from total exposure by the wealthy architect who offers to furnish Elizabeth with every luxury she requires to continue to pull the wool over Yardley’s eyes. In exchange for these niceties, Liz agrees to marry Sloan, then, most deliciously does everything she can to delay their nuptials. In the meantime, there is the congenial dark horse/young buck, Jefferson Jones, to consider; a hunk in uniform more Liz’s speed and age who has been dreaming of Elizabeth as she reports herself to be in print, only to discover he loves her even more sincerely just as she is. Finally, there is Uncle Felix, curt yet kind and full of feistiness to see his favorite niece does not ensnare herself in a sop merely to keep her air of respectability, arguably not nearly worth having.
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 December 25th. The sheer joy in the exercise does not derive from watching Elizabeth squirm on the hook as her fibs grow more unmanageable and then begin to unravel into sheer slapstick; although, herein Barbara Stanwyck is ably assisted 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 frazzled housekeeper). Right until the very end it is a toss-up who will win out. What is guaranteed, the frothy comedy taking a definite backseat to Stanley Fleischer’s pastoral Production Design. Like virtually all movies made throughout the forties, Christmas in Connecticut is studio-bound; its’ snowy landscapes a panacea of plaster and gypsum built inside cavernous sound stages; its romanticized moonlit horizons, mere painted plywood. If anything, the film is as much about make-believing as our heroine; the two in cahoots to serve up the perfect escapism. And in reflection, Christmas in Connecticut is damn near perfect; a cozy, classy, and cordial misfit of a memory, tinged in the satisfaction of seeing seasoned Hollywood pros do precisely what they did best back then – entertain us with a capital ‘E’.     
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, is invited to the idyllic country estate of syndicated columnist and homemaker extraordinaire, Elizabeth Lane for the Christmas break. Lane is Betty Crocker, Ann Landers and Emily Post all rolled into one – a highly successful/wildly popular contributor to Alexander Yardley’s monthly publication. Yardley is an adorable killjoy, virtually ignored by his own family and destined to spend the holidays alone. Under the pretext of being a lonely widower, Yardley wangles an invitation to Elizabeth’s home in the country. He also decides to exploit Jefferson’s valor by having Liz open her home and heart to one of America’s returning war heroes. 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/friend who would love to make Liz his wife. She reluctantly agrees to his proposal of marriage in exchange for the use of his idyllic country estate to pull off her weekend ruse.  Problem #2: 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 Jones instead.
The Houser/Comandini screenplay loosely flirts with a series of “what if” scenarios. What if Elizabeth were single? (which, of course, she is): what if Yardley found out his most popular feature writer was a fraud? (predictably, he does); what if it could all turn out just fine in the end? (like, no kidding – it will). It must be pointed out the Houser/Comandini screenplay has some difficulty getting off the ground; particularly in its tedious and thoroughly misguided prologue: Jones' harrowing near-death experience as a sailor surviving a U-boat torpedo and being rescued from his floating raft at sea. The opening act of Christmas in Connecticut is a red herring at best, and a dead end at its worst, mainly because Jones’ ultimate entanglement with the bubble-headed Mary Lee is marginalized as Houser and Comandini begin to telescope the rest of their scenarios around Liz’s increasingly complicated game of smoke and mirrors; fooling Yardley, keeping Sloan at arm’s length, while Liz sidles up to Jones, who really does not mind the attention, but actually doesn’t quite get it either; a married woman after his bones?!?
From this rather auspicious wartime introduction we segue into an awkward and unconvincing screwball skit between Jefferson and Mary Lee as 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. Is this 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 mutual attraction, much to Sloan’s bitter, but mostly obtuse chagrin. Sloan is a lovable fop – too self-appointed, proud and officious to allow his supposed wife and mother to fly the coop after taking advantage of his goodwill, yet too possessive of 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 rather than perturbed to discover his most prized columnist cannot live up to his expectations, but equally contented upon realizing she has severely fudged the truth mostly for his benefit. Any woman who would go so far to please a man – especially her boss – cannot be all bad…can she?
We move from effortless vignette to effortless vignette; Jefferson and Liz increasingly becoming inseparable; he resisting the urge to be gallant outright (because conventional movie-land morality dictates no passes made at an obviously ‘married’ woman), but not quite able to divest himself of the urge to be flirtatious in undemonstrative ways; playing the piano, telling stories about his childhood Liz can definitely relate to and obviously finds romantically charming, etc. When Sloan borrows a baby from a local woman to pass off as his and Liz’s offspring the plot heats up considerably; the dark and curly-haired child looking remarkably unlike either surrogate. Yardley does not see it, however; presumably blinded by his desire to have the perfect Christmas holiday. Yet, even when this bubble is burst it does not seem to matter. For Yardley cannot deny that despite Liz’s dishonesty, he has been royally treated to a holiday like no other; certainly, none to have warmed his heart at home. As the audience, we come away with a similar feeling.
Christmas in Connecticut is not as fondly or as readily remembered as some of the other classic holiday movies on my perennial ‘must see’ list; Holiday Inn, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Miracle on 34th Street among them. But it does deserve more consideration. Barbara Stanwyck is a sublime deceiver, fumbling the ball at the proverbial forty-yard line; unable, at least in spirit, to carry off the clever deception to its fitting conclusion – or rather, one that would only benefit her. Stanwyck’s Liz is, quite simply too nice to go that far; although, conversely, she is not above continuing to perpetuate the untruth for the millions of legitimate homemakers who regard Liz as their guru. Dennis Morgan is a fitting love interest; his great gift to the movies a thorough lack of male ego, almost eager to share the screen or even deferring to the other performers with whom his cinema space is shared.  He comes across as a square-jawed handsome suitor, easily the guy for Stanwyck’s Liz: the congenial ‘take home to mom’ fellow most any woman in the audience would have aspired to land using every feminine wile in the handbook.
Christmas in Connecticut is also immensely blessed to have three solid hams in its cast. We begin with Sidney Greenstreet’s charmer, Alexander Yardley. Greenstreet, who began his movie career at the age of 60 as the venomous Casper Guttman in The Maltese Falcon, 1940 (reportedly, so incredibly nervous then he innocently pleaded with co-star, Mary Astor not to be made to look ridiculous) is one of the all-time delightful Warner contract players. It’s Greenstreet’s girth that first catches the eye; his devilish chuckling, second. But hitherto he brings to the part a tubby cuteness. Una O’Connor is the another fabulous fop; her puckered visage and hard-boiled eyes capable of conveying faux piety and more than a modicum of thorny impatience – frequently exacerbated to humorous effect. And then there is S.Z. Sakall – one of the cinema’s irrefutable delights; his waggling jowls, those Coke-bottle glasses he reportedly did not need but used as a prop, and that high-pitched/thick-laced Hungarian accent. Sakall is a miraculous comedian. He can draw laughs from even the most benign line; overtly animated and full of the befuddled firebrand herein that easily made him a main staple of so many light-hearted comedies and musicals throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
In hindsight, Christmas in Connecticut is much more a puff pastry in performance. It is the cast we remember more so than the plot. Hence, and although it occasionally becomes just a tad too precious for its own good, the picture endures as a feather-weight entertainment – perhaps not in the same league as some of the others I have already mentioned, but good for exhibiting and extolling good ole-fashioned Christmas cheer. Together, the crisp Stanwyck and congenial Morgan possess that spark of elusive romantic chemistry that makes everything click as it should. Sakall and O’Connor are inspired shadows of what this couple might look like in forty years and remain great fun to watch as an aside. 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 Home Video’s Blu-ray release is a marginal improvement over their previously issued DVD. Everything tightens up as it should and the minor blemishes that plagued the DVD have been virtually eradicated for a very smooth visual presentation. Contrast, alas, continues to appear just a tad weaker than anticipated. The DVD was more problematic in this regard, but the Blu-ray still looks anemic: no true blacks, but variations in tonal gray. There are no pure, bright or clean whites either. Even snow glistens a soft light gray. Never having seen Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography on an archival 35mm print I cannot rightly state this is not how Christmas in Connecticut looked in its original theatrical engagement.  And anyway, even an impeccable mastering effort can only yield an approximation to the film-based viewing experience. But the image is less than a shade darker than I expected, especially when compared other vintage WB product. Either way, the slight is negligible and should surely not distract enjoying the story. The DTS mono audio gives good solid support to Friedrich Hollaender’s score. Dialogue is clear. There is no hiss and pop. Extras have been ported over from the 2005 DVD, including Don Siegel's 1945 Oscar-winning short, ‘A Star in the Night’, with J. Carrol Naish, plus Christmas in Connecticut’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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