Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). 102 minutes. Directed by Peter Godfrey. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Elizabeth Lane), Sydney Greenstreet (as Alexander Yardley), Dennis Morgan (as Jefferson Jones), Reginald Gardiner (as John Sloane), S. Z. Sakall (as Felix Bassenak), Robert Shayne (as Dudley Beecham), Una O’Connor (as Nora), and Dick Elliott (as Judge Crothers).

Christmas in Connecticut reflects on a certain widespread fantasy about life in Connecticut, a fantasy that seems particularly to belong to New Yorkers but that many others from outside of the region are similarly fond of. Snowy, sleigh-laden, and full of the sights and smells of elegant home cooking, the Connecticut that lifestyle columnist Elizabeth Lane (played by Barbara Stanwyck) creates in this movie is certainly a repository of rural and domestic dreams, both in 1945 and, I think it is fair to say, even today. While the movie may easily be categorized as light holiday fare, it also has something relevant to say about the role of country fantasies in the lives of city dwellers; additionally, as a film released during wartime, Christmas in Connecticut speaks to the importance of escapism during times of protracted military conflict.

During the Second World War, sailor Jefferson Jones survives an attack on his ship and floats adrift in a raft at sea for weeks. He spends much of his time while waiting for rescue fantasizing about good food and drink. Once recovered and hospitalized, he quickly grows frustrated when the hospital staff puts him on a diet of bland food. His longing for the fantastic meals of famed homemaking columnist and domestic goddess Elizabeth Lane prompts his nurse to contact the author’s publisher, Alexander Yardley, in order to see if he might be able to persuade Elizabeth to cook one of her sumptuous feasts for this convalescing serviceman. Alexander requests that Elizabeth oblige and cook Christmas dinner at her Connecticut estate for both Jefferson and himself—not understanding that Elizabeth, far from the married and accomplished Connecticut homemaker and mother she makes herself out to be, is actually a single woman living in an apartment in New York City who cannot cook. Fearing for her job and that of her boss, Dudley Beecham, Elizabeth consents to pose as the ideal Connecticut housewife for Christmas. She will use her friend John Sloane’s country house to host her guests and enlists her uncle Felix to cook the sumptuous holiday meals on her behalf. She also agrees to marry John upon their arrival in Connecticut for the holiday.

Once in the country, John and Elizabeth’s plans for a quick, secret wedding are thwarted by the early arrival of their guests. When Elizabeth welcomes Jefferson inside the house, it is love at first sight. Overwhelmed by her feelings for him and also by the unexpected challenges of homemaking (which include caring for a neighbor’s baby that she pretends is her own), she soon finds it difficult to maintain the fiction of her column. Jefferson cheerily volunteers to help her around the house, with the result that throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas day, Elizabeth finds herself drawn more and more to him. This complicates matters with John, whose plans to marry Elizabeth are thwarted four times over the course of the holiday. Finally, when Alexander sees someone leaving the house with Elizabeth’s supposed baby on Christmas evening (not knowing it is the child’s real mother come to pick it up), he calls upon police and the press to find the kidnapped infant. Elizabeth is forced to tell her boss the truth, he fires her, and she breaks off her relationship with John. Still more devastating is the fact that Jefferson’s nurse arrives at the house, and he appears to be engaged to her. Elizabeth begins to pack her things to return to New York alone, but Felix intervenes, and soon Elizabeth has not only been reinstated in her post at the magazine with a raise but has learned that Jefferson is not really engaged. The film ends with a contented Elizabeth and Jefferson preparing to be married.

Elizabeth is sort of like Martha Stewart, that other famous Connecticut resident and master homemaker, but only if everything Martha Stewart did were a big ruse. (I know that some of you will argue that much of what Martha Stewart does is not wholly authentic either, and I will not contradict you.) Interestingly, this movie understands that its audience both feels a desire to have a picturesque holiday experience in Connecticut but is also willing to believe that things in that state are not all that they seem. This suggests that even before Martha Stewart, the public was both enamored of a certain illusory vision of country life and suspicious of its authenticity.

The movie establishes early on that the Connecticut Elizabeth Lane writes about and that Jefferson Jones dreams about does not exist per se. For one thing, it is hard to imagine much of what Elizabeth writes about even logistically occurring at John Sloane’s estate, which Elizabeth claims is her own home. John’s house looks classic enough: nestled in the snow-banked countryside, it is crafted out of stone with a barn nearby. The living room comes equipped with a giant and picturesque hearth with a roaring fire in it at all times, and Elizabeth has written about using a spinning wheel in front of just such a fireplace, which she lies and tells her guests is out for repair. Upon further consideration, however, it is hard to imagine anyone practicing such a humble art as spinning in John’s sophisticated domicile, which we soon learn he has designed himself with modern central heating and innovative architectural touches.

Additionally, Sloane’s resident cook is Nora, whose actual specialty on the day Sloane’s guests arrive is humble Irish stew, not the elaborate roasts, stuffings, sauces, and puddings of Elizabeth’s column. In fact, most of the usual cooking at the Sloane residence is free of the fantastic country frills that Elizabeth concocts every week in her pieces for the magazine. For example, on Christmas morning at breakfast, Alexander finds that Nora, who is helping with the meal, does not flip the flapjacks as he envisions one does in Connecticut. It falls to Elizabeth to ceremoniously flip just one for him, which she manages to pull off with no small amount of luck. Clearly, however, the extravagant flapjack preparation of Alexander’s dreams is something that is not native to John’s household.

Just as the culinary delights of Connecticut must be manufactured for Elizabeth’s guests, similarly, the family environment that Elizabeth has created in her column must also be manufactured. In real life, she is not married, has no baby, and must borrow people to fill in both roles. The families who lend her babies over the course of the two days in Connecticut are from blue-collar working backgrounds. The babies’ mothers leave their children with Nora to watch while they work shifts at a nearby factory–even on Christmas day. So the real Connecticut is not as glamorous as Elizabeth’s column implies it is. Instead its background is tinged by a vague sense of urban labor that does not permit time off for celebrating something as basic as the Christmas holiday.

Those are some of the subtle details we detect if we are paying close attention. It can be hard to see them clearly, given the movie’s emphasis on the hijinks involved in the deception plot. Christmas in Connecticut is a bit like a P. G. Wodehouse story in that it begins with the lie about who Elizabeth really is that, rather than being undone early and simply, is perpetuated until it reaches outrageous proportions and can no longer be sustained. It also resembles any given episode of the television series Three’s Company for the same reasons. The characters’ mendacity can be a little tiresome: there comes a point where it seems obvious that letting them just be themselves would probably be more interesting than forcing them to pretend to be something they are not for yet another scene. In fact, it seems in retrospect as if coming clean with the publisher from the very beginning would have made more sense. He is willing to continue to publish Elizabeth’s fictions at the end of the movie; presumably he could have been persuaded to do so in the beginning.

It is less clear how Elizabeth can wriggle her way out of Jefferson’s visit. Disappointing a man who has been hospitalized after combat is clearly not desirable, so Elizabeth’s desire to do right by a serviceman, in addition to her concern for her job, helps to fuel the action. This plot point is necessary to one of the film’s subtexts: the movie suggests that fantasies like the ones that Elizabeth’s column perpetuates serve a practical purpose. After all, reading her column is part of what gets Jefferson through his difficult hospital days, although admittedly fantasizing about Elizabeth’s cooking when he is on a strictly monitored hospital diet is also part of what makes those days difficult. In any case, the fact that the movie endorses the role of fantasy in our lives serves as an interesting contrast to the mild wartime elements: the attack on Jefferson’s ship in the beginning, his time in the military hospital, the uniform that he wears throughout his stay in Connecticut, the war bonds drive taking place at the Christmas ball, the fact that the mothers of the babies that Elizabeth borrows are working at a munitions factory. All of these things point subtly to the omnipresence of the war and the war effort; yet at the same time that we are reminded of the real ways that the war has entered into daily life, the movie shows us the value of fiction to the people whose lives are touched by the conflict overseas.

On a final note, this movie reunites actor S. Z. Sakall with colleague Sydney Greenstreet from Casablanca (1942) and Barbara Stanwyck from Ball of Fire (1941). Sakall as Felix is a real treasure. So is Una O’Connor as Nora, whom you may remember as the shrieking innkeeper’s wife from The Invisible Man (1933). Dick Elliott, the actor who plays Judge Crothers, is also delightful: summoned to John’s house to marry John and Elizabeth but made to leave each time they are nearly discovered by the other house guests, he cackles an infectious laugh as he is made to hide in the parlor or exit out of a window. And of course, Barbara Stanwyck and Sydney Greenstreet are their usual talented selves. With a different cast, Christmas in Connecticut would feel much less effective. As it is, and much as the film’s protagonist does, the movie also uses the right people to create personality and atmosphere when the plot wears a little thin.