Barbara Stanwyck invites you to... Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

An effervescent comedy, a holiday classic, and a showcase of Barbara Stanwyck's perfection. All of this describes Christmas in Connecticut, but it doesn't capture what makes the film so special. Touted as the world's greatest cook and homemaker, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) writes a column for Smart Housekeeping, one of many publications owned by Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet). Yardley forces Elizabeth into hosting war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for Christmas, also inviting himself to the woman's idyllic Connecticut farm. The problem is that Elizabeth is not who she says she is. Backed into a corner, she enlists the help of her beau John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) to try and save her job. Using his Connecticut home and planning on getting hitched before Jeff and Yardley start their stay, Elizabeth's plans come crashing down once she meets Jeff, putting even more pressure on her to get through this charade. This being a romantic comedy, we all know how things will go down, but the fun is how we get there, right?

Elizabeth Lane typifies everything I imagine Barbara Stanwyck was: smart, witty, warm, and just downright delightful. Like a lot of Stany's roles, Elizabeth is a working girl. She does what she needs to survive, which means she's willing to lie about having a husband and baby on a Connecticut farm, where she cooks luxurious meals and goes antiquing in her spare time. In one of the movie's best scenes, the audience finds out that everything we've heard about Ms. Lane is false -- living in a small New York apartment and eating sardines out of a can for breakfast, Elizabeth reads aloud the article she's typing, her words a humorous contrast to her reality.

But she still knows how to cook, right? Nope! All of Elizabeth's knowledge comes from the adorable Felix (S.Z. Sakall), a Hungarian chef who was able to buy his restaurant thanks to Elizabeth's financial help. Their relationship is a great asset for Christmas in Connecticut, demonstrating a friendship we would all be lucky to have. Felix essentially becomes Elizabeth's fairy godfather, helping her to escape marriage with John and instead guiding her to a much more promising romance with Jeff.

What interests me about Elizabeth is that she's not vilified for not being the all-American housewife she pretends to be. At film's end, when her secret comes out, the reactions are interesting. Yardley practically has a heart attack and fires her, but Felix talks him into rehiring her. Elizabeth throws this gesture in his face, and finally expresses her irritation: "I'm tired of being pushed around, tired of being told what to do, tired of writing your god-darned articles, tired of dancing to everybody else's tune, tired of being told whom to marry! In short, I'm tired!" When Jeff learns the truth, his sole concern is that she's not really married and therefore able to be with him. Elizabeth is forgiven for not living the American dream, perhaps because the implication at the end of the film is that she eventually will with Jeff. Something tells me, though, that Elizabeth wouldn't give up having a career. She may not be the 1940's Martha Stewart anymore, but I'm sure she would find something -- perhaps instead of Dear Abby, we would have Dear Elizabeth?

Of course, I think it goes without saying that Stanwyck is in marvelous form here. I've seen a good deal of the woman's filmography, and she has never given a bad performance, as cliche as that sounds. If I could only name one actress whose authenticity shone through consistently, I would have to name Ms. Stanwyck. Can we just give her posthumous Oscars for everything she did? Can someone start that campaign? I'd sign that petition in a second.

Whether she's trying to flip pancakes or nuzzling Dennis Morgan in the snow, Stanwyck is delectable. She brings a major level of sexuality to Christmas in Connecticut, a sexuality that simmers beneath the surface once she and Jeff lock eyes. Elizabeth's biggest struggle isn't keeping up her Susie Homemaker image -- it's trying not to give into her feelings, sexual and romantic. You can tell Elizabeth is having a hard time because she can't stop fiddling with her hands whenever she's around Jeff or even when she's simply talking about him.

She drops an ornament and picks up presents as he sings at the piano, or she hugs a figurine to her body as John chides her for getting too close to the soldier. Elizabeth and Jeff are constantly one step away from crossing a line, and while they seem like the best candidates for America's Sweethearts, watch their scenes again. To put it crassly, these are people who can't wait to jump each other's bones.

Although Christmas in Connecticut is anchored by Stany's performance, the film is actually more of an ensemble piece, if you ask me. Elizabeth isn't in every scene, and those that she is in wouldn't be the same without the support she gets from the rest of the cast. Sydney Greenstreet was given a chance to show he was more than a menacing antagonist, and it's fun to see him close the film with a hearty laugh. S.Z. Sakall is pure magnificence, possibly my favorite character actor in possibly his funniest role. Every line of his is a gem -- you'll never want to say "hunky dory" the same way again. Reginald Gardiner is his usual urbane self, providing a stark contrast to the big ball of boy-next-door charm that is Dennis Morgan.

While he unfortunately wasn't gifted with the best filmography, Dennis Morgan is a guilty pleasure of mine, and Christmas in Connecticut remains one of his best. Incredibly sweet and handsome, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why Elizabeth falls for Jeff as soon as she meets him. The character isn't groundbreaking by any means -- he's a humble, unassuming soldier who never makes a wrong move, a grown-up boy scout that you'd love to take home to Mother. He even has a gorgeous singing voice! While Jeff may be rather predictable, Morgan inhabits him beautifully, and he creates a very believable relationship with Stanwyck's Elizabeth.

The second Dennis Morgan enters the picture, you know that Reginald Gardiner doesn't stand a chance. Actually, to be honest, even without Morgan's Jeff, Gardiner's John has no hope. We're not sure how long John has been hanging around Elizabeth, but obviously it's been quite a while -- she's been to his Connecticut home enough times to describe it to a T in her articles and knows the housekeeper Norah (Una O'Connor) pretty well. Plus, when John proposes to her at the beginning of the film, we're told this isn't the first time. The fact that he wants Elizabeth to give up her job and become only his wife definitely isn't the way to win over a career gal like her.

When they arrive at John's country home to begin the charade, Elizabeth gets all sorts of jittery as John tries to get their wedding over with before Jeff and Yardley can arrive. She asks if they can play Mozart instead of the wedding march, and when Jeff shows up early, Elizabeth looks very much relieved. One of the film's running gags becomes John's attempts to make the wedding happen without Jeff and Yardley finding out, attempts that are almost always ruined by Elizabeth. Really, John is just a bore, gushing about architecture to an audience that isn't listening.
As the film goes on, his incentive to help Elizabeth goes from doing it for his fiancee to doing it because Yardley offers him his own column. Actually, John and Yardley are a better match than he and Elizabeth. What's most telling about their relationship is that at the end of the movie, Elizabeth breaks things off with him and he's not even upset. Why did he want Elizabeth in the first place then? It feels like it was just to say he had a wife -- anyone could have filled the role. He found Elizabeth and liked her, so she fit the bill.

Elizabeth is always expected to fit the bill, actually. The whole premise is based on her trying to satisfy expectations, mainly because of her celebrity status. It's something we can still relate to today -- we all hold celebrities to higher standards, despite that not being completely fair. Because of her column, Elizabeth is scrutinized much more than she should be. She's trusted to cook at every meal, Yardley even making the weird request that she flip pancakes for his amusement. Her house has to look just how she described it; when Yardley notices a spinning wheel she wrote about is missing, he immediately questions why it's gone.

The humor here is that Yardley and Jeff remember details that the woman who fabricated them can't even remember -- they take on a significance for Elizabeth's readers that she doesn't realize, especially in regards to Jeff, who dreamed of an Elizabeth Lane meal during his recovery from being lost at sea. In normal circumstances, you wouldn't go to a stranger's house and expect what Yardley and Jeff do.
Towards the end of the movie, in a context-heavy scene, the publisher blows up at Elizabeth, shouting "Millions of women in these United States pattern their daily lives after that feature, and you're going to live up to their ideals or my name isn't Alexander Yardley!" Elizabeth becomes this exacerbated idea of the traditional housewife, and the great thing is it's all just a fantasy.

Christmas in Connecticut has one of my favorite film settings: a gorgeous and cozy farmhouse that was also used in Bringing Up Baby. To be honest, I didn't recognize the house until after I read that online, even though I've seen both films countless times. I think it's because Bringing Up Baby isn't really that concerned with showing you the house -- it's too busy trying to keep up with Cary and Kate's craziness. For Christmas in Connecticut, though, it's important because Elizabeth used it for her articles, articles that entranced millions of readers. When Yardley and Jeff see it for the first time, they're thrilled that it fulfills their expectations.

Indeed, it doesn't disappoint, and lucky for us, director Peter Godfrey lets us into almost every room, including a bathroom. I have a special affinity for farmhouses after growing up with Holiday Inn, so now I have incredibly high standards for whenever I go house-hunting in the distant future. Classic films will do that to you. I didn't get many screenshots of the house because I didn't want to go totally wild, but if you want to see more, you can click here.

Although Christmas has passed, there's never a wrong time to watch this picture. Whether you're snuggled by a fire or sipping lemonade on a hot day, Christmas in Connecticut is a winsome way to tune out the world and escape to a perfect winter wonderland. What more could you want?



Stranded, Jeff dreams of a fancy meal and champagne served by his pal, Sinkowitz.

Sadly, this is the reality.


Elizabeth is told Yardley wants a soldier to visit her farm. "My farm?"

"Oh! My farm!"

"My farm."















With love,
Michaela

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This post is my entry in Crystal's Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, a celebration of all things Stany. Go here for the rest of the roster.

Comments

  1. So many people have such a fondness for this film and you, in particular, have written such a persuasive article that I may have to give it another chance next Christmas despite my years of antipathy.

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    Replies
    1. I hope you do give it another shot! Thanks for taking the time to read my piece, even though you're not a fan of the film. Let's hope I can get to reading everyone else's posts in such a timely manner!

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  2. I like this movie for Stanwyck's performance and Sakall's. And for the rather surprising lack of enforcement of the housewife standard. I totally agree; I've always assumed she would continue a writer, and he'd be the house husband. Morgan isn't my favorite in it, but he does have his moments.:) Great review.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Admittedly, I have a huge crush on Dennis Morgan that defies explanation -- it's slightly dumbfounding. Now I'm just imagining a sequel where Stany gets to be an awesome writer and Morgan has to stay home...

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  3. This is a little-known film in the UK and not out on DVD here, but I was finally lucky enough to see it last Christmas when a streaming service offered it! I really enjoyed it and your piece has reminded me of all the reasons why - Stanwyck and Morgan make a gorgeous couple and Sakall and Greenstreet are both hilarious. I also love all the bits with the babies! Must see this again in future.

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    Replies
    1. It's funny how certain movies are better known here than other places, and vice versa. Why can't it all be the same? I may have to get a region-free DVD player soon because there are a few movies I want to see that are only region 2. Anyway, I hope you get to see this one again sometime -- it's such a treat. Thanks for reading!

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