Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

I never had a Christmas in Connecticut but I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of Christmas's in New England specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of those Christmas's was the only time I spent the holiday with just my wife and three month old son, no other family (who all lived on the West Coast). Another fond New England winter memory was going to a New Hampshire bed and breakfast that had a frozen pond for ice skating and horse drawn sleigh rides.

But those are just nostalgic memories. The CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) that I want to talk about is a delightful holiday screwball comedy released as WWII was ending. I can't think of a better film for moviegoers to see after several years of death and gloom from the great war. Comedies by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra around this time had social commentary to go with the humor but CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT directed by Peter Godfrey (who came previously from the theater) is just flat out fast paced and funny with some delicious doses of sexual innuendo. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT would make a great high school play, its humor universal. But it's an original screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini from a story by Aileen Hamilton.

This comedy begins like a war drama as a U.S. Navy ship is sunk by a German U-boat during WWII. Quartermaster Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and Seaman Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) manage to survive, adrift for eighteen days in a life raft before they're rescued. The two men convalesce in a Naval hospital. While recuperating, Jones pretends to be in love with his nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) so he can get better meals. But because Jones starved longer than Sinkewicz, he can't eat solid foods. So, Jones and Mary Lee read Smart Housekeeping to pass the time. In particular, they enjoy the stories and recipes by food writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Nurse Lee decides to write to the magazine to see if Elizabeth might cook a big meal for war hero Jefferson Jones on her Connecticut farm.

The letter arrives to Smart Housekeeping publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) who loves the idea and potential publicity. Yardley meets with the magazine's editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) to ask him to secure Elizabeth's permission. But Dudley is besides himself. The truth is Elizabeth Lane doesn't cook or live on a farm in Connecticut or have a child or husband. She writes her stories from an apartment in New York. The recipes are courtesy of her friend and restaurant owner Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). Elizabeth and Dudley will be both be fired if Yardley learns the truth.

But a plan formulates in Elizabeth's head when her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) proposes marriage to her. At first, she turns him down before realizing Sloan owns a farmhouse in the town of Stanfield, Connecticut. Elizabeth agrees to marry Sloan if he agrees to host war hero Jefferson Jones for Christmas and save her job. And so begins a holiday deception of epic proportions as Elizabeth juggles not only Navy hero Jones but her boss Alexander Yardley (who has invited himself for Christmas as well) from discovering she has no cooking ability. Sloan manages to provide a "baby" for Elizabeth as his housekeeper Norah (Una O'Connor) watches a neighbor's child while she works in a factory. Sloan keeps trying to sneak in a quick marriage ceremony with Elizabeth presided by the local judge Crowthers (Dick Elliott) but Elizabeth soon finds herself falling for Jones, complicating the charade even further.

Inevitably, Elizabeth's ruse begins to unravel. A different neighbor leaves a different baby (different sex and hair color) the next day further complicating the situation. Elizabeth manages to flip a pancake for Yardley (after practicing with Felix earlier). When Sloan attempts another quick marriage service, a representative from the town invites Jefferson and everyone to a dance in his honor, delaying Elizabeth and Sloan's marriage again. At the dance, Jefferson and Elizabeth sneak away, followed by a suspicious Yardley. Jefferson and Yardley get arrested for accidentally stealing a sleigh. When they return to the farmhouse after a night in jail (with apologies from the local authorities), Elizabeth's ruse is exposed by Yardley who fires Elizabeth briefly before having a change of heart allowing Elizabeth to keep her job (and double her salary) as well as make sweet music with Jefferson Jones instead of Sloan. Proposals are broken, weddings cancelled, people fired, egos hurt but it all works out in the end.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a Christmas film without Santa Claus or reindeer or elves. What it does have is our romanticized image of Christmas on a New England farm house covered in snow, a beautiful Christmas tree covered in tinsel, and a family gathering for the holidays.  Only there really isn't a family, just a bunch of adult orphans. War hero Jefferson Jones calls himself a "rolling stone." Publisher Yardley's wife and kids are out of town so he invites himself. Elizabeth is by herself, wooed by Sloan who also seems to be a bachelor with no family. Felix's family is his restaurant and cooking. These "orphans" all come together through a series of comedic lies and deceptions for a holiday gathering.

Many films from the 1940's were based on plays like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) or THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Director Godfrey himself started in the theater before moving to directing films. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT feels like it should be based on a play yet it's an original screenplay. The film moves so easily with effortless transitions from scene to scene. There's never a clunky moment to be had.

Barbara Stanwyck floated between dramas and comedy with ease. She enjoyed doing a comedy after working on a drama which could be draining.  In 1944, she had played the murderous femme fatale in Billy Wilder's classic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY but Elizabeth Lane in CONNECTICUT is a far cry from that viper. And her comedic roles were varied. Catch her in BALL OF FIRE (1941) as a showgirl and then watch her as a fake Martha Stewart in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and you'll marvel at her versatility.  Stanwyck and director Godfrey would also work together on the film noir THE TWO MRS. CARROLS (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and the thriller CRY WOLF (1947) with Erroll Flynn. And check out Stanwyck's big shouldered fur coats courtesy of costume designer Edith Head.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a reunion for two colorful supporting actors from 1942's CASABLANCA (also a Warner Bros film like CONNECTICUT) in Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall. In CASABLANCA, Greenstreet played the shifty fez wearing Signor Ferrari and Sakall was Rick's maitre'd Carl.  Both are scene stealers but in CONNECTICUT they have bigger parts. Greenstreet always brought some gallows humor to his dark characters in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) or CASABLANCA but Alexander Yardley is a pure comic performance from the weighty actor. The lovable Sakall worked with Stanwyck on BALL OF FIRE and they make a fine team again in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT as Sakall's Felix rescues Elizabeth time and time again from her duplicitous plan.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Morgan as war hero and love interest Jefferson Jones. Morgan is an affable actor, good looking and versatile. Morgan along with another actor I like Jack Carson would make a series of buddy films in the late 40s like TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946) and TWO GUYS FROM TEXAS (1948). Morgan would semi-retire in the 1950s. Reginald Gardiner as Elizabeth's suitor John Sloan is hilarious. Gardiner, with his trademark pencil thin moustache, appeared in many comedies including Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Robert Shayne gives a droll performance as Elizabeth's duplicitous editor Dudley Beecham. And Irish actress Una O'Connor who made a career playing hysterical housekeepers and servants in horror films like THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays (what a surprise) John Sloan's housekeeper in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

Hollywood has a love affair with a good Christmas tale set on the East Coast and often New England.  Before CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire holiday musical HOLIDAY INN (1942) was also set in Connecticut.  Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) takes place in fictional Bedford Falls which feel like upstate New York to me. Another New York Christmas film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET was set in Manhattan. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) which owes some of its plot to HOLIDAY INN moved the locale from Connecticut to Vermont. Colorado, Utah, and Montana all get as much or more snow than the East Coast (except maybe Buffalo) but filmmakers and movie fans adore the Norman Rockwell setting of Christmas at an inn or farm house or snow covered small town in the New England region.

To no great surprise, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT was remade in 1992 but as a TV movie.  What may surprise fans of the original is the TV remake had a remarkably impressive cast with Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Curtis, and Richard Roundtree. The real shocker is Arnold Schwarzenegger directed this version in his only full length directorial credit.

So find yourself a rocking chair (you'll get the joke when you watch the film), flip some flap jacks, wait for a snowy day, and sit down to watch one of the funniest warmest Christmas movies that was ever made in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

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