Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holiday Farce From Film Noir Folks at Warner Bros.

By Steve Evans

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Warner Bros. // 1945 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated

“Barbara Stanwyck keeps pace with a happy holidaze!” ~ from the promotional poster.

Opening shot…
This screwball comedy/holiday picture offers entertaining moments, but I prefer Babs when she plays double-crossing dames.

Warner Bros. plucks a bit of Yuletide fluff from the vaults with the release of this old holiday chestnut. A shimmering print and an Academy Award-winning short on the extras menu help compensate for a farce that stretches suspension of disbelief beyond the tensile strength of taffy. The results are at once pleasantly diverting and instantly forgettable—at least until the next Christmas season.

A Bit of Plot…
Journalist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) is a fraud. In her Smart Housekeeping magazine column, she represents herself as a skilled chef and elegant homemaker, happily married and living with hubby and baby on a sprawling farm in Connecticut. Her publisher and adoring public don't know that Elizabeth is actually a single New Yorker, cranking out her column from a high-rise apartment. As for her culinary skills, she could burn water. Elizabeth's sumptuous recipes actually come from her friend Felix, who owns a Manhattan restaurant. Her tales of a bucolic life on the farm are utter fantasy.

Elizabeth's magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (tremendous character actor Sidney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) learns of a heroic World War II sailor, Jefferson Jones, just returned to the states after a sea rescue. Jones has no family and no place to go for the holidays. Touched by his harrowing war stories, the publisher decides that Jones (Dennis Morgan, God is My Co-Pilot) should spend Christmas on Elizabeth's farm. But he also harbors an agenda: A bull-headed man, Yardley reasons this random act of kindness will be good for circulation. It might even give him a chance to sample some of Elizabeth's famous cooking. Yardley orders his columnist to welcome the sailor home for Christmas, then invites himself over as well.

Elizabeth knows her career is ruined if her publisher finds out she's been fabricating stories. So she persuades her would-be fiancé, an architect, to pose with her as a married couple. Conveniently, he owns a mansion in upstate Connecticut. Together with a baby borrowed from the neighbors, and chef Felix, who agrees to hide in the kitchen and do all the holiday cooking, Elizabeth invites the sailor to her "home." When they meet, their eyes lock. Lust at first sight soon blossoms into love. Fumbling about as a faux domestic goddess, Elizabeth must remind herself that she's "married," all while falling in love with a handsome sailor, pretending to cook fabulous meals, and fooling her portly publisher into keeping her on the payroll.

Her boyfriend's getting steamed over this fraud in his house. Felix is one sarcastic remark from exposing everyone. And Elizabeth can only make moon eyes at sailor Jones. What's a city girl to do?

Historical Context and Significance
By 1945, when Christmas in Connecticut was released, screwball comedies were on the wane and the moral ambiguity of film noir was in. Warner Bros. divided much of the studio resources between films noir and nutty flicks like this one, Bringing Up Baby, and The Libeled Lady, a genuine classic made a decade earlier. It's amusing, then, that a classic femme fatale such as Stanwyck would show up in a frantic farce, where most of the characters are panting desperately to keep track of their tangled lies. She danced this tune to perfection in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, released a year before Christmas in Connecticut, which was her next picture.

Although this holiday film was a hit on initial release in August 1945, contemporary viewers must swallow a lot of preposterous plotting, even for a screwball comedy. It's hard to believe that a publisher could get away with ordering an employee to welcome a stranger into her home for Christmas. Harder still to accept that this employee could persuade her chef pal, as well as her boyfriend, and a neighbor — who loans a baby for the duration of this silly ruse — to fall in with her scheme. And she does all this for the salvation of her career, which was built on deceit in the first place. This throws a damper on the comedy and flat-out drowns what little credibility is required, even for farce. Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) and Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby) always understood how far they could push this kind of material down the throats of an audience before they would gag.

On the flip side of this argument, astute film lovers may perceive a subversive streak in this innocuous little holiday picture. The movie presents a slice of cherished Americana as a fraud. Christmas in Connecticut depicts the perfect Norman-Rockwellian lifestyle as an unattainable ideal ripe for ridicule. Comparisons between Stanwyck's character and domestic doyenne Martha Stewart are tempting, but perhaps a tad obvious. The film is a spoof — even Stanwyck's character doesn't buy into the spew she pours into her column — while Stewart would appear to be grimly businesslike in her promotion of ultimate domesticity. So let's just say the same unrealistic values still linger, minus the humor, more than six decades after this picture was released.

Stanwyck and Greenstreet dominate the film. As top contract players for Warner Bros., both actors in 1945 were at their peak of popularity and the height of their powers. They riff and romp around this material like seasoned jazz musicians. Morgan, by contrast, is a lightweight with a pretty face. He's as airy as the film itself. The remaining players are serviceable, if not memorable.

A sharp digital transfer and clean Dolby Digital audio in the original monaural recording make for a pleasing home-theater experience. Christmas in Connecticut may be studio schmaltz, but it's good-looking schmaltz.

Trivia note: the Connecticut house sets are the same used seven years earlier for Katherine Hepburn's elegant mansion in Bringing Up Baby (1938), according to the IMDb.

What’s on the disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. First up, check out the photo of the mighty fine Miss Stanwyck, left. Rowwwr. Makes you wanna climb aboard a time machine with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, no? Yes, and extras on the disc before us include an awkwardly edited trailer and a real surprise: the 1945 Academy Award-winning short, Star in the Night, directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry)! This 21-minute film follows the Christmas Eve of a bitter motel manager played by J. Carroll Naish (Beau Geste). While his guests complain and he snipes back at them, a benign stranger stops in to warm his hands by the woodstove. The stranger softly explains the meaning of Christmas to the world-weary manager just as an out-of-town couple arrive, seeking shelter. But the motel has no vacancy on this cold night. We realize the young woman is about to give birth, even though she's bundled under a thick winter coat. Just as the revelation hits, this gentle short film deftly turns into a parable of a night long ago in the little town of Bethlehem. The manager's wife guides the couple to the barn — the only room left at the inn. It's a sweet tale told with lean economy by expert director Siegel, here at the beginning of his career. Kudos to Warner for dusting off this gem and serving it up as an extra on the DVD. Star in the Night is superior holiday entertainment; in many ways better than the feature presentation it supports.

Bring it on Home...
Warner Brothers delivers a sparkling print of a mid-level title and deserves praise for unearthing a few quality extras to complement a film on DVD. Christmas in Connecticut is flawed, but festive fun.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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