Christmas in Connecticut
Directed by Peter Godfrey
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet
Barbara Stanwyck is in it.
Readers of this blog have not yet listened to my obsession with this 1940s leading lady because I’ve already seen most of her movies! She radiates star quality, conquers every genre, and energizes each role. Her scrappy, get-it-done attitude instantly makes an audience root for her whether she’s a hero or a villain, and her acting style lets the audience know that she runs the show. Stick with her, and you’ll know what’s what.
Best of all, Stanwyck’s outfits in this movie were designed by Edith Head, the main costumer for Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Her looks slay so hard, another character in the movie calls her “ultra” 72 YEARS before the “Salt Bae” meme popularized “extra.”
Also in this movie? Sydney Greenstreet, best known as the machinating Mr. Gutman from The Maltese Falcon. Here, he’s a pompous owner of a magazine. A different role to be sure, but his voice and rotund figure are unmistakable.
Also also in this movie? The song “The Wish I Wish Tonight.” You know, the one that starts with “I wish I may, I wish I might…” I had no idea this song came from a movie, much less this one. After a bit of digging, I found that the reason it’s so popular is because Warner Bros., who distributed this movie, went on to reuse it in dozens of Looney Tunes episodes. From there, generations of children heard it, and it spread into our collective consciousnesses.
This reference was likely hilarious to contemporary viewers of Looney Tunes because everyone would’ve understood it. Christmas in Connecticut was a huge hit when it was released, grossing four times its budget! Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, this movie’s success meant that broadcast rights were expensive, so it saw little replay on television. As such, it didn’t have a chance to remind the American public of its existence every year. For comparison, Christmas in Connecticut has 10,000 user reviews on IMDb, while It’s a Wonderful Life has 456,000. That’d be like Ant-Man being the most popular Marvel movie 50 years from now while Avengers: Endgame gets an occasional mention.
A Barbara Stanwyck movie deserves nothing but top-shelf treatment, so this movie needs to reclaim its 80-year-old title!
As soon as the credits rolled on It’s a Wonderful Life, VUDU showed me other movies in which I might be interested. I was sobered by the amount of–
–I hadn’t seen, so I set about righting that wrong. I was doubly shocked when I saw my favorite noir dame on the poster for Christmas in Connecticut, so I hitched up the sleigh and made for Hartford.
Jefferson Jones is a war hero, surviving the bombing of his ship, drifting at sea for 18 days, and giving up his rations to his fellow raftsman, Sinkowitz. Moved by his story and always eager for good publicity, Mr. Yardley, owner of the popular Smart Housekeeping magazine, suggests his food and parenting columnist, Elizabeth Lane, host Jones for Christmas at her farm in Connecticut. After all, Mrs. Lane’s intricate recipes, elaborate meal spreads, and sterling family life are just what Jones needs.
There’s just one problem–Elizabeth lives in a one-bedroom, New York apartment and can’t cook. She and her editor have fabricated her magazine life. Doomed to be unemployed, Elizabeth and her editor are commiserating with her architect friend on whose farm she based her column. Together, the three hatch an idea so stupid it just might work: Host Christmas in Connecticut at the farm! Now they just need to find a baby to steal for the weekend…
This is an old-school screwball comedy, a genre for which I have great affection. Is the ending obvious fifteen minutes into the movie? Sure, but the movie knows you know that, so it places absurd, labyrinthine obstacles in its characters’ paths. The fun lies in watching how the liars keep up their ruse. Much like a Rube Goldberg machine, the final action the system does is only a fraction as interesting as watching how each piece moves to get there.
And wow, does it get there! Every new problem the characters encounter is expertly tipped to the audience seconds before it happens. Far from feeling predictable, this pacing lets the audience’s gears turn, then gives them the pleasure of being right. Any more time allowed before a particular antic occurs would bore the audience; any less time would confuse them. Clever joke payoffs capitalize their smart setups, then are called back just as an audience is about to forget. One particular plot beat about a mother going to a war munitions factory had my jaw on the floor, and just when my memory of the architect’s fondness for triple-jacket plumbing fixtures began to fade, the character found a way to bring them up again.
My only problem with the film (one which is probably a taste issue informed by 80 years of hindsight) is that the jokes could’ve been even loopier. Certain setups could’ve been led to even punchier punchlines. One plot thread introduced is that our war hero, Jefferson Jones, is surprisingly good at household chores. While it does pay off, the film could’ve brought it up many more times, escalating his niche skillset and gaining a dozen more eyebrow arches from Stanwyck’s character. Another involves flipping a pancake. Since Elizabeth Lane is not a good cook in real life, she practices, and one pancake sticks to the ceiling, then immediately falls on her tutor’s head. Funny, yes, but had multiple pancakes stuck, viewers would have three or four Chekov’s pancakes to keep an eye on, and the comedic payoff would’ve been sublime. These, of course, are the tiniest of critiques. I wholly plan on watching this again, and soon!
To everyone concerned that this film is too dated, I say, “Don’t worry! Everything is hunky-dunky!” Each year, more adults of all demographics are watching frivolous, escapist Hallmark Christmas movies. They’re bubbly flicks, near all of which rely on pratfalls, misunderstandings, and physical comedy–at a level beyond the skills of many TV-movie actors. By contrast, Christmas in Connecticut not only nails its comedic timing, but it also makes it look effortless. In fact, I’d hazard a guess and say most of those Christmas films were vicariously influenced by this one.
My only word of caution is that, compared to the standard royalty-swap Netflix chronicle, Christmas in Connecticut will seem like a 12-course holiday feast headlined by a Michelin-star Hungarian chef. After having the best, you won’t settle for anything less.
UPDATE (12/12/22): I’ve been raving about this movie for the past week to anyone who’ll listen, so my parents decided to give it a try! They were howling with laughter and smitten with its old-school charm. My dad understood my crush on Ms. Stanwyck while my mom loved the fake-baby subplot. I even overheard them recommend it to my uncle the next day. All three of them have wildly different tastes, so if this movie got them excited, it’s safe to say you’ll love it too.