December 9: Christmas in Connecticut

Well, despite Sunday’s YouTube cheat, I’m now two days behind. Oh well….just keep swimming.

How could I stop him, sir, when I don't know which way is Connecticut? Sorry, just a little Holiday Inn humor there.

How could I stop him, sir, when I don’t know which way is Connecticut? Sorry, just a little Holiday Inn humor there.

More Christmas movies should start with a German U-boat attack and end with Sydney Greenstreet laughing ominously into the camera.

Seriously, Christmas in Connecticut sets the bar pretty high. I saw this movie for the first time in college, and I just watched it for the third time or so. I don’t know it back to front like I do some others, so I’m still surprised every time by how delightful it is.

Barbara Stanwyck (ugh, she’s just….everything. The best. So beautiful, so clever, so funny) plays Elizabeth Lane, basically a WWII-era foodie/mommy blogger. She writes a wildly popular column for a national women’s magazine. Her voracious readers (who, oddly enough, all seem to be men) can’t get enough of her descriptions of roast duck, or what her baby did today. Of course it is all a goulash of lies.

She’s actually a single urban apartment dweller, who just bought herself her first mink coat, can’t cook, and gets all her recipes from Felix (S. Z. Sakall), the Hungarian restarauteur who lives around the corner.* So naturally, when the publisher of the magazine (Sydney Greenstreet) offers Elizabeth’s famous home and hearth to a returning war hero for his Christmas dinner, hijinks ensue–from a sham marriage to borrowed babies to flip-flopped flapjacks.

So this is your typical mink out of water scenario, but it seems to me that (refreshingly!) the mink is not the butt of all the jokes. Elizabeth has no husband and no baby and no Christmas goose and no idea what to do about any of these things. But actually, she’s fine with all of this. She doesn’t want to get caught, because she’d lose her job. But she’s not actually concerned about the fact that she can’t cook.

The punchline is not that Elizabeth doesn’t know how to change a diaper (although it is pretty hilarious when she can’t find anywhere to put the used diaper, rolls her eyes, and just tosses it across the room). We already knew that. Rather, the punchline is that Jeff (Dennis Morgan) does know how. And he does it! (I can’t help but wonder if this is the first American movie to show a man changing a diaper? Unfortunately, it is probably one of the few to show him doing it competently–we still seem to play this for laughs even todayAnd this is basically what makes Elizabeth fall in love with him. Strangely enough, all the men around her, through their fetishization of the fictional dream wife they’ve been reading about for months, have inadvertently become domestic experts themselves.

In fact, most of the cooking, serving, washing up, piano playing, and and interior decoration in this movie is done by men. And the borrowed babies? They belong to local women who work all day in a factory.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, who is supposed to be playing married, spends most of the movie staring openly at Jeff’s lips (well, they are conveniently right there at eye level) and actively seducing him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that throughout the movie she absentmindedly wrings the neck of a delicate porcelain shepherdess figurine. (You’ll have to watch for yourself to see if she finally gets the satisfaction of smashing it, Scarlett O’Hara-style).

The happy ending? She gets her man….and her salary doubled, when Scroogey old Sydney Greenstreet finally takes to heart that age-old Christmas lesson: subscriptions and circulation are more important than being a stickler for the truth.

I want to cautiously suggest that in addition to toying with traditional gender roles, Christmas in Connecticut is also the least racist of the 1940s-era movies I’ve watched lately. Faint praise, I know. And make no mistake, this a movie about white people by white people. It is by no means a landmark of progressive casting. But I was actually taken aback by the absence of offensive stereotypes (which perhaps says more about every other movie from this era than it does about this one).

There are two black actors in this movie, featured for about three seconds apiece. Each has one line. Only one of these characters is named. And yet both of these characters come across as just regular, attractive, upwardly mobile people, rather than the painful stereotypes we see in so many other movies from this era. Like I said–faint praise.

First, when Elizabeth’s mink coat is delivered. She answers the door, and there’s a porter with a huge box. My first thought? “Oh my god, it’s a woman!” And then, “And she’s black!” And then, obviously: “Where can I get a cap like that? And her cape!”

I have never wanted so badly to be a delivery person for Macy’s or wherever.

I’m not going to pretend that there’s no implied class difference between the white woman taking delivery of a mink coat and the black woman delivering it, but the portrayal here is of two gorgeous, young, merry, independent women going about their business in the city. It’s a far cry from Mamie and “Miz Linda” in Holiday Inn. (to be discussed, with regrets, another day).

In the other scene, Sam, a waiter in Felix’s restaurant, provides the Hungarian owner with not only a definition but a full etymology of the word  “catastrophe”–which turns out to be a key plot point, as Felix will spend the rest of the movie declaring everything “Catastroph!” This is a joke, yes: the owner of the restaurant doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and his subordinate does. And we’re expecting a definition, but not “It comes from the Greek…” But the joke is not at Sam’s expense.

Christmas in Connecticut is definitely one to watch every year. And it doesn’t even require major excision to make it palatable to 21st-century viewers!

* Given that Felix is a Hungarian character played by a Hungarian actor, and that he specifically utters the phrase “around the corner,” I thought this might be a wink and a nod to The Shop Around the Corner. It seems too neat to be coincidental. But Sakall isn’t in that movie, it turns out.

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3 thoughts on “December 9: Christmas in Connecticut

  1. I have never seen this movie! But now I remember, also back in college, coming home for winter break, and my mom going “let’s watch Christmas in Connecticut! It’s such a great movie!” Except, somehow, she had accidentally gotten from Netflix the Dyan Cannon/Kris Kristofferson 1992 remake, which was, um…not good, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t finish. Alas, I have still not seen the real version. Maybe Fam Vid will come through for me this weekend?

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