Friday, 18 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 5: "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Peter Godfrey, Christmas in Connecticut (1945) centers on Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a magazine writer whose articles about her daily life as a wife and mother living in a Connecticut farm are admired by housewives across the country. As a publicity stunt for the magazine, her boss, Alexander Yardley (Syndey Greenstreet), arranges for returning war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to spend Christmas at the Lanes' farm and invites himself along for the festivities. There is just one problem: unknown to Yardley, Elizabeth is a single woman living in New York, the recipes she uses for her column are given to her by local chef Felix Bassenak (S. Z. Sakall) and the farm she writes about belongs to her boyfriend, John Sloane (Reginald Gardiner). 

To save her job, Elizabeth accepts John's marriage proposal, even though she does not love him. Learning that John owns a Connecticut farm, Elizabeth's editor, Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) suggests that they use it to recreate the situation she has devised for the column. John then arranges for the local judge (Dick Elliott) to marry them at the farm as soon as they arrive, while Felix agrees to do the cooking. The practical John even arranges for a stand-in baby, one that his maid Norah (Una O'Connor) keeps for a neighbor during the day. Elizabeth maintains her deception with difficulty a difficulty increased by the attraction between her and Jeff until Christmas night, when Yardley sees the neighbor coming for her baby while the household attends a local dance. Believing that she is kidnapping Elizabeth's child, Yardley calls the police and the press, forcing Elizabeth to confess everything. Furious, Yardley fires her and then John breaks up with her. In the meantime, the nurse who took care of Jeff, Mary Lee (Joyce Compton), arrives and announces herself as his fiancé. Dejected, Elizabeth prepares to leave the farm, but Felix soon discovers that Mary Lee is already married and then convinces Yardley to rehire Elizabeth. Although Yardley offers to double her salary, Elizabeth decides not to return to the magazine. Then Jeff proposes, which she accepts.

Elizabeth Lane: I'm tired of being pushed around, tired of being told what to do, tired of writing your gull darn articles, tired of dancing to everybody else's tune, tired of being told whom to marry. In short... I'm tired!
 
Throughout the 1940s, American citizens were living under a social and economic paradox. Spending for World War II had finally brought the Great Depression to an end and people had gone back to work, but the conflict also took men out of their employment places and sent them off to fight. During the war years, therefore, women went to work in record numbers and in all kinds of jobs, including the ones that had been done primarily by men (even though employers emphasized that it would only be "for the duration"). When the war ended, the economic and social effects reversed to their "normal" state: the economy contracted for a few years as plants shifted to peacetime production, while women were encouraged to leave the labor force and return to traditional roles as housewives in order to create jobs for all the returning veterans. 

By the end of the war, however, the great majority of the women who had gone to work wanted to stay at work. Returning veterans, on the other hand, wanted jobs and they also wanted their women back in the home where they belonged. Although data on rates of marriage, employment for women and the "baby boom" suggested that men prevailed, not all women were convinced. After all, work outside the home did have its benefits; one of the most compelling for women was the ability to earn money and do with it whatever they pleased. Consequently, the millions of returning soldiers who thought they were coming home to the submissive girls they had left behind found instead independent women with money of their own to spend and no one to tell them how to spend it.

The cast of Christmas in Connecticut
Many Hollywood films produced in the second half of the 1940s reflected the conflicted feelings Americans had about the many women who had gone to work outside the home during World War II. There was Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945), which illustrated the inevitable tragedy that awaited a wife and mother when she decided to leave her husband and make money of her own; Don Hartman's Every Girl Should Be Married (1948), which asserted that marriage, housewifery and child rearing were all the career fulfilment a woman needed; and, of course, Christmas in Connecticut, which message was that even though women may have enjoyed their money-earning ways for a while, once a real man appears, love will triumph over employment and women will be happy to return to the home.

In February 1944, Warner Bros. announced that Bette Davis would take over the lead role of Elizabeth Lane in Christmas in Connecticut. Two months later, Davis withdrew from the project and was subsequently replaced by Barbara Stanwyck. Best known as serious actress, Stanwyck had recently received her third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Billy Wilder's iconic noir Double Indemnity (1944). Early in her career, she alternated between dramatic and comedy roles, as she preferred to take on lighter roles in an effort to unwind after working on a serious film. 

Stanwyck and Morgan on the set
For the role of war veteran Jefferson Jones, Warner Bros. chose Dennis Morgan, one of the studio's top leading men during the 1940s. A Carroll University graduate, Morgan was an opera singer before MGM executives discovered him at the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago and brought him to Hollywood. He appeared in minor roles in several pictures under MGM and Paramount, but it was only when he began working at Warner Bros. that he finally achieved widespread recognition.

To helm Christmas in Connecticut, the studio hired Peter Godfrey, an English actor and director who began his professional career on the London stage before arriving in Hollywood in 1939. With fellow Englishman and theatre veteran Sydney Greenstreet, appearing in a rare comedic role, Godfrey would constantly amuse the cast and crew with witty, impromptu spoofs. Godfrey and Stanwyck became good friends while working in Christmas in Connecticut and went on to work together in two more pictures, Cry-Wolf (1947) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). 

Christmas in Connecticut opened at the Strand Theatre in New York on July 27, 1945 to lukewarm reviews from critics. The New York Times warned its viewers that, despite the title, the film was not "a folksy fable that will put the kiddies in the proper spirit for Santa's next visit," adding, "For it takes something more than a polished production and a script with some naughty intentional cliches to carry off successfully old jokes like the one about the baby boy who turns out to be a girl. Oh, well, the snowscapes are refreshing anyhow." Similarly, the Motion Picture Herald complained the film "is by no means the gently sentimental item of Americana that the title indicates." The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the picture a "B" rating, indicating that it considered it to be "objectionable in part." Despite the generally poor reviews, Christmas in Connecticut proved to be a box-office success and its long and healthy run extended into the holiday season of 1945. 

Dennis Morgan and Barbara Stanwyck
Christmas in Connecticut is a film that "both undermines and reaffirms the Christmas film in its setting and situations." The title of the picture suggests a celebration of tradition and the story is set in motion by a magazine's published imagined headline, "American War Hero Spends Christmas in Perfect Home," which indicates a return to pre-war gender roles. Yet from the beginning these ideals are seen to be "outdated and impossible," as the characters are modern city folk and the couple defy gender stereotypes. Jeff is chosen for Yardley's publicity stunt because he is "afraid of marriage and domesticity" and is sent to spend the holidays with Elizabeth because she is "America's most resourceful homemaker." However, the audience soon finds out that Elizabeth is actually domestically inept: she cannot cook and she does not know how to bath her supposed baby or change a diaper. At the same time, Jeff reveals himself to be the "new man" of 1945: he is a charming war hero and he is also practiced at bathing and changing babies. In fact, not only does he take over the tasks that Elizabeth cannot perform, but he does so happily.

Still, the festive season serves as a means of bringing Elizabeth and Jeff together and transforming them into a post-war couple. Their romance is the result of sharing traditional Christmas activities: trimming the tree, singing carols and riding on a sleigh through a pictoresque snowy landscape. These two independent individuals become a couple in the end, but, unlike Remember the Night (1940), there is no suggestion that their personalities have been changed. Jeff has not become more "masterful" and Elizabeth has not been made into a dutiful housewife. In a way, Christmas in Connecticut was the perfect wartime Christmas film: it offered traditional Christmas activities that worked as a "comforting ideal" for a nation recovering from the heartaches and anxities of wartime, as well as the reassurance that post-war readjustment need not be punitive or stifling.


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SOURCES:
Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema by Mark Connelly (2000) | Movies as History: Scenes of America, 1930-1970 by Marie L. Aquila (2014) | Stanwyck: A Biography by Axel Madsen (2015) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

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