Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut

Barbara Stanwyck was among the most versatile actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Throughout her career she appeared in films ranging in genre from dramas (Stella Dallas) to films noirs (Double Indemnity) to Westerns (Union Pacific). What is more, she gave good performances in nearly everything she did. Not surprisingly Miss Stanwyck did several comedies throughout her career, including Ball of Fire, Remember the Night, and The Lady Eve. Among her best loved comedies today is another film besides Remember the Night with a holiday theme, Christmas in Connecticut.

Christmas in Connecticut centres on one of the many independent career women that Barbara Stanwyck played during her career, Elizabeth Lane. Elizabeth Lane is a food writer for the popular women's magazine Smart Housekeeping. In reality Miss Lane cannot cook at all and lives in a New York City apartment rather than the Connecticut farm on which she claims to live in her columns. Every one of her recipes come from her good friend, restaurateur and chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall).  Smart Housekeeping's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), like the public at large, actually believes that she is this incredible cook and housekeeper living in Connecticut. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Lane, her charade is in danger of being revealed when Mr. Yardley invites himself and a Navy war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to Christmas dinner at her wholly non-existent farm. Her editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne), Felix, and her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) must then scramble to keep Elizabeth Lane's secret intact. The inspiration for Elizabeth Lane was reportedly Family Circle columnist Gladys Taber. Unlike Elizabeth Lane, Gladys Taber actually could cook and keep house.

While the role of Elizabeth Lane would appear to have been written for Barbara Stanwyck (it's hard picturing anyone else in the role), Christmas in Connecticut  was originally offered to Bette Davis, who turned the film down. The casting of Barbara Stanwyck was announced in the April 13 1944 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. The romantic lead of Jefferson Jones would also change before the film started shooting. Originally John Alexander was announced as playing the role. He was replaced by Dennis Morgan. Ultimately Christmas in Connecticut would have one of the best casts of any comedy in the Forties. Not only did Sydney Greenstreet play publisher Alexander Yardley and S.Z. Sakall play chef Felix Bassenak, but the great Una O'Connor played John Sloan's housekeeper Norah. Character Dick Elliott had a humorous turn as a judge who is totally unaware of what is going on.

If it was made today Christmas in Connecticut might well be shot on location in Connecticut. Location shooting being rare in the Forties, the film was shot entirely on the soundstages of Warner Bros.' Burbank studios. In fact, viewers with keen eyes might even recognise one of the sets. The set for Sloan's Connecticut house was previously used in Bringing Up Baby.

Strangely enough for a movie with a Yuletide theme, Christmas in Connecticut was released on August 11 1945. Despite its unusual release date, the film proved to be a hit. In fact, it was the only wartime, non-musical comedy to make over $3 million. Of course, this also made it the highest grossing non-musical comedy of the war years.

While Christmas in Connecticut would not become as famous as other holiday movies from the Forties, such as It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife, it would retain a loyal following over the years. On March 20 1952 it was adapted for the radio show Stars in the Air with  Gordon MacRae and Phyllis Thaxter in the lead roles. In 1992 it was remade as a television movie with Dyan Cannon and  Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the TV movie. It was not well received and is generally considered terrible even by the standards of TV movies.

While the 1992 television remake is best forgotten, if anything the reputation of the original Christmas in Connecticut has only grown. Shown every year on Turner Classic Movies around Christmas (usually multiple times), the film has gained an even larger following than it previously had. It is easy to see why. As mentioned earlier, Christmas in Connecticut has one of the best casts of any 1940s comedy. Barbara Stanwyck is in perfect form as Elizabeth Lane. Not only is Elizabeth intelligent and independent, but I personally think Miss Stanwyck was at the height of her sex appeal in this film. As might be expected, S.Z. Sakall and Sydney Greenstreet are perfect as the lovable Felix and the blowhard Yardley respectively. Dennis Morgan and Reginald Gardiner are both well suited to their roles. Christmas in Connecticut is one of those films in which every single cast member delivers a good performance, right down to the supporting characters.

Beyond its cast Christmas in Connecticut benefits from a very good script. It is one of those comedies that is genuinely funny, with the laughs coming very quickly on top of one another. There are several great lines in the film, not only from Miss Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane but from several other characters as well (particularly Felix). Given the presence of Sydney Greenstreet there should be no surprise that there are a few references to The Maltese Falcon. For a film made in the Forties Christmas in Connecticut can be a bit racy at times, with at least one line that makes one wonder how it got past the Breen Office. Indeed, the New York Times' critic complained that Christmas in Connecticut "... depends not so much on genuine humour as upon suggestive lines and situations for its merriment." Not surprisingly, the Legion of Decency gave Christmas In Connecticut a "B" rating, meaning it was "objectionable in part". Of course, what the New York Times critics and the Legion of Decency disliked about the film I rather suspect most modern viewers will love.

Aside from The Apartment, Christmas in Connecticut is my favourite holiday movie of all time. It would seem that I am not alone, as the film has grown in popularity ever since Turner Classic Movies started showing it regularly. And there is good reason for it to have done so. The film features Barbara Stanwyck doing some of her best comedy work, as well as character actors S. Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, and Una O'Connor in top form. What is more, it has a genuinely funny script with more jokes packed into a minute than many comedies have in ninety. It is little wonder why it was the highest grossing non-musical comedy of World War II.

1 comment:

Judy said...

This film is pretty well unknown in the UK, but I saw it over Christmas and really enjoyed it, and will definitely be revisiting in future. The cast and script are both great. I hadn't heard of the remake, but won't be rushing to find it!