17 December 2011

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut Losing Its Luster
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve always been a little unfond of the 1945 essential Christmas in Connecticut, but this year’s viewing has all but confirmed it. The dated presentation- focused on misunderstood romantic comedy instead of holiday spirit- is waning and does not hold up against other Christmas classics of yesteryear.

Smitten nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton, They Drive by Night) writes to Alexander Yardley’s (Sidney Greenstreet) home magazine in hopes her patient and potential fiancé, recovering sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), can have a restorative house visit with columnist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck).  Unfortunately, Liz and her editor Dudley (Robert Shayne, Adventures of Superman) have been making up the literary down on the farm inspirations unbeknownst to Yardley.  When Yardley approves Jones’ visit and wants to come along for Christmas Eve, Liz agrees to marry architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) and set up on his Connecticut farm to feign her column and save her job. When Jefferson arrives, however, Liz finds her feelings about love and marriage irrevocably changed.

Director Peter Godfrey (The Two Mrs. Carrolls) keeps Christmas in Connecticut dry to start, with the secondary players slow to get the titular events from writers Lionel Houser (Sabotage), Adele Comandini (Three Smart Girls), and Aileen Hamilton (Slightly Dangerous) going. It’s all charming enough for classic romantic comedy audiences, but the real amusement doesn’t begin until we leave the city for the country troubles.  Though there is no outright slapstick, the outlandish lies and convoluted cover-ups build to confusing twists and misunderstandings like a supersized Three’s Company holiday episode. Sometimes it’s just a little tough to care, and the tone is not as full on Christmassy as one might expect. This is not It’s a Wonderful Life where Christmas becomes the heart and soul and is dressed to the seasonal hilt.  The holiday here is just a backdrop to set the romance in motion. The would-be heartfelt wartime inspirations, unfortunately, are also somewhat ignorant.  How nice it would have been for those overseas to think of home with Christmas in Connecticut- but Liz has faked this country life and makes a mockery of what is so precious to so many.  It comes across as pretentious to say the least. All this trouble to chase a sailor when you’re pretending to be married?  If the tale had toned down the sass and snark in favor of more homespun wartime sentimentality and holiday meaning, perhaps it wouldn’t come across as so pompous today.  In the end, it feels like Christmas in Connecticut is about an hour and a half too long.

As you can probably guess, I’m not much of a Barbara Stanwyck fan- though her Liz is quite progressive here. She lives alone, wears pants, doesn’t want folks to tell her what to do, and does what she has to do on her sly way to the top. Liz doesn’t want to marry or live the farm life she hypocritically plugs, and it’s all supposed to be an amusing situation. Unfortunately, Stanwyck comes off as kind of bitchy and unlikeable- we want Liz to be knocked down a notch thanks to that lovin’.  Although the viewer also has to wonder why all these men surround her, there are a few amusing moments when Liz has to stammer and think on her feet in her convoluted tale.  But there isn’t enough of that charm to carry Christmas in Connecticut, I’m sorry to say.  Despite her numerous films and a variety of roles, I always end up feeling as though Stanwyck plays the same similar but different spitfire over and over in films like The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe,  and Ball of Fire.  Christmas in Connecticut is much the same, unlike her lovely noir Oscar nomination in Double Indemnity.

Dennis Morgan (Kitty Foyle, The Hard Way) is also a little too much like every other forties contract leading man, but at least the runaround romance and stumbling sparring is on par with Stanwyck even if there is simply no chemistry. Liz is so anti-love, but bland Jones stirs her heart love at first sight- despite Reginald Gardiner’s (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) equally unappealing sham marriage? I’m not buying it.  What we see of the servants is also too stereotypical and even insulting. African Americans being so jolly in their subservience and bumbling rotund little men like S.Z. Sakall (Casablanca).  Forget him being the warmhearted Uncle Felix- I can barely understand him!  And Una O’Connor (Bride of Frankenstein) makes another flaky and fluttery old lady maid appearance! Only Sidney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) remains fun, lighthearted, classy, and always cool.  Seriously, the baby switcheroos at the fulcrum of Christmas in Connecticut are really weird- simply not amusing at all.

Though crisp and pretty, the black and white photography puts a damper on the Christmas feelings, too.  With a title such as this, the audience expects something bright and colorful.  The opening seafaring action is also a little hokey, and the Christmas party scene is used as an excuse for romance before holiday dressings. Thankfully, the swinging tunes are great, with some traditional holiday music laced in the score and carols played on the piano.  Oh, that big old tree with tinsel up to wazoo! Actually, that is really the only indication that this tale plays out on Christmas Eve! The snows and sleighs look awesome as well- even if it is totally fake winter weather. That trickery, however, adds to the fun.   There are cool cars, and that typewriter! The furs, frocks, long dresses, uniforms- all of it is swanky perfect with a side of sweet décor and nostalgia.

Of course, there are longtime audiences that adore Christmas in Connecticut and watch Yule after Yule, and fans of forties comedies and romantic films and those who grew up with these seasonal viewings can continue to enjoy, indeed. However, the uneven style, put on romance, and lack of Christmas in Christmas in Connecticut is a lot to ask of today’s audiences.   Fans of the cast or families looking for an old time secular or neutral holiday film can tune in, but viewers looking for the big Christmas classics should look elsewhere.

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