Posted by Susan Doll on December 1, 2014
To get into the Christmas spirit, I often binge view my favorite Christmas movies. If I am feeling more like Scrooge than Bob Cratchit, I will binge view anti-Christmas movies. Either way, movie-watching is an essential part of my holiday celebration. If you are the same, you won’t want to miss the double feature of holiday classics that will hit theaters next Sunday, December 7. Fathom Events, TCM, and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment have joined forces to present the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and Christmas in Connecticut in a special one-day big-screen event. Check here for a list of participating theaters.
Releasing classic movies on the big screen as a special event is a recent development for Fathom, and if you want them to continue, consider attending this family-friendly double feature as a show of support. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I would offer a few thoughts and musings on Christmas in Connecticut—one of my favorite holiday movies. On Thursday, check out fellow Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs’s blog post, because she is following up with insights into A Christmas Carol.
An enchanting romantic comedy, Christmas in Connecticut was produced in 1945 during the waning days of World War II. Barbara Stanwyck, who is one of my favorite stars of any era, plays Elizabeth Lane, a featured columnist for Smart Housekeeping magazine. Elizabeth writes from her idyllic Connecticut farmhouse about all things domestic. As the greatest cook in the country, she offers delicious recipes to aspiring homemakers as well as advice on decorating, baby care, and animal husbandry. One of her faithful readers is military hero Jefferson Jones, played by a very sweet Dennis Morgan, who had been rescued after many days lost at sea. In an interview, Jefferson mentions that he had dreamed about Elizabeth Lane’s wonderful meals while adrift on the ocean. Publisher Alexander Yardley, who is played by Sydney Greenstreet, decides to bring Jones to Lane’s farm for the holiday as a publicity stunt. Little does he know that there is no farm. The very single Elizabeth actually lives in Manhattan, can’t cook at all, and is domestically challenged. Fearful of getting fired, she “borrows” a farm and a baby in order to carry on an elaborate charade for Yardley and Jefferson.
With her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery, Barbara Stanwyck had established and evolved a star image as a tough-talking dame who had been hardened by life. In the pre-Code era, she played working class girls or social outcasts who didn’t always follow the rules of accepted moral behavior in their efforts to get ahead, or to just survive. After the Code was enforced, she could no longer play adulteresses, unwed mothers, and party girls and expect to remain a leading lady. Studios polished her image, but the tough-talking, pro-active persona remained. It was a star image that she perfected in many genres—westerns, melodramas, film noirs, and romantic comedies. Nothing against Katharine Hepburn, who was declared the Golden Age version of the liberated woman by the home viewing industry back in the 1980s, but Stanwyck was always my choice as the independent woman who could hold her own in a man’s world. Despite the limitations of the Production Code, her characters are surprisingly modern in their self-confidence and assertive natures.
In Christmas in Connecticut, she plays a more sophisticated character than Phyllis in Double Indemnity or Sugar Puss in Ball of Fire, but Elizabeth Lane is still a sharp, savvy woman trying to get ahead in a man’s world. Ironically, Elizabeth thrives in her career by pretending to be a dutiful homemaker—the traditional gender role prescribed to women in a patriarchy. The ruse is made more delicious—at least to women viewers—because Elizabeth is not remotely domestic. Some of the film’s best moments show her attempts to fake the domestic prowess of her manufactured persona, such as flipping pancakes or tending to her cow. My favorite scenes involve her interactions with the borrowed baby. Her awkward attempts to bathe and change it reveal that a baby is like a foreign object to her. As someone who is also domestically challenged, I declared Elizabeth Lane my hero the first time I saw Christmas in Connecticut.
Elizabeth Lane’s lack of interest in domestic bliss might seem an anomaly during the Golden Age when the Motion Picture Production Code prescribed marriage and motherhood as the long-term goals for female protagonists. But, the slip in traditional gender roles can be attributed to World War II when women were encouraged to help with the war effort by taking jobs typically held by men, including everything from driving cabs to working in defense plants. The war created an emergency atmosphere, which loosened the narrow limitations of gender roles and social conventions. All of this was reflected in the popular culture of the day. In Christmas in Connecticut, not only is Elizabeth Lane an unapologetic career woman but the males excel at activities usually associated with women. Elizabeth’s recipes are those of her Hungarian Uncle Felix Bassenak, played by S.K. “Cuddles” Sakall. And, it is Jefferson Jones who shows a fumbling Elizabeth how to bathe and change a baby.
At war’s end, the country sought a return to “normal life” as quickly as possible, which meant a return to familiar social conventions. In addition, the discharged soldiers expected to come home to their jobs or to land new jobs. After the war, women were encouraged in magazine and newspaper articles and in advertising to go back to their homes and to their roles as housewives and mothers. Thus, the shift in gender ideology that accounted for Elizabeth Lane was short lived, though Stanwyck would defy convention again in the 1950s to play formidable women in a series of westerns.
Aside from Stanwyck’s character, Christmas in Connecticut reflects the war era in another, subtle way. Elizabeth’s “borrowed” farm and the surrounding Connecticut countryside looks like an image from a Currier and Ives print. Heavy with nostalgia for the homey holiday traditions of rural America, the film includes scenes of small country villages, sleigh rides in the snow, and country square dances—a reminder of a way of life that existed in the collective cultural consciousness of all Americans. Such evocative imagery would have resonated with a war-weary audience who were reminded of what they had been fighting for.
If there is not a participating theater in your hometown to catch next Sunday’s Fathom-TCM double feature, watch Christmas in Connecticut on TCM on Sunday, December 21, and on Christmas Eve. For my blog post over the next couple of weeks, including Christmas Week, I will cover some of my favorite holiday movies.
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