Christmas on Celluloid: ‘Christmas in Connecticut’

xmaspianoTo 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.

xmaspaperdollsAn 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.

AT FIRST, ELIZABETH LANE IS REALLY A CITY GIRL WHOSE IDEA OF CHRISTMAS IS TERRIFIC PREENTS.

AT FIRST, CAREER GIRL ELIZABETH LANE IS REALLY A CITY DWELLER WHOSE IDEA OF CHRISTMAS IS TERRIFIC PRESENTS.

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.

ELIZABETH IS PUT TO THE TEST WHEN SHE HAS TO FLIP FLAPJACKS FOR HER GUESTS.

ELIZABETH IS PUT TO THE TEST WHEN SHE HAS TO FLIP FLAPJACKS FOR HER GUESTS.

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.

JEFFERSON KNOWS MORE ABOUT BABIES THAN ELIZABETH.

JEFFERSON KNOWS MORE ABOUT BABIES THAN ELIZABETH.

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.

THE IDYLLIC SETTINGS EVOKE NOSTALGIA FOR AN AMERICA THAT EXISTS IN OUR MEMORIES.

INTERNET SOURCES LIKE TO CLAIM THAT THE “BORROWED” FARMHOUSE IS THE SET FROM ‘BRINGING UP BABY’ BUT THAT IS LIKELY UNTRUE.

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.

11 Responses Christmas on Celluloid: ‘Christmas in Connecticut’
Posted By LD : December 1, 2014 3:45 pm

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is also one of my favorite holiday movies. The first time I saw it the opening seemed a bit out of place for a Christmas film but now, all these decades later, it works as a reminder that regardless of the challenges of the times we can still celebrate. Thank you Susan for going into detail about the historical context. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see it on the big screen but I have a copy and I am looking forward to viewing it at least once this season.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 1, 2014 9:07 pm

LD: I think we should copy the Stanwyck paper dolls from above, print them, and then cut them out as we watch the movie.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 1, 2014 9:08 pm

For those who go see the film on the big screen, please make a comment and let us know what you thought.

Posted By LD : December 1, 2014 10:06 pm

Susan-Cutting out paper dolls, now that really does bring back memories. Some of them bad because I didn’t always use safety scissors. Thank you for including them in your blog. Fun and interesting nostalgia.

Posted By Doug : December 1, 2014 11:08 pm

A fun post for a great movie, Susan! Sadly, I live hundreds of miles away from any screenings. But I will be looking for this
film, as it’s been too long since I’ve seen it.
Elizabeth Lane’s ‘ruse’ reminded me of Myrna Loy’s character in
“Third Finger, Left Hand” who concocted an imaginary husband to keep the wolves from knocking on her door with flowers and candy.

Posted By Lisa W. : December 1, 2014 11:34 pm

Oh, I’ve loved this film since discovering it about 10 years or so ago! Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful, as always, and I watch my old VHS copy every Christmas season. I will definitely try to find a way to make it to a big screen, as that would be a very special treat. Looking forward to your further postings this season!

Posted By Misti E : December 3, 2014 1:44 am

Just bought tickets for Sunday’s showing of A Christmas Carol and Christmas in Connecticut on the big screen!!!! This is the perfect gift for a great friend – a girls’ day out and a TCM double feature!

Posted By Susan Doll : December 3, 2014 4:48 am

Misti: Let us know how the double feature works out.

Posted By Jane : December 9, 2014 4:04 am

I am hoping the Bishop’s Wife will be playing some time this month. It is a Christmas favorite and I watch it every year, but I don’t see it anywhere on your line up.

Posted By Bill Green : December 9, 2014 2:18 pm

You have Cary Grant as Star of The Month in December and “The Bishop’s Wife” isn’t on the schedule? Seems illogical to me.

Posted By robbushblog : January 6, 2015 7:55 pm

I have seen quite a few of the Fathom Events screenings on the big screen, including THE SEARCHERS and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. I’m sorry that I missed this one.

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