Review by Briallen Hopper
Posted on 25 December 2010
Source Warner Home Video DVD
So many classic Christmas movies are haunted by war. In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey’s sense of himself as a failure is officially confirmed by the 4-F status that keeps him out of World War II and eternally stuck in Bedford Falls. His brother Harry, a medal-winning fighter pilot, gets all the adventure and glory. In White Christmas (1954), the plot turns on the sad fate of General Waverly, the former commanding general of the characters played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. During the War, General Waverley was a beloved and masterful leader of men; now he’s an isolated Vermont innkeeper who’s steadily going broke.
These very different movies are engaged in a common project: the post-war redemption of American manhood. And apparently this redemption can only be accomplished through a dramatic re-imagining of World War II. Through the magic of Capra-corn, George learns that because he saved Harry from drowning long ago, Harry’s wartime feats of valor are somehow actually his; if George had never been born, all the men Harry saved would have died. And through the wonders of VistaVision, Bing Crosby mobilizes a benefit concert for General Waverley attended by thousands of his former soldiers, a concert that is the emotional climax of the film and results in a number of decidedly unfestive songs of military nostalgia such as “What Do You Do With a General When He Stops Being a General?” and “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army!”
Christmas in Connecticut is a very different kind of holiday war movie. Released just three days before V-J Day, it is maybe the only classic Christmas movie to begin in the middle of an actual battle. The stylized snow and sleighs of the credits fade directly into images of a German submarine torpedoing a US ship, and of the surviving sailors starving in a raft. But even though the film begins with scenes of American men at war, the actual battle taking place is on the home front, and the gender that needs saving is the American woman. Luckily for us, she is embodied by Barbara Stanwyck.
Barbara plays Elizabeth Lane, a journalist and a fast-talking dame. She writes a popular Martha Stewart-type column about her imaginary New England domestic life while secretly eating canned sardines in her New York apartment and wearing an outrageous and unaffordable mink coat she bought on a six-month installment plan. “All my life I’ve promised myself a mink coat,” she explains to her old Hungarian friend Felix, who supplies her with her recipes (she can’t cook), “and you know it’s very important to keep promises, especially to yourself.” “Do you have to promise so expensively?” he asks, concerned. “But I needed it!” she replies. “No one knows what a mink coat means to a girl’s morale.”
Liz is gorgeous, generous, and successful, but her need for a morale boost is a sign that her New York single life might not be fully satisfying. This may because of the men in it: there’s her thoroughly married editor; the lovely and hilarious but avuncular and possibly gay restauranteur Felix; and a stuffy and probably gay architect who keeps proposing to Liz in an off-hand way, yet seems to perk up remarkably at the mention of sailors. “Yardley’s sending me a sailor for Christmas!” complains Liz; “A sailor? How nice!” responds the architect with a grin. The sailor in question is a survivor of the submarine attack and a huge fan of Liz’s column, and Yardley is Liz’s editor, who sees a chance to score a circulation boost if Liz hosts the heroic sailor for Christmas dinner and writes about it. Yardley has no idea that Liz’s Connecticut life is completely imaginary, and he would fire her if he found out. And Liz can’t afford to be fired – she has to keep making payments on that mink coat.
And so begins a screwball scenario in which Liz and the architect pretend to be married so she can pretend to be “Elizabeth Lane” at his Connecticut farm and play hostess to the sailor and her editor for Christmas. Felix is coming to do the cooking, and since Liz is supposed to be a mom, a baby has been borrowed for the occasion (or rather a couple babies – which leads to complications, since she is only supposed to have one). The sailor arrives, played by Dennis Morgan, and he is dreamy and single and straight. Thank heavens for World War II! It’s not at all clear what single girls would do without it.
What follows is a comic romance with a dynamic pleasurably reminiscent of all the other marvelous Barbara Stanwyck romantic comedies where the guy teaches her vulnerability and she teaches him sex – The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire. Christmas in Connecticut doesn’t reach these heights of sublimity, but its unique sweetness can be found in the kindness with which it finesses the famously difficult transition between the pre-War fast-talking dames and the post-War domestic goddesses. The film is gently forcing Stanwyck to make this transition, but along the way she is rewarded much more than she’s punished for her domestic hopelessness. She is a terrible mother and can’t even remember her baby’s gender – she insists on casually calling her “it.” Nobody minds. Obviously she can’t bathe or change a baby, but that’s perfectly fine, the sailor can (and Stanwyck finds this irresistible). She’s a terrible “wife,” and breathes inflammatory adulterous insinuations to the sailor before making out with him in a pile of snow while she’s supposedly married to someone else. He loves it. Of course, she’s still expected to make a token effort to be domestic, but when the chips are down she even gets to succeed a little. Like Woman of the Year (1942), another romantic comedy navigating the role of woman in a wartime world, the movie puts its heroine’s domesticity to the test in a final breakfast scene. Will she or won’t she manage to make hotcakes for her man? Katharine Hepburn fails it. Stanwyck nails it. Through sheer flukery, she flips a flapjack and lands it square in the pan, all without the slightest heartache.
That’s not to say that there isn’t still a hint of trauma around the edges. Like White Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut is about managing the specter of irrecoverable loss. At the beginning of the film, Felix tells Liz not to learn the domestic arts, because writing and domesticity are in a zero-sum relationship. “Don’t cook!” he warns. “Then you will find it is not the way you write now, all easy and funny.” The end of Christmas in Connecticut and the end of World War II simultaneously mark the end of Stanwyck’s easy-and-funny era of exuberant comedic heroines, the newspaperwomen and card sharks and gangster’s molls who write and cheat and talk their way to the top. Liz might decide that nothing quite beats kissing a sailor on V-J Day, but we don’t have to agree with her.