What if you found out Martha Stewart was a lying liar who lived in an unimpressive apartment and couldn’t even cook? That’s essentially the premise of the sparkling 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut.
The movie stars Barbara Stanwyck, fresh off her legendary femme fatale performance in Double Indemnity. She plays Elizabeth Lane, a marquee writer at a major women’s magazine (a favorite job for women in romantic comedies). As far as her readers know, Elizabeth Lane is a domestic paragon living in an idyllic Connecticut farmhouse, cooking delicious meals for her husband, raising her cherubic baby and shopping for spinning wheels and rocking chairs. However, this life is a complete fabrication. In truth, Stanwyck’s character lives happily in a tiny (but tasteful!) Manhattan apartment with a screeching radiator and laundry obscuring her (not especially impressive) view of the skyline.
Our introduction to Elizabeth offers a pretty good taste of the movie’s vibe. She gets a magnificent mink coat delivered. Her friend demands to know: “That coat! What’s the meaning?” “Oh, don’t worry, I’m paying for it myself,” she reassures him, even though it’ll take her six months to pay it off. “But I needed it,” she assures him.
She’s making out alright until suddenly, a crisis. The magazine’s publisher wants Elizabeth Lane, homemaker extraordinary, to provide the perfect Christmas for a sailor who’s just spent weeks stranded at sea. Oh, and also the publisher invites himself along. She immediately assumes it’s all over—“Where am I going to get a farm? I don’t even have a window box!”—and makes plans to marry her obnoxiously insistent bore of a suitor. (He thinks it’s all for the best that she’ll be fired, because he wants her to take the job of being his missus.)
However, her editor—who’s in on the deception, got kids to support, and desperate not to lose his job—pleads with her to use her new fiancé’s Connecticut home to bluff her way through the holiday.
So they all troop up to Connecticut. And of course, the sailor Jefferson Jones is very handsome, very charming, and quite a talented singer. Hijinks ensue, as Stanwyck is forced to fake her way through various domestic scenarios. They have to borrow a baby, and you’re treated to the sight of a clueless Stanwyck cavalierly tossing a dirty diaper over her shoulder. Her boss wants to see her flip pancakes, and she’s gotta do it, despite the fact she’s never successfully flipped a pancake in her entire life.
It’s a genuinely entertaining movie. Barbara Stanwyck delivers a performance with perfect verve, and her supporting cast includes Sidney Greenstreet as her publisher—snapping out lines like “I only ask two things of my editors: Print the truth and obey my orders”—and S.Z. Sakall as her dear friend, a Hungarian restaurateur who feeds her a steady supply of recipes. If you’ve seen Casablanca, you’ll recognize these two character actors as a pair of delightful pros.
Bonus: This movie is stacked with menu items so deeply unhealthy you’ll find yourself marveling that anybody in the post-war period died of anything other than heart disease.
But Christmas in Connecticut is also fascinating for its subtext, which is enough to make your head spin. It’s very attuned to the attitude that as the war wrapped, it was time to clean up for the soldiers and transition over the postwar world. The economy was finally humming again and that meant getting out of those crowded cities and developing the suburbs. Men who’d spent years in the military wanted a familiar hearth. It was time for women to make homes, not bombers.
But Elizabeth has no big epiphany that she must learn to be a proper woman. She’s never cast as some shriveled career crone or feckless party girl who’d better leave the fair before it’s too late. In the final scene, everybody laughingly informs Jeff that no, Elizabeth can’t cook, and he doesn’t seem too devastated. Plus Jeff’s the one who’s not only good at diaper duty, but enthusiastic about participating in mundane childcare tasks. Not to mention the solid provider who’d prefer Elizabeth take the job of Mrs. So-and-So is painted as a complete pill, and she rejects him. This movie offers an opportunity to watch something pushing back on the 1950s conformist hellscape before it even fully took shape.
All that is secondary to the fact that Christmas in Connecticut is really fucking funny, though. It’s witty and it’s ridiculous and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Give Love Actually a rest; Christmas in Connecticut airs tonight on TCM, and you can also catch it on Amazon streaming.
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