Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Imagine if Martha Stewart was making everything up: she really lived in a high rise apartment, was an incompetent cook, and had no experience with crafting, livestock, or gardening. Then imagine that her adoring public still believed her perfect but fictional life.
That’s the premise of Christmas in Connecticut, a delightful comedy about a writer who has invented an idyllic life in the country complete with a husband, a child, and a friendly cow. But in reality she’s unmarried, childless, and lives in an apartment in New York City.
Despite her delicious recipes and tales of expert homemaking, she’s hopeless in the kitchen and more interested in a mink coat than domestic bliss. But when a simple request threatens the fake life she’s so carefully created, she must scramble to make her columns come to life.
The film stars Barbara Stanwyck, who was fresh off her Oscar nomination for Double Indemnity (1944). In fact, this was the first movie Stanwyck made after that classic noir, not including her cameo in Hollywood Canteen (1944).
But this movie is about as different from Double Indemnity as it gets. Stanwyck liked to alternate between dramas and comedies to give herself a break after a serious performance, and Christmas in Connecticut was a perfect chance to unwind after playing murderous Phyllis Dietrichson.
Dennis Morgan was cast as the male lead, and he has surprisingly great chemistry with Stanwyck. You might assume that the baby-faced actor better known for his smooth tenor and boy-next-door roles would be overwhelmed by a tough, incredible actress like Stanwyck, but he definitely holds his own. You really believe they’re in love in this movie, which makes it extra-adorable.
Morgan started making movies in 1936 (originally under his given name, Stanley Morner, and the pseudonym “Richard Stanley” before “Dennis Morgan”). He found his greatest success in the 1940s with films such as Captains of the Clouds (1942) and Kitty Foyle (1940) before starring in a series of buddy movies with Jack Carson.
Filling out the rest of the cast is chubby-cheeked S.Z. Sakall, nicknamed “Cuddles” because of his cheerful, adorable persona. Sakall was Hungarian and worked in theater and films in Hungary, Austria, and Germany beginning in the 1910s. He was Jewish, and he fled Europe with his wife in 1940 when Hungary joined the Axis. He is perhaps most famous for his role in Casablanca (1942) as Carl the waiter, which makes him one of many actual refugees from Europe who appeared in the film. Unfortunately, several members of his family did not escape and were later killed in concentration camps.
In happier news, Sakall found success in Hollywood playing sweet, often befuddled characters who charmingly butcher American expressions. For instance, in Christmas in Connecticut he learns the word catastrophe but pronounces it “cata-strofe.” He uses it constantly to describe fairly minor incidents, which becomes a cute running joke.
Sakall was joined by another expat Casablanca actor, British veteran Sydney Greenstreet. He is perhaps best known for his villainous turns in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca. But in this movie he is a nice guy, though too controlling and powerful for his own good.
Christmas in Connecticut was directed by Peter Godfrey, who became friends with Stanwyck during filming. He would helm two more movies with the actress: Cry Wolf (1947) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). Godfrey was also friends with Greenstreet, and apparently they kept everyone laughing during production.
The relaxed, happy filming experience translates into a delightful movie with quick, witty dialogue and a wonderful performance by Barbara Stanwyck. It doesn’t seem dated despite the very topical references to WWII and the somewhat old-fashioned plot points surrounding marriage and career. So sit back and pour yourself some hot cocoa. Or, as Stanwyck’s character might prefer, a stiff whiskey.
The film begins far from Christmas and Connecticut. It’s WWII, and a submarine attacks a US ship.
Two sailors survive in a raft and drift around the ocean for eighteen days before they’re rescued.
They recover in a military hospital, but Jefferson “Jeff” Jones (Dennis Morgan) gets frustrated when he’s not allowed to eat “real food,” instead subsisting on milk and raw eggs. He’s supposed to slowly work up to solid food after nearly starving, but he’s not happy about it. He makes things worse by reading Elizabeth Lane’s column in Smart Housekeeping magazine and dreaming about the elaborate meals she describes in such appetizing detail. Lane is billed as “America’s Best Cook” and the perfect wife, mother, and homemaker with an idyllic farm in Connecticut. Think of her as the 1940s Martha Stewart.
After torturing himself reading Lane’s “Menu of the Month” and “Diary of a Housewife,” Jeff gets so desperate for real food that he romances his nurse, Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) in the hopes that she will bend the rules and bring his some steak. It works, but the plan backfires when Mary Lee really does fall for the handsome sailor. (Such quick romances were not that uncommon. Read my History Through Hollywood: Love for more on that.)
Mary Lee wants to marry Jeff, but he’s hesitant. She assumes that Jeff’s reluctance is due to his ignorance about the great things that come with a “real home” and “domesticity.” (She doesn’t realize he was being sweet to her because she controls his food…)
She thinks that if she can convince him that settling down is actually wonderful, he will finally propose! She gets an idea–she’ll write to Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), publishing magnate who owns Smart Housekeeping, and ask him to invite Jeff to Elizabeth Lane’s house for Christmas. (Mary Lee nursed Yardley’s granddaughter so she has an in with the powerful man.) Once Jeff experiences the joys of an “Elizabeth Lane Christmas,” surely he will be desperate to start a perfect life with Mary Lee!
But here’s the problem. Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), the writer, is not at all like Elizabeth Lane, “America’s Best Cook.” The real Elizabeth concocted the persona and made up nearly everything in the fake Elizabeth’s life. (I wish we got some backstory about what she really wants to write and how the whole deception began, but we don’t.)
Our first glimpse of this clever lady is quite funny–she reads aloud from a draft about her “crackling fireplace” and the beautiful view of her garden from the kitchen window. She details the fantastic meal she is preparing for her husband, and describes how her eight-month-old son sits happily in his high chair watching her brown the pork chops. As she reads, the camera pans over her clanging radiator and the very urban landscape visible through her small window. She gingerly munches on canned sardines, the height of her culinary prowess.
As we soon discover, the real Elizabeth can barely feed herself, relying instead on her dear friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who runs a restaurant nearby. He delivers most of her meals, and it’s his recipes that have earned Elizabeth the title “America’s Best Cook.”
Felix thinks of Elizabeth as a daughter, and he loves creating fantastic new dishes for the column and participating in her secret life. Fun fact: Sakall had appeared with Stanwyck before in Ball of Fire (1941).
Later that morning, Elizabeth’s editor, Dudley (Robert Shayne) comes by with some bad news. Yardley has received Mary Lee’s letter and ordered Elizabeth to host Jeff for Christmas at her farm in Connecticut. Dudley is in on Elizabeth’s secret, so he’s appropriately terrified that they are both going to lose their jobs when Yardley realizes that they have been lying to the readers all this time.
The pair decide that Elizabeth should go see Yardley herself and tell him that her baby has whooping cough and therefore they can’t possibly host Jeff. But Yardley is a very commanding fellow, and he dismisses Elizabeth’s concerns and excuses. As he expounds on how wonderful the holiday will be for Jeff, and what great publicity it will generate for Smart Housekeeping to host a war hero, he decides that he should join the fun, too! So now Yardley will also visit Elizabeth’s nonexistent farm for Christmas. You can watch the scene here.
That evening, Dudley, Elizabeth, and her annoying suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) convene at Felix’s restaurant. Dudley and Elizabeth see no way out of their predicament, and are quite depressed. But John is delighted, because when Elizabeth loses her job, she will have no excuse not to marry him. Apparently he’s been proposing for a while, but she always finds a reason to say no.
He presses his suit once again, and she finally says yes in a awfully defeated tone. John ignores her reluctance (he’s quite obtuse) and begins planning their nuptials. He says they can get married in the next day or two and honeymoon at his farm in Connecticut. And…lightbulb!
What if John and Elizabeth brought Yardley and Jeff to John’s farm for Christmas? They could pretend they’ve been married for years, and hopefully get through Christmas without Yardley realizing the truth. Elizabeth isn’t thrilled that she’ll have to marry John immediately, but at least Dudley can keep his job if they succeed. Elizabeth, of course, will give up her career at John’s request once they’re married.
Elizabeth and John arrive at his beautiful farm with Felix (who will be doing the cooking) a few hours before Jeff and Yardley are expected. (For more images of the farmhouse, visit this great site, HookedOnHouses.net.)
John has arranged for a judge to perform a quick marriage ceremony, and he’s also found a baby they can borrow. His housekeeper Norah (Una O’Connor), has been caring for a baby during the day while his mother works in a war plant nearby, so they can pretend he’s the famous Lane child! (WWII continues to pop up through the film.) Elizabeth now has a “husband,” a “baby,” and a gorgeous farmhouse. That sure worked out!
The judge is about to start the wedding when sleigh bells alert them to Jeff’s early arrival. They tell the judge to wait in the parlor out of sight while Elizabeth greets their guest.
But Elizabeth falls in love with Jeff at first sight, which is an unexpected complication. Jeff is pretty interested in her, too. Also, how great is Elizabeth’s sparkly monogram on her jacket?
Edith Head designed Stanwyck’s costumes for this film even though she was Paramount’s head designer and this is a Warner Bros. picture. But such arrangements weren’t that unusual–if a star was powerful enough, he or she could request certain personnel who would work with them regardless of the studio. Carole Lombard had a similar arrangement with Travis Banton, for example.
Head had first dressed Stanwyck in Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), but the relationship between designer and actress really took off on The Lady Eve (1941). Before that film, Head remembered that “As for fashion, [Stanwyck] couldn’t have cared less,” but The Lady Eve changed her mind.
Stanwyck agreed, recalling that for The Lady Eve, “…Edith made the most beautiful clothes I had ever worn.” From then on, Stanwyck requested that Head design all of her costumes, and she had the designer’s name “written into every contract, no matter what studio [she] was working for.”
Head and Stanwyck would go on to work on more than 25 films together (Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head’s Hollywood.) For more on the relationship between Head and Stanwyck, and the various “tricks” Head used to make Stanwyck look her best, visit my post on The Lady Eve.
When Stanwyck worked on films for studios other than Paramount, Head would only create Stanwyck’s outfits, and the studio’s designer would dress the other actresses. So Milo Anderson, Warner Bros.’ designer, is responsible for the other women’s clothes in this film.
Back to the film! Jeff is excited to spend Christmas with his favorite columnist and her family. In a comical twist, he has read all of Elizabeth’s articles so he knows more about her (fake) life than she seems to. For example, soon after Jeff arrives, the baby begins to cry, and Elizabeth is flustered. She says, “It must be time for…something” but she has no idea what. Jeff pipes up with “It’s time for the baby’s bath!” and asks if he can help her.
Elizabeth clumsily does her best with “her son,” (who turns out to be a girl!), but she’s more than happy to turn over the bath duties to Jeff. He used to help with his sister’s kids so he knows what to do. Elizabeth is more and more taken with her handsome guest. He’s thoughtful and kind, and very easy on the eyes! Plus, he knows how to fold a cloth diaper.
When they emerge after the baby’s bath, it’s Jeff who holds the little girl next to Elizabeth. Don’t they make a better family than Elizabeth and John?
The movie takes pains to compare John and Jeff, and the latter always wins. He is the opposite of stuffy, pompous, and obnoxious John. He’s an architect, but that’s the only subject he’s able to discuss. He bores most people but doesn’t notice.
That evening, Elizabeth introduces Felix as her uncle, and John keeps trying to steal her away so they can be married by the judge.
But eventually the judge gets tired of waiting in the parlor and goes home. Elizabeth is secretly pleased, and Felix is happy, too. He sees the chemistry between Elizabeth and Jeff…
It’s Christmas Eve, and after dinner Elizabeth puts the finishing touches on the huge Christmas tree while Jeff plays the piano. John and Yardley go to another room to to drink and play Dominoes–yet another hint that Jeff is the one Elizabeth should be with!
Here they are behind the scenes:
Meanwhile, Yardley tells John that he and Elizabeth should have another baby. Their first kid boosted circulation quite a bit, and one of Elizabeth’s competitors is expecting a baby. Yardley doesn’t want Smart Housekeeping to miss out on that opportunity. John is a little taken aback, but says he will do his best. You can watch the scene here:
Also, there is so much tinsel on the tree! That appears to be the main decorating element of this era. You don’t see it much today, but Christmas trees in old movies are dripping with the shiny stuff.
Anyway, the judge returns late that evening so John hurries everyone to bed so that he and Elizabeth can secretly marry. But as they are about to commence the ceremony, they hear someone in the kitchen. Both Yardley and Jeff have come downstairs for a snack, so the wedding is postponed once again. (I love seeing the kitchens in old movies, especially the appliances!)
As they snack, Jeff asks Yardley if he thinks that Elizabeth is happy with her husband. Jeff is confused because Elizabeth is flirting quite a bit with him and acts annoyed by her husband! Things get even murkier when the cow gets out of her barn and comes to the kitchen window. Elizabeth doesn’t know how to get her back to the barn, but fortunately Jeff comes along and helps. They walk in the snowy moonlight and flirt some more.
A comic moment occurs in the barn when Stanwyck thinks that Jeff is referring to her when he’s actually talking about the cow.
But otherwise it’s a beautiful evening, perfectly punctuated by witty asides and silliness to keep it from becoming cloying. Stanwyck plays Elizabeth with a wink and a wry grin–she’s clearly not entirely committed to the deception and just does the bare minimum to keep Yardley in the dark. She isn’t particularly anxious about this complicated scheme; perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to marry John, so any shenanigans that arise and keep the judge away are fine with her!
Some critics thought that Stanwyck was miscast in the role, perhaps interpreting her winking intelligence as ill-suited to the part. But I disagree. If she’d played Elizabeth as a more anxious, desperate woman, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Instead, her quick smile and twinkling eyes make the various “catastrofes” comic, not angst-inducing. They never become “catastrophes” because you get the feeling that Elizabeth will be fine even if Yardley finds out the truth; she’s smart and resourceful, and she will figure it out.
The next morning, Elizabeth gets a nasty surprise when a different baby is dropped off at the house. The first baby’s mother didn’t have work that day, so another mom brings her kid by on her way to the plant, instead. This is a boy with very different coloring. Surely someone is going to notice that it’s not the same baby!
Things just get worse when Elizabeth tries to flip the flapjacks. She’s hopeless in the kitchen, but Yardley asked specifically if he could watch her make breakfast. She’s written so evocatively about her flapjack flipping that he simply must see it in action! But early efforts with Felix don’t turn out very well.
You can watch the scene here.
Fortunately, she manages to flip one when everyone is watching. Phew!
Oddly enough, this “Christmas movie” doesn’t show anything holiday-related on Christmas day. They don’t exchange gifts, go to church, enjoy a Christmas dinner, or spend any time by the shimmering tree. It’s just another normal day–you could replace Christmas with Thanksgiving, or New Year’s, or even make it “Weekend in Connecticut” without too much trouble. If the movie was made today, there would be a lot more Christmas. They would spend time opening gifts, for example, and Jeff would bring Elizabeth something incredibly thoughtful and perfect. John’s gift would be ill-suited and dull.
Anyway, as the day goes on, various forces (and Felix, who actively conspires to keep Elizabeth and John from getting married), keep sending the judge into hiding or back home. John is frustrated, but Elizabeth is having a great time with Jeff. In fact, when she realizes that Felix is sabotaging her marriage to John, she thanks him profusely!
That evening, the whole gang attends a dance in town. A large banner reminds the revelers to buy war bonds; it’s another reminder that this is a wartime film.
Elizabeth and Jeff dance the evening away while John discusses architecture with Yardley. The publisher offers John a column in Smart Housekeeping alongside his “wife’s.” The synergy and promotional opportunities Yardley can build around “Mr. and Mrs. Lane” are too exciting to pass up. John is thrilled and talks nonstop about his many home design ideas. Here they are behind the scenes:
In the midst of John’s boring conversation, Yardley notices how friendly Jeff and Elizabeth have become.
He’s shocked and upset, mostly because he wants another Elizabeth Lane baby to boost circulation. Also, “Elizabeth Lane, adulterer and divorcee” is a lot less commercial than “Elizabeth Lane, perfect wife and mother.” Yardley attempts to follow the pair and ascertain how close they really are, but Jeff and Elizabeth leave the dance and “borrow” a sleigh. Yardley can’t keep up.
Costume appreciation break: Elizabeth’s dress is so pretty and festive. The top is embellished with sequins that glitter when she moves, and the peplum jacket is very flattering.
The romantic sleigh ride turns extra romantic when Jeff and Elizabeth basically declare their feelings for each other. You can watch the scene here.
But before things get out of hand, the police pull up and accuse the pair of stealing a sleigh. But Elizabeth and Jeff don’t care. Any time spent together is wonderful, even if it’s in jail!
Meanwhile, Yardley returns to the house just in time to see the mother pick up her baby and leave. He assumes the baby has been kidnapped and calls the police. Soon the authorities are scouring the area for the Lane baby.
Elizabeth and Jeff are in jail all night, so they don’t even know about the “kidnapping,” but neither Felix nor John explain the situation or make up an excuse about how the woman is the baby’s nanny or something. It’s a plot hole.
When Elizabeth and Jeff finally do get back home the next morning, they find FBI agents and police officers crowding the house. Elizabeth tries to explain, but Yardley assumes she is hysterical and won’t let her talk.
The madness subsides when the two moms drop off their babies before work. Yardley is finally forced to listen as Elizabeth tells him the truth. He fires her on the spot and then calls off the kidnapping alert.
Despite losing her job, Elizabeth is happy because she believes that Jeff loves her, and now that Yardley knows the truth she doesn’t have to marry John! She quickly breaks up with the pompous architect. But the morning isn’t over yet.
An unexpected visitor arrives and shatters Elizabeth’s joy. It’s Mary Lee, the nurse who started the whole “Christmas in Connecticut” deal. Yardley invited her to surprise Jeff, but she missed her train and arrived late. She’s very excited to see Jeff.
Elizabeth is heartbroken. And Jeff is too much of a gentleman to break off his arrangement with Mary Lee even though he’s fallen in love with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth excuses herself to change and pack, so she misses Mary Lee’s big announcement. Once Jeff left, Mary Lee and the other guy who was stranded on the raft started chatting, fell in love, and got married! Mary Lee has come to Connecticut to tell Jeff the “bad” news.
Felix immediately goes to work fixing the situation. First, he tells Yardley that Elizabeth has already gotten a new job at a rival magazine. He’s got the telegram right there offering her the position and doubling her salary! But it’s really a telegram from a meat supplier anxious to do business with Felix’s restaurant! Sneaky.
Yardley falls for it. He doesn’t want to lose his popular columnist to a rival! So he finds Elizabeth and begs her to come back. He even offers her a huge raise. But she refuses. She is tired of pretending to be “America’s Best Cook.”
Then Felix finds Jeff and tells him the truth about Elizabeth–she’s single, childless, and in love with him. So Jeff goes after her, but he doesn’t tell Elizabeth that he knows she’s single. So she is scandalized when he kisses her and proclaims that he doesn’t care that she’s a married woman!
He finally admits he knows the truth and explains that Mary Lee married his buddy. He’s available and very in love. Elizabeth falls into his arms for a lovely kiss. The End!
I love the blooper from this scene! The actual scene is on the left, the blooper is on the right. Footage of classic Hollywood goofs is rare but it does exist!
This film was in production in late May through July 1944, and premiered about a year later on July 27, 1945. It might seem strange to release a “Christmas movie” in the summer, but in those days Christmas movies didn’t get a Christmas release date. For example, White Christmas (1954) premiered in October, Remember the Night (1940) in late January, and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) in May.
The non-Christmas premieres were due to the different release schedule followed in this era. The “wide” or “saturation” release that we’re used to (when a movie is released in the majority of theaters across the country at the same time), only dates to the 1970s. Before wide release became the norm, movies premiered first in the biggest cities and theaters before slowly trickling into smaller towns and second-run theaters over the next several months or even years.
This system makes a “Christmas premiere” impossible, as a movie might not reach your town until eight months or a year after it premiered in New York City or Los Angeles. Your local theater might show Christmas in Connecticut in December, or maybe the next April or even the following October, depending on a variety of factors.
Anyway, when Christmas in Connecticut did hit theaters, reviews and box office were good. The New York Times reviewer found it a little obvious, though, and warned audiences not to let the title “…mislead you into thinking that here is a folksy fable that will put the kiddies in the proper spirit for Santa’s next visit. Banish the thought, but quickly. For catering to the young set—or to oldsters with a distaste for the crudely put double entendre—apparently was not the Warners’ intention in making this picture.”
Although he notes that the audience enjoyed the film, it wasn’t quite to his taste:
“Christmas in Connecticut” undoubtedly comes under the heading of sophisticated comedy, that being the accepted term for entertainment which depends not so much on genuine humor as upon suggestive lines and situations for its merriment…Peter Godfrey, the director, has a good deal to learn about the art of telling a boudoir joke in the parlor and getting away with it. For it takes something more than a polished production and a script with some naughty intentional cliches to carry off successfully old jokes like the one about the baby boy who turns out to be a girl. Oh, well, the snowscapes are refreshing anyhow.
Other reviewers were more positive, though most agreed that the comedy could have been a bit fresher.
The Buffalo Evening News wrote that the movie was “peppered with expert gags and amusing confusions,” and though The Baltimore Sun called it an “overdone farce,” its flaws were “compensated” by “star power, occasional funny lines and some excellent performances.”
The Buffalo Courier-Express proclaimed it “Generally amusing, though highly implausible” with an “exceptional cast,” and The Baltimore News-Post concluded “It’s a farce with a far-fetched plot, some funny lines and situations, some old gags, a bit of double entendre, a cast of charming, expert players. All of this makes [the movie] an amiable, amusing cantata of lightweight variety.”
Maybe critics were saturated by comedies like this at the time, but the movie feels very fresh and funny to me. Plus, the “boudoir jokes” and double entendres that contemporary critics found crude or typical are so tame and charmingly old-fashioned that they feel new and different compared to the jokes in modern movies!