Alright, it’s with the fear that I’ll automatically be dismissed as a cynic that I admit to this, but honesty is the best policy, after all: Yours truly is NOT a big fan of celebrating the holidays in any imaginable aspect that the season lends itself to… However, I’m certainly not looking to bum anyone out. I don’t consider myself to be a complete curmudgeon (though, some may disagree), and the concept of holiday cheer isn’t totally lost on me. It’s often one of the few times during the year when family and friends can actually make time for one another, so I suppose that’s a good thing (most of the time). My only argument would be that folks maybe shouldn’t need a holiday as an excuse to get together and celebrate, but maybe that’s a musing for another time.
Anyway, the art of commemorating joyous yuletide in film is also something that intrigues me. My favorite Christmas films are Bad Santa, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story (in that order), though, admittedly these films do all have a bit of a contentious holiday attitude, but regardless, ‘tis the season to be jolly… and jaded. So, it’s in this spirit of merriment that I’ve decided to take a look at an older production that I haven’t seen before. I have also recently been developing a crush on the striking Barbara Stanwyck, so what better selection to make than 1945’s Christmas in Connecticut? The premise didn’t seem like typical holiday fare for its time, so the decision was an easy one. Let’s review…
The film features Stanwyck playing the Martha Stewart of her day (apropos, considering Stewart has had her own troubles in recent years), who pens the most popular magazine column in the country—waxing poetic about her incredibly tasty skills as a cook while caring for her husband and infant child as the ultimate homemaker on their Connecticut farm—for magnate Sydney Greenstreet’s publication. There’s just one problem: Stanwyck is a complete and utter FRAUD!
She’s actually a single woman (perhaps scandalous enough in itself for the ‘40s) living in New York who would probably have a hard time boiling water, yearns for mink coats, and depends on her friend S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (short bio) (whose restaurant she funded) to provide her with meals, not to mention the recipes for her column. The trouble comes when a nurse (Joyce Compton) acquainted with Greenstreet writes to convince him to invite a war veteran (Dennis Morgan) she’s nursing back to health to have Christmas dinner on Stanwyck’s farm. Morgan has never known much of an idyllic home life, and Compton is convinced that if he gets a taste for settled-down living, it will convince Morgan to marry her. (Many critics cite the whole opening sequence with Compton and Morgan to be clumsy and unnecessary, but I’m not so sure about that. Having Morgan show up on Stanwyck’s doorstep without any kind of back story or character development would have been a huge mistake, especially considering Morgan isn’t asked to do much of the heavy lifting throughout the rest of the film).
Anyway, Greenstreet becomes convinced that the positive press from such a publicity stunt would be immensely beneficial, so he summons Stanwyck to his office to inform his prized employee that this will happen. Greenstreet is a powerful and aggressive man who not only doesn’t take “no” for an answer, but who also just doesn’t listen to others at all, and no matter what, Stanwyck can’t talk herself out of this predicament. Oh, and the kicker: Being that Greenstreet was going to be spending the holiday alone, he decides to invite himself over to witness the supposed culinary artist’s expertise firsthand. She retreats to Sakall’s eatery with her editor (Robert Shayne) who’s also in on her charade, and friend (Reginald Gardiner) who has been trying to get her to marry him for quite some time. Stanwyck and Shayne wallow in self-pity over the fact that their unscrupulous behavior will be discovered and they’ll be summarily fired. Convinced her plight is hopeless, Stanwyck agrees to marry Gardiner, even though she doesn’t love him… but wait, surprise, surprise, Gardiner owns a home on a Connecticut farm?! Sheesh!
OK, so while Stanwyck is resigned to wed Gardiner, she still feels bad for Shayne, who has helped her a great deal over the years. Therefore, she convinces Gardiner and Sakall to go along with yet another scheme (one would think she had learned her lesson) to pull off this Christmas dinner to save Shayne’s job. Of course, when Morgan shows up it becomes love at first sight for Stanwyck, and hilarity ensues as their relationship develops and everyone waits for her cunning trickery to come crashing down around her. Now, assuming one can consider a complete lack of any kind of journalistic integrity to be “charming,” then the film’s premise will work.
I found it to be a little curious but it certainly wasn’t a deal breaker, though, the argument made by some that all of Stanwyck’s lies and unsavory behavior makes it difficult for anyone to feel for her is perhaps a legitimate one. However, I simply disagree. I’ve always been impressed with the power of movies to influence viewers to root for characters who are less than stellar individuals. In fact, some of my favorite films are those that force one to pull for a protagonist that maybe isn’t the best person. After all, no one’s perfect. Anyway, I found myself really enjoying Stanwyck in this film. I believe I may have even enjoyed her performance in CIC better than the one in Double Indemnity, dare I say it… and she looks fantastic, by the way. Additionally, most of the acting was completely enjoyable and the strongest aspect of the film, with Greenstreet’s commanding presence as the overbearing boss and Sakall just about stealing the production as the lovable Uncle Felix. Sadly, I must acknowledge that aside from Casablanca and this effort, I’m totally unfamiliar with the work of Cuddles, which is undoubtedly a “catastroph,” but fortunately my associate scribe on this blog, Gary Cahall, is. So, everyone can now be schooled on the man who’s certainly a charming actor.
No, the real problem with this movie lies in the script, even though the sheer scope of it is impressive and original. After all, the plot itself is somewhat involved, with a lot of interested parties, and the various components to Stanwyck’s ruse are relatively complex, as well. Furthermore, her entire artifice is a bit of a dastardly one, and it’s an intriguing and fun notion that all the “distasteful” instances made it past the ultra sensitive ‘40s censors, especially considering that the film is intended as a Warner Bros. Christmas Celebration!
However, in the end, the screenplay from Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini could use some polishing. While the initially offbeat approach is admirable, the movie eventually devolves into a succession of resolutions that are safe and saccharin sweet, which is somewhat forgivable being that it’s a Christmas film, but ultimately a letdown since some of the characters’ initial transgressions are so grand. I don’t have a problem with happy endings, but when that climax is achieved through a stream of premises and actions that are too quaint, too simple, and too silly, it’s a huge problem. I wasn’t buying any sequence with a child, nor was I accepting of Sakall’s saving of the day with a handful of gestures that are so overly simplistic that they’re absurd. I also wasn’t agreeable to the fact that characters are willing to change motives without warning and that everyone is able to forgive one another with impunity in mere moments. It’s all reminiscent of the numerous and endless family sitcoms over the years that have tackled and remedied major family “catastrophs” in twenty-two minutes that I’ve been trying to avoid for quite some time. However, after making all this known, CIC is intended as a comedy, and there are genuine laughs. It also manages to be safe holiday fun for the entire family, so it’s with this in mind that I’ll give CIC a “hunky dunky” three stars out of five.
Happy Holidays and Bah Humbug to everyone!
But before you go, here’s a preview of this 1945 classic: