One of the perennial favorites for TV broadcast at this time of year is the 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut, starring Barbara Stanwyck. I sat down for the first time in years to watch the entire movie, and gave it my full attention in a way that I never did while I was wrapping presents or chatting with relatives or trimming the tree. As I suspect from my half-assed viewing of the film over the years, Christmas in Connecticut is a very slight movie; if it weren't related to Christmas, or didn't star Stanwyck, most of us might never have heard of it.
The plot is pretty lame: Liz Lane (Stanwyck) has gained career success by writing a series of columns about the joys of being a housewife and mom on her farm in Connecticut -- a Forties version of Martha Stewart. Trouble is, she's really a single NYC career girl who can barely boil water, and who gets her recipes from her Uncle Felix (S.Z. Sakall), who runs a restaurant. This was never an issue until her publisher Alexander Yeardley (Sydney Greenstreet) decides to accompany war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to Liz's Connecticut farm for Christmas to experience home cooking and happy holiday domesticity. Liz talks her longtime cold fish of a suitor into lending his farm, they bring Felix along to cook, and even manage to borrow a baby ... but can they pull this off without Liz and her editor losing their jobs?
Of course, you know what's going to happen, especially once Liz catches a glimpse of that handsome war hero. But that's romantic comedy for you. It doesn't matter how it ends -- it matters how you get there. Christmas in Connecticut's plot goes through a bunch of episodic mishaps and such, which we might call screwball if they were funnier. A series of gags involving the borrowed baby grew tiresome before the film ended, as well as a lot of jokes around Liz and her "husband" trying to get a judge to marry them when no one else is looking.
The joy of Christmas in Connecticut is in watching the actors, especially Stanwyck and the instantly recognizable character actors. S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (you might remember him best from Casablanca) is always delightful to watch, and he's having lots of fun as Uncle Felix, who wants to cook wonderful meals and feed them to everyone and keep Liz from marrying that stinker of an architect. Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon) also shows us his best comic side as the publisher who always gets what he wants, and who dislikes any stretching of the truth unless it can boost magazine circulation. Joyce Compton, who performed that ridiculous number as Dixie Belle Lee in The Awful Truth, has a sweet little role as a hospital nurse who's scheming to marry Jones.
You can also derive a certain amount of enjoyment from some of the period details of the film. Jones is recuperating from a period of starvation after being stranded on a lifeboat -- while in the hospital, he is restricted to a liquid diet. However, he can still smoke all he wants, right there in the hospital next to the nurse. And Liz's shameless lifelong desire for a mink coat, and her sheer pleasure throughout the film whenever she gets to wear the fur she was finally able to afford, seems positively bizarre in light of today's views on fur clothing.
Christmas in Connecticut was remade for TV in 1992, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson in the lead -- the only film directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, although he doesn't appear onscreen. It hasn't had nearly the lasting success of the original (there's no Uncle Felix, for one thing). The movie is being remade yet again, with Jennifer Garner in the lead, for a 2009 release. The idea of a Martha Stewart-ish imposter who can't do anything domestic is more of a TV sitcom setup than the basis for a sustainable comedy feature, although a slight and hackneyed premise hasn't stopped other comedy films from being made recently.
In short, although Christmas in Connecticut (the 1945 version) isn't one of the holiday greats, it's still an entertaining movie to have on in the background while doing something else this Christmas -- the sound levels on the DVD seem weak, so be prepared to punch up the volume if you're in the kitchen trying to muster your own cooking skills for a holiday meal.