A Screwball Christmas

When we think of American actress Barbara Stanwyck, the immediate association rarely includes screwball comedy. She was at her best in films that reveal the darker sides of the human heart. One of her most famous roles was in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), in which she plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a woman who seduces an insurance salesman and convinces him to murder her husband. Like Lauren Bacall in many noir films, Stanwyck embodied the femme fatale in all her darkness, seduction, and glory.

Stanwyck did not consider herself to be funny. In an interview, Stanwyck noted, “I am not really a comedienne, per se…. I’m not a funny person.”

It was characteristic of Stanwyck to be this objective and straightforward about her acting abilities. Yet despite some mild self-criticism, she was fully capable of being funny. She worked diligently as an actress and took the art of acting seriously. This attitude and talent for comedy comes through in Peter Godfrey’s screwball comedy, Christmas in Connecticut (1945).

Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a writer whose focus is food and country living. In her regular column, Elizabeth waxes poetic about the beauty of her Connecticut farm, her adoring husband, her perfect baby son, and the ease with which she prepares seven course meals. Except none of this is true. Elizabeth is single, she lives in a New York apartment, there is no farm in Connecticut, she has no children, and she can’t cook to save her life. The recipes she so succulently writes about are from the great gourmet mind of Felix Bassenak, a rather portly and rotund Hungarian chef extraordinaire. In any case, the entire “human feature” column is a great lie, meant to sell a particular image of a perfect woman and increase the circulation of the magazine.

Elizabeth’s readers obviously don’t know the truth about her, but neither does her publisher, Alexander Yardley. He prides himself on printing only the truth, and if he finds out that Elizabeth and her editor have been working under this pretense, both will be fired. There was nothing Elizabeth could fear in being exposed as a fraud until a war nurse sent a letter to Yardley, asking him to host a returning war hero, Jefferson Jones, at Elizabeth’s farm. Jefferson is a big fan of Elizabeth’s columns and a food aficionado, and it would be a wonderful gesture to welcome the war hero back to America again.

Yardley finds this to be a great opportunity for the magazine, and considers the act of inviting Jefferson a “patriotic duty.” Elizabeth panics and offers excuses as to why she should not host Jefferson. After all, in order to do that, she needs a husband, a baby, and a farm, not to mention, she needs to learn how to cook. That’s an impossible task for any woman, no matter how powerful or independent she deems herself to be.

To the rescue comes John Sloan, a friend who has been proposing to Elizabeth for quite some time, despite her continued refusals. John happens to have a farm in Connecticut, but in order to help Elizabeth, he politely but resolutely requests that she marry him. Elizabeth says yes but it’s obvious that she is confused and is only trying to save her career.

But what about the baby? No problem! There is a housekeeper and cook at John’s farm who regularly babysits for neighbors (women who work at the “war factory”), so Elizabeth can check the baby off the list too.

In order to make that delicious seven-course Christmas meal, Elizabeth brings her friend, Felix, who suddenly gains a much higher standing by becoming her “uncle.” And so, the charade is all set, and the players are ready for the arrival of Jefferson Jones and Alexander Yardley. Being a screwball comedy, we can expect that things will not go exactly as planned, but will hopefully be resolved in an amicable manner.

Naturally, Elizabeth just wants to get the whole affair over and done with. She doesn’t much care about Christmas anyway, and is not interested in entertaining anyone. But one look at Jefferson Jones, and she is smitten (as is Jefferson with her). Jefferson is simply perfect. He’s handsome, well-spoken, and completely at ease and comfortable in his own skin. He even sings and plays piano! Jefferson tries to hide his attraction for Elizabeth out of respect that she is a married woman with a child, but as the film progresses, it gets harder and harder to set those emotions aside.

Elizabeth is nearly speechless around him, which adds to the general disorder in the house. As she makes her own moves on Jefferson, a baby is crying in the distance. Any good mother will tell you that the sound of her child will always come first above all else, and that she will tend to the child immediately. But Elizabeth doesn’t have that instinct (for obvious reasons), and it takes Jefferson to nudge her in the right direction.

As much as Christmas in Connecticut offers plenty of laughs, it is also a reminder that Christmas does matter.

Elizabeth doesn’t even know how to hold the baby and she keeps calling the baby “it.” In a rather humorous scene, Elizabeth tries very badly to give the baby a bath, but once again, Jefferson to the rescue! He is a good uncle to his sister’s children and is an old pro at taking care of babies. Jefferson is becoming more and more attractive in Elizabeth’s eyes.

A series of hilarious events ensue as Elizabeth tries very hard to maintain the pretense that she is the incarnation of “Elizabeth Lane, food writer and housekeeper,” and the more she tries, the more things unravel. Her life is crumbling before her and not just a silly façade she temporarily put up for the benefit of Jefferson and Yardley: she begins to question what kind of woman she’d like to be.

The juxtaposition of Christmas to the disordered materialism and independence creates a stark contrast. Almost everyone in the film is deeply involved in their own self-centered affairs, and the very idea of a family is missing. Even Yardley laments that he doesn’t see his children and grandchildren at all, but never really asks whose fault that is. Does a traditional life exist and if so, is it only possible in the country?

Christmas in Connecticut was a huge hit. It earned over 3 million dollars domestically, and it’s clear that people loved it. Yet critics of today often dismiss these images of America. In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan sees no value in the film. He writes that it “is the sort of holiday movie to have been made as bland as possible so that audiences can watch it after stuffing themselves with turkey and cranberry sauce.” Callahan doesn’t stop there: “It’s the kind of script that might come alive with any halfway-competent comedy director, but Peter Godfrey directs in a plodding, totally uninterested manner.” Callahan even goes as far as to say that “Stanwyck isn’t even at her second best here.”

Another critic, Emanuel Levy, wrote that the film “obviously propagated conservative ideology, sending women to the kitchen to dutifully play their roles as housewives and mothers after tasting some emancipation during the War years.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Christmas in Connecticut is a highly enjoyable, funny, and a delightful film. Stanwyck’s presence is obviously quite different here: she’s no femme fatale but this is hardly a negative element in the film. Stanwyck is still commanding the screen and even the supporting cast adds a variety of comedic mishaps as the film unfolds. In addition, the film contains many wonderful one-liners.

Several issues arise from such silly criticisms. Film critics and academics tend to dismiss films as “crowd pleasers” and find it impossible to comprehend that a film can be very popular and very good at the same time. Should the film have been more depressing to make it more worthy? Should it have criticized capitalism and implicitly endorsed communism?

Christmas in Connecticut is a light-hearted film, but it also doesn’t mince criticism. It’s a film that evades any “feminist” readings, nor is it some “scary” conservative propaganda meant to keep women “barefoot and in the kitchen.” Yet the film’s script is not shy to question the reality and meaning of being an independent and single woman. Elizabeth is clearly not supremely happy, and she’s not even sure why she chooses a career over marriage. Perhaps on some subconscious level, Elizabeth is writing about the fictional farm in Connecticut because she despises such a lifestyle, yet she desires it as well.

Independence is important to Elizabeth, and Stanwyck’s presence enlarges this notion. But much like Stanwyck’s own political views (she was a conservative and a staunch anti-communist), here we see a woman who makes her own decision in the end. Stanwyck’s Elizabeth is not interested in shocking anyone or in rocking the boat of culture merely for the sake of shocking and rocking. It’s not society that will decide (one way or another) what’s best for her but her own heart.

As the end nears, and all the confusion is cleared up, Alexander Yardley says to Jefferson Jones: “Well, young man, I suppose you know what you’re doing, but I warn you, she can’t cook.” Jefferson Jones seems to be fine with that fact about Elizabeth, and Felix assures him: “She can’t cook. But what a wife!” Hopefully, the saying that the “way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” will not bear that much importance for this marriage.

As much as Christmas in Connecticut offers plenty of laughs, it is also a reminder that Christmas does matter. Almost every character in the film is only interested in matters that will result in immediate gratification or profit. It’s Felix, the Hungarian chef, who acts like an angel at the end, and through a series of good-natured mischiefs brings Elizabeth and Jefferson together. Even Alexander Yardley, a man mostly focused on the circulation of his magazine can’t help but exclaim, “What a Christmas!”