Scribblers on Celluloid #2, the Holiday Edition: Christmas in Connecticut

Posted: December 19, 2014 in Scribblers on Celluloid
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A Writer’s Review of Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut Poster

Release Date: August 11, 1945

MPAA Rating: N/A

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet.
Written by: Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini, based on a story by Aileen Hamilton.

Directed by: Peter Godfrey

Spoiler Level: Low.

Greetings, hacks and scribblers. I trust you are all done with your Christmas shopping? Got those Hanukkah gifts lined up? All geared up for a week of Kwanzaa? How’s about you Pagans and Wiccans? Only a handful of shopping days left ‘til Solstice!

Ahem. So here we are again, ready to dissect (gently, oh so gently) another movie about writers. I have once again gone off-list because, well, I was feeling festive. Christmas in Connecticut may be a bit of a stretch for this series but, seeing as it also involves a food writer, it dovetailed nicely with “Scribblers on Celluloid #1.” We’ll start the real deal after the 1st of the year, what do you say?

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A food writer who has lied about being a perfect housewife and master chef must try to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. Hilarity ensues.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

As noted above, I’m stretching things a bit with Christmas in Connecticut. It was on my original Master List, but had been relegated to a secondary when-I-get-to-it list, because it was just too…peripheral to the central theme. Then I looked around and saw lights going up on houses. I looked further and noticed my bank account crumbling under a deluge of early Holiday shopping. It occurred to me that once again Christmas had come rushing at me, seemingly from out of nowhere. Well, Christmas is a busy time of year, is it not? I didn’t want to think too hard on the next SoC entry and figured I’d cheat a little on this one. So there. And, wonder of wonders, the movie actually did have some things to say to the writer. As the movie unfolded in all its lighthearted Christmasy-ness, I found myself impressed by how much it had to say not so much about the writing process as the power of Story. More on that later.

Entertainment Quotient:

This is a hot cocoa and jammies kind of movie if ever there was one. Pure rainy-day fun. Of course, I feel that way about nearly all lighthearted black-and-white films.

Rotten Tomatoes rated Christmas in Connecticut as “Certified Fresh”, with an 88% positive rating. Pretty good for a piece of fluff.

Barbara Stanwyck is one of those Silver Screen actresses for whom they coined the phrase: “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” The woman just flat out glistens. And she can act, too. She nails the single working-city-girl part of Elizabeth Lane and is quite entertaining when faced with trying to actually cook the meals she writes about and having to take care of a baby that is supposed to be hers (it only gets better when they switch babies on her).

Dennis Morgan as war hero Jefferson Jones is almost too nice, contrasting well with Lane’s brash city-ness. His naiveté early on can be a little off-putting (aw, shucks, ma’am), but it manages to add a bit of charm to his character. This is likely a solid nod to the writing and directing—he’s a bit of a cardboard character, but we like him anyway.

The rotund Sydney Greenstreet as newspaper mogul Alexander Yardley is oddly charming—his little giggle and exclamation at the end of the film (“What a Christmas!”) is just plain goofy but I love it, and find myself looking forward to it every time.

If this movie is ever in danger of losing our attention it is saved by the wonderfully quirky restauranteur Felix Bassenak, played by S. Z. Sakall. It is his recipes that are featured in Lane’s columns (spuriously as her own creations) and she enlists him to play her uncle when they head off to a borrowed farmhouse in the country to perform their charade for the war hero.

Christmas in Connecticut does well what so many comedies of that era did, which is to pile complications on complications, making us wonder how someone can’t see what’s going on. The feel is that of a whacky stage play, the sprawling farmhouse a beautiful setup for the multiple angles, entrances and exits, and misdirection. If you go into this film planning to have a good time you won’t be disappointed.

The Writerly Element:

As noted above, I think where this film shines (from a writing perspective) is its portrayal of just how powerful Story can be. While the movie as a whole is something of a lark, there is a solid representation of what writing is, what it can do, and how effective it can be.

The scene introducing Elizabeth Lane shows her sitting in her New York apartment, typing away, describing country nirvana for her readers as she looks out on the urban scene: the clothesline stretching across the alley becomes the interior of the rustic old farmhouse, its art and charm; the sizzling radiator-style heater is the crackling fire in the fireplace. No big deal, but invention is taking place here. In fact, everything Lane writes is pure invention—the recipes are real (although they are not hers, she can’t cook to save her life)—but the rest is all lies, which is of course the fictioneer’s greatest tool and delight.

Lane is writing a food/cooking column, but we start to see that the food is maybe the least interesting element of her work. Okay, so the war hero Jefferson Jones dreams about the food in her article (incidentally, these dreams go a long way to keeping him alive—how’s that for a reason to write?), but what he ultimately wants is to experience a quaint country Christmas at the fictional farmhouse Lane has so enticingly described. Jones has bought hook, line and sinker into the lie. He doesn’t only believe it’s all true, he actually knows the details of this country life better than Lane herself.

There’s a recurring joke in the film where the readers of Lane’s column persist in sending her antique rocking chairs, all because of an article in which she described her desire to find an old rocking chair like her granny used to have. All made up of course, but the readers believe; they want to believe; they believe so hard they spend the dough to buy these antiques and have them shipped to Lane’s New York office. When Jones shows up at the farmhouse…yep, he’s carrying a rocking chair.

What we see is the result not of a stale food column, but the response to what equates to a serial novel in progress. The readers want to know what happens next on the farm; they know the name of Lane’s fictional cow; they know her likes and dislikes better than she does. This is a kind of voyeurism, and what is getting absorbed into a good story if not the thrill of the Peeping Tom or Tammy? They’re reading someone’s diary for crying out loud and loving every minute of it.

In the scene where Elizabeth Lane steps into the surrogate farmhouse, there was a surreal moment for me when it occurred that this was essentially a writer stepping into her own fictional landscape. What would that be like? You write about some imagined place for years, and one day…you walk through the door. Everything is where you said it was; somehow, in this alternate universe, it has all become real. That, hacks and scribblers, would be cool.

Why Bother:

Is there truly a writerly element in this film, or am I trying too hard to make it fit? There is something here, my friends. Without the column—not the recipes, but all that made up stuff about Lane’s farm living—there is no movie. Fiction writing is at the heart of the film’s plot.

I’m not going to try and convince you of the value of Christmas in Connecticut to the quality and/or output of your writing. What I will say is that this turned out to be important to me because it reminded me of how powerful and enticing a made-up world can be; how truly wonderful it is to get sucked into a fictional landscape.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

How wonderful it is to be members of the eternal order of Hacks and Scribblers, that ragtag bunch of folks who find value in making crap up. I salute you, my brothers and sisters. Go lie your butts off. Because someone, somewhere, wants to believe it.

Comments
  1. Well put! The movie itself is an indulgence in cotton candy, but if you look at the world created by the author it is remarkably evident how writers actually create places and scenes where we, the readers, spend our valuable time and know extremely well.

    Like

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