Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Christmas in July: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

It's strange how important Christmas is to the plot of entertaining romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut and yet how superfluous it seems to the characters. The entire story hinges on the idea that decorated war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is to spend Christmas at the home of magazine columnist and housekeeping expert Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck); the soundtrack is full of Christmas music; and there are wreaths and Christmas trees everywhere in the background. Yet none of the movie's sentiments have anything to do with Christmas, and the actual traditions of the holiday are almost completely ignored. Someone offhandedly says "Merry Christmas" on the day in question, and that's about it.

That's fine, though, because it means that there aren't any sappy holiday messages, and the movie remains focused on the romantic roundabouts of its main characters. Christmas, however, is the reason that Elizabeth is frantically trying to fabricate a life she doesn't actually have, because although she presents herself in print as an uber-housewife with a husband, a baby and a farm in Connecticut, she's actually a modern single gal in New York City, and gets all the fabulous recipes in her columns from the restaurant down the street. When her blowhard publisher decides that it would be good PR for her to host this decorated veteran for Christmas, she suddenly has to produce everything she's been writing about.

Of course she falls in love with the war veteran, of course her ruse is eventually found out, and of course everything turns out fine in the end. It's the kind of strained high concept that could easily be recycled today for a remake starring Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson (and was in fact remade as a TV movie in 1992 starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson and directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger - !!!). But Stanwyck keeps things grounded, perfectly balancing her professional cool and her attraction to Jones, who is honestly kind of a boring square-jawed nothing. Most of the comedy comes from Sydney Greenstreet as the flustered magazine publisher and S.Z. Sakall as the Eastern European chef who actually cooks all of Elizabeth's meals, and while the whole thing is obviously contrived, it's executed in a relaxed fashion that doesn't demand shrill farce at every turn.

A flightier actress might have been overwhelmed by the silly concept, but Stanwyck is consistently earthy and real, and her Elizabeth never lets herself get pushed around for the sake of love or career. It all ends on a perfectly nice and predictable note, but without ever forcing itself on the audience. If only Christmas was more like that.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Just be true to yourself.

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