If you think that creative fabrication is purely a product of our digital Fake News what-you-see-isn’t-necessarily-what-you’re-getting age, then 1945’s Christmas in Connecticut is proof that humanity has long had a talent for pulling the wool over others’ eyes, especially if it aids in building and sustaining a career.
You could well argue that the first ruler to sit on a throne and claim divine descendant was in the same game but in this particular take on giving people what they think they want, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is pretending to be a glamourous, Martha Stewart-esque domestic goddess whose life is one of one untrammelled, gorgeously-accented bliss.
In article after article in Smart Housekeeping magazine, one of a suite of publications presided over by her no-nonsense, truth-loving (but print what I say to print – sound familiar?) boss Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), Lane writes of a bucolic life on her Connecticut farm, which doesn’t exist except in her fertile imagination, with her fictitious husband and child for whom she concocts delicious recipe after delicious recipe, when she is not, of course, tending to her pet cow or spinning on her loom.
It is a beguiling vision of domesticity for millions of housewives throughout America who hang on her every butter-churning, flapjack-flipping word, and for World War Two veteran Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survived 18 days adrift on a lifeboat after his ship was sunk and an extended amount of time spent recovering in hospital by dreaming of a meal prepared by her.
So eager is he to experience Elizabeth Lane’s gilded take on life that his nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) writes to Yardley asking him to host Jones at a special Christmas dinner, reminding him just in case he’s inclined to refuse, that she nursed his granddaughter back to her health.
Yardley, naturally, agrees immediately, seeing not so much a repayment of debt to Mary as a chance to boost the circulation of his magazine still further by featuring America’s best-loved cook and a war hero on the one Christmas story.
How can you go wrong?
Conceptually not at all, it’s a brilliant piece of publicity after all, but in actuality? As Elizabeth and her editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne), who together dreamt up the non-existent domestic tour-de-force that is Ms. Lane, quickly realise, it could well be a career-ending move for both of them and so they move quickly to nip the idea in the bud, citing her child’s Scarlet Fever as an excuse.
Yardley, as you might imagine, isn’t used to taking no for an answer, and with no room to maneuver and an offer of marriage from Connecticut farm-owner and architect (with a suspiciously neat, designer home and a dashing wardrobe) John Sloan, played by Reginald Gardiner, on the table, Elizabeth sets off to create, with the help of restaurateur uncle Felix (S. Z. Sakall), the idyllic Christmas to end all idyllic Christmases.
It’s slapstick farce waiting to happen, but while there are elements of that – the scenes where the judge (Dick Elliott) tries to marry John and Elizabeth are exercises in comedically-rich denied marital gratification; well for John anyway who knows Elizabeth doesn’t love him and could slip off the hook just as quickly as she left, for her own convenience, onto it – Christmas in Connecticut largely plays it straight, letting the growing attraction between betrothed Jefferson and supposedly-married Elizabeth, drive a narrative which happily subverts all kinds of ideas about the inviolability of marriage.
To the scandalised eyes of people like John’s housekeeper Norah (Una O’Connor) and increasingly-shocked Yardley, Jefferson and Elizabeth wander off unchaperoned to return an errant cow to the barn in the dead of night, go on an impromptu sleigh ride and disappear all night and show every sign of being into each other in the kind of way that a married woman and a man with a fiancée should not be.
Of course, we know the truth, as do John and Felix, and as the story plays out and we see Elizabeth comes perilously close on more than one occasion to being revealed as the sort of person with no idea of how to make any kind of dish or wash and change a baby that’s not even hers – the babies, which change sex and disappearance depending on which infant Norah is babysitting at the time, provide some amusing moments, especially when it comes to an increasingly-perplexed Yardley – you know that at some point everything is going to come out in the wash (not done by Elizabeth naturally) and all will be lost.
As it turns out, the revelation when it comes, doesn’t play out as you expect and while the ending is much as you’d expect – this is a festively-set romantic comedy after all, with Elizabeth and Jefferson in love from the moment she opens the door of the picture-perfect farmhouse to him – the film, directed by Peter Godfrey to a story by Aileen Hamilton, has some fun executing on its rich, fun-filled premise.
While Christmas in Connecticut doesn’t quite deliver on its potential for merry, confusion-soaked farce, largely because it is at heart a love story between a genuinely nice-as-apple pie war veteran and a woman who ended up way over head for the sake of a burgeoningly-successful career who deserve their happy ending, it is full of wonderfully well-written moments, moments of pure silliness and a real sense of romance that only films of the golden age of Hollywood could really deliver on (well, until Nora Ephron came along anyway).
If you’re looking for a Christmas fairytale where romance defies reality and the consequences of your actions could be lifechangingly good rather than devastatingly bad as Lane imagines, then Christmas in Connecticut is a delightful festive treat, a reminder that while all those romanticised ideas of Christmas that we all cling to may not often come true in real life, they do in movies and escaping into them during the festive season is possibly one of the loveliest gifts you can give yourself.