When you think about it, there are not many Christmas-movie heroines. But then, nobody ever put Barbara Stanwyck in a corner—and with Christmas in Connecticut’s Elizabeth Lane, she gave us a character who was tough, smart, and irrepressibly modern. Christmas in Connecticut is not a great movie. I thought I loved it until a few days ago, when I forced a friend to sit through it with me and realized I only really liked the first twenty minutes before it gets farcical, and not the parts on the boat or the hospital, and that I absolutely loathe the smarmy love interest, played by the fatuous Dennis Morgan, and any scene involving his smirking face. Nevertheless, this is my Christmas movie recommendation.
For those who have not seen it, here is the premise: Elizabeth Lane is a 1945 Martha Stewart type, a domestic goddess who writes a regular column in a popular women’s magazine about her idyllic life with her husband and baby on a Connecticut farm. But Elizabeth is a fraud: in fact she’s a tough-minded career woman living in a tiny Manhattan apartment with the proverbial oven full of shoes and a restaurateur downstairs neighbor (the ubiquitous S. Z. Sakall) who provides her recipes. One day her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) decides it would be a swell PR move if Elizabeth were to host a war hero at the farm, and invites himself along for Christmas. Needless to say, hijinks, subterfuge, romance, and a series of different borrowed babies ensue. There’s also a stuffy fiancé who’s obviously not long for this world and a tiresome subplot involving the sailor and a nurse.
All that aside, Elizabeth is a nifty character. Barbara Stanwyck was incapable of playing anything but smart and sexy, and even when Elizabeth is at her most clueless—and she’s placed in all kinds of humiliating situations—she’s never ditzy; you just get the impression she has better things to do with her time than make flapjacks. While one would rather not invoke Sex and the City, it cannot be denied: the character is a proto-Bradshaw, except the stakes are higher and the cynicism is naked rather than dressed in designer cupcakes.
We tend to think of the crafts revival as a nostalgic response to the chaos of modern life; clearly, we’ve been idealizing the domestic for a long time. Christmas in Connecticut juxtaposes the “ideal” woman with the pragmatic, wartime reality, and in the end the latter is far more attractive. Casting Stanwyck—the ultimate noir femme fatale—in such a role was counterintuitive, but it’s what gives the movie its pizzazz: you don’t really want her to change, let alone end up with either of the dud suitors with whom she is presented. Yes, the uptight architect is clearly not for her and would try to clip her wings. But at least he knows who she is; the awful war hero has fallen in love with the ideal, and you’re not left feeling good about the situation.
But for all its silliness, the film was saying something real (advertently or otherwise) about changing roles, domesticity, and the dynamic of men and women. It’s a story that, in the right hands, could be reanimated for the Etsy generation in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Unfortunately, in 1992, it was remade starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Tony Curtis. It was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.