It’s hard to tell a Christmas story that’s not a fairy tale. “Christmas in Connecticut,” a small gem from 1945 starring Barbara Stanwyck and the great fat man of noir movies, Sidney Greenstreet (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca,” etc.), manages just that by daring to turn Christmas into a screwball comedy.
We don’t have screwball comedies anymore, because we’re more rational than they were in the 1930s and ‘40s. Audiences might be embarrassed rather than amused, so Hollywood doesn’t even try. But back then, directors and writers used expertly plotted crazy accidents, rather than sentimental dialogue and beautiful settings, to reveal the essence of love and happiness and bring attractive characters to that happy estate of marriage.
“Christmas in Connecticut” has not just fun and beauty to recommend it, in case you want to stream it on Amazon Prime, but also a great range and serious insights into American society. Coming right at the end of World War II, the movie starts with Navy veterans recovering in a hospital on Staten Island. They may not know it, but they have to learn about the life of peace—they have to be part of America again. A comedy aimed at getting the noble, self-sacrificing Jefferson Jones hitched is just the thing.
What We Think We Want Versus What We Really Do
This man dreams of French cuisine as he starves himself on a raft to let another man eat a bit more should they be rescued, which they are. Starvation hurt him so badly that he can only eat the most tasteless, despair-inducing stuff in the hospital, while the friend he helped save is enjoying banquets, the fruit of the peace for which they fought.
Where’s the justice? Well, comedy will provide justice where nature and circumstances have not. Jones is offered a Christmas in Connecticut. The universal character of this fantasy is of great importance to the plot, as it’s sold in weekly newspaper installments. The man who offers the sailor this fantasy is a press magnate. He is as gullible as the readership of his newspapers, so he wants to be a part of it, too!
The woman who’s supposed to offer Jones and the magnate this all-American Christmas, however, is a fraud. She’s supposed to be married with children at a farmhouse in beautiful, natural New England, expertly preparing the best dishes in America. She is in fact a single New York journalist, selling the people what they want with whatever deceptions necessary.
But then this woman is put through the comical ordeal of turning this fantasy of Christmas into a reality. It turns out that doing all the things she pretended to have mastered is far more difficult than she knew. The experience she had reduced to a fantasy in a newspaper is far less predictable and controllable than she thought.
She learns all the ways in which she is inadequate. Much of the comedy is at the expense of this thoroughly modern woman, who thinks herself independent when she’s just very lonely. But comedy is a gentle punishment and a loving teacher, so she gets a sense of why family and home build the trust required for love to grow. Meanwhile, the sailor and America get used to the fact that love, marriage, and home will have to get modernized, whatever fantasies people might enjoy of a warm fire on a winter evening.
Despite the Comedy, This Is a Thoughtful Movie
The social situation of post-war America is already known: women will be working outside the home in the future, and that means home cannot be quite what it used to be. Coziness, the element of love that’s so important to Christmas, risks turning into a fantasy people buy and sell, whether in magazines or at the movies. Someone has to rescue it, and it takes comedy, because serious drama would be too busy mourning the demise of the old ways.
Experiences of hardship, like war, can make men ambivalent. It reminds them of their great need for women and a home; on the other hand, they also get used to being alone and end up taking pride in it. Starvation brings these two together—in his case, caused by shipwreck; in hers, loneliness. Not to say that good food can cure unhappiness, but the movie starts from the observation that the unhappily unmarried do not eat well. This practical attitude can lead people to the holiness of marriage through their appetites. That is how comedy always works.
In our times, without the catastrophe of a war, lonely working women and men unable and reluctant to attach themselves in marriage has generalized, along with the bad eating. This could be called prophetic if it hadn’t been predictable to people who paid attention. The chaos comedy creates humbles Americans who can become too proud to understand that independence is too much of a burden to bear. Better to be independent together, and even that might have to be tempered with friendship. The comedy seems to be teaching that ultimately you need an entire cast of characters to be yourself, at least if you’re looking for a happy end.
The Core of the Collapse of Romantic Comedy
The plot not only revolves around women, but around women with plots of their own, who end up getting what they wanted. Their attitude is more practical than the men’s and therefore closer to the attitude of the comic poet. If you want a happy end, you have to face facts and arrange to deal with them. It is the woman who, for all the fun poked at her, learns how to deal with men.
This may be the true reason for our lack of romantic comedy. It assumed that women know more about men than men about women; that women can be taught more easily because their pride doesn’t get in the way; and, finally, that women want happiness with a man. If these three premises are granted, we’re off to the races. If not, romantic comedy must collapse into feminine sentimentality or male vulgarity (or the feminist imitation of the latter).
But maybe we can learn from movies like this one to be more reasonable, to let ourselves be amused when we might get angry and take offense, and to face facts again. The reason to bring back romantic comedies is that they offer an education for young women, as they have since the time of Jane Austen. The reason to tie them up with Christmas, as this movie does, is to insist on the home. Coziness beats extravagance at Christmas.
This woman writer has to learn not just how to judge whether a man could be a good husband and get him to propose, but also to change the nostalgic character of her writing. Nostalgia is not all bad—it’s just got to be earned. Properly understood, it’s not a daydream, but something to aspire to, in need of some knowledge about how to get there.
She starts from an attitude of contempt, because the fantasy she sells her audience does not correspond to her own life. But this is merely because she has failed to try. She learns she could change that and make marriage work through bringing comedy into the home.
I warmly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to have fun and to think about making marriage happen again. Of course, we tend to think of comedies as things we laugh at—unlike hard science, for example. But whatever we’ve been trying since comedy collapsed has not helped. We might as well try the laughable stuff.