Saturday, December 13, 2008


Our Feature Presentation this month is Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. It also has the delightful Hungarian comic actor, S.Z. Sakall, who plays Uncle Felix, and the formidable actor Sydney Greenstreet as Stanwyck's over-bearing publisher.

Set in 1945, Stanwyck's character, Elizabeth Lane, plays a food writer, famous for her articles in Smart Housekeeping Magazine. I imagine that equates to Good Housekeeping. She has basically lied to her readers, leading them to believe that she lives on a farm in Connecticut and is as homespun as her apple pie. In reality, she lives in the Big Apple, New York City, NY. She's also lied about being able to cook. Her recipes come from Uncle Felix who owns a top-rated restaurant. And she's lied about having a child and husband. Not only to her readers, but to her editor.

Do you see where this is going?

Dennis Morgan plays a handsome sailor just out of the hospital. The publisher, Alexander Yardley, played by Greenstreet, decides it would be good for business to cook a Christmas dinner for the sailor who has nowhere to spend the holidays. And his top-notch food writer would be just the person to do it. He railroads her into accepting, and of course, he wants it done at her farm.

Miss Lane is pursued by a pompous architect, John Sloan, who has trouble talking about anything but building structure. She puts him off until she gets the request from her boss. John has a farm in Connecticut. Ah, how convenient. She can marry him, sneak Uncle Felix in to do the cooking, and all will be well.

Except for the child she has written about. In a frantic search for a baby, we find out that John's cook babysits for mothers who work in a local factory.

So, there's the set-up. A comedy based on deception. Classic. All the players have relocated to the farm. Uncle Felix has a run-in with the cook on staff, John thinks he's marrying Elizabeth, Publisher Yardley shows up with Jefferson early, and chaos ensues.

The kicker is, if you haven't guessed it, Elizabeth falls for Jefferson. Hard.

As we watched the movie, our group realized we'd never get away with some of the things today. Most of the characters were one-dimensional, almost cartoonish. Elizabeth can't even boil water, her fiance has a one-track mind with his architecture business, and her publisher has a one-track mind with his magazine. The only one with depth is Uncle Felix, who is Elizabeth's confidant/mentor/conscience/encourager. But, then again, I'm partial to Hungarians. I married one.

If I were writing this screenplay today, I'd:
  • Give Elizabeth some backstory so we know why she doesn't like to cook. It's all well and good that she's a hard-nosed New Yorker living in an apartment, but I'd like to hear more of her story. I'd also give her more of a reason to fall in love with Jefferson. Good looks aside, Miss New York City Professional Business Woman probably wouldn't toss her independence and, ultimately, her career so easily.
  • Make her fiance ring more true. He loves her, he's waited all this time for her, yet when they kiss, he talks about the plumbing. In writer world, we're told to flesh-out our characters. John is pretty much a skeleton with no muscle or flesh. And while to woman he's been trying to marry throughout the picture is in her bedroom with another man, all he thinks of is pushing his ideas onto the publisher who has mentioned he's looking for a good architect.
  • There's a running bit with a porceline figurine in John's house that Elizabeth is bound and determined to smash when she's frustrated. I would have given her a reason for hating it, or created a piece of symbolism surrounding it. Maybe when she walks in, she sees it and is afraid that her publisher and fiance are trying to make her into a porceline doll. As it is, this poor innocent figuring is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What I think the writer did correctly by today's standards are:

  • Starting the story with Jefferson. This helps us get to know him better. The story starts with him and his shipmate, adrift in the ocean on a life raft for days. We know he's a nice guy, even when he tries to make his nurse think he loves her so he can get special treatment. Later, we learn that he loves kids because he's an uncle and is better at bathing and changing the baby than Elizabeth.
  • It's okay that her publisher is a money-grubbing, take-no-prisoners, businessman. But his character should be the only one we are distanced from. We don't want to like him, at least, not until the very end.

If you haven't seen the movie, don't let my comments scare you off. It's a delightful. if not somewhat shallow, comedy with excellent actors on the bill. Stanwyck plays humor as intense as she does drama and, as I mentioned before, Uncle Felix is a scream. After he learns what the word catastrophe means, he uses it often. Only in his accent it comes out "Catastroph!"

You can catch it this Christmas season on Friday, December 19 at 10:00 p.m., and Wednesday, December 24 at 7:30 a.m., both on TCM. (Check your local listings to comfirm dates and times.)

No comments: