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Christmas in Connecticut

I can’t do this, folks. Even after venting my spleen with a full blog entry, I’m still upset. It was bad enough when Sony and the nation’s leading theater chains cancelled a movie at the last minute to appease some faceless hackers making empty threats. But then New Regency (and 20th Century Fox, its parent company) went and cancelled a North Korea-based thriller even though neither the company nor the film have been threatened. Some theaters — most notably the famous Alamo Drafthouse — decided to make a statement in response by screening Team America: World Police. But now they can’t, by order of Paramount.

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations in America (if not the entire world) are acting like a bunch of hypocritical pansies because a few faceless cowards made some vague and completely untenable threats. And so those corporations are actively destroying the freedom of speech that is their livelihood. Sure, these companies are happy to make money off of jingoistic films that celebrate America, but they all pack up and run the moment they’re called upon to live by the ideals that America stands for. And in the process, they cost us the first international cyber war in our nation’s history before we even had a chance to fire back.

I am depressed and disgusted. I have never been more ashamed to be a cinephile. There’s no way I can bring myself to go to a multiplex and review a current release when I’m this angry with the Hollywood Powers That Be (I’ll be damned if I dignify Annie with a review, that’s for sure). No, I need to stay at home with a DVD. Preferably something to get me into the Christmas spirit. Finding a worthwhile Christmas movie that I haven’t seen yet is getting to be increasingly difficult, but one just happened to drop right in my lap yesterday, courtesy of an early Christmas gift from Cousin Richard.

(Side note: Some of my longtime readers may remember Cousin Richard from my Purple Noon review, which he also made possible. The thought also occurs to me that he sent over the copy of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that I reviewed last year, and I neglected to give him the proper shout-out for it at the time. Sorry, Richard!)

Christmas in Connecticut first caught my attention when it was advertised as one of the “Classics on the Screen” being played this holiday season at my local multiplexes. The clips I saw certainly looked interesting, and I was intrigued by the notion of a forgotten black-and-white gem. One starring Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall of Casablanca fame, no less. I was also quite amused to discover that this picture was remade in 1992 as a made-for-TV movie, directed by Arnold Fucking Schwarzenegger himself. Perhaps not surprisingly, the remake was excoriated upon release.

As I first got the Blu-Ray disc spinning, I had very high hopes for this movie. That turned out to be a mistake.

The film opens out at sea, when we see a naval warship getting sunk by a torpedo. We then follow a couple of sailors as they spend 18 days stranded on a life raft and I’m sorry, did I put in the right disc? I did? This gritty war drama is Christmas in Connecticut, right? Okay then, let’s move on.

One of the sailors is Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), who’s being hailed as a war hero when we cut to him recuperating in a hospital somewhere. Now, pay close attention and see if you can follow me from A to B here. Jones is starving, so he seduces his nurse (Mary Lee, played by Joyce Compton) into getting him more food. In fact, he does such a good job of it that the nurse wants to marry him, and Jones naturally wants to back out of it. So Mary comes to the conclusion that Jones would be more willing to settle down if she could show him what a proper home looks like, away from the battlefield (We’ll get back to that point later. For now, just remember that it was the 1940s and stay with me.). Luckily, Mary — who, I’ll remind you, is a common nurse — just happens to know Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet), a millionaire publishing tycoon. Mary tells Yardley about Jones and convinces Yardley that it would be a great publicity stunt if he could arrange for Jones to meet Elizabeth Lane, and she could–

Sorry, what’s that? I haven’t mentioned Elizabeth Lane yet? Okay, just set all of that stuff aside for the moment. We’ll get back to it after we deal with this.

See, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a kind of proto-Martha Stewart type who writes and publishes recipes, occasionally spicing them up with anecdotes about her husband and newborn child on their New England farm. The only catch is that the articles are all written in character. In real life, Elizabeth lives in a New York City apartment with no husband or child to call her own. She can’t even cook; her recipes all come from her Uncle Felix (Sakall), who runs a restaurant nearby.

Anyway, Lane’s articles are published in “Smart Housekeeping,” a magazine owned by Yardley. Even though Yardley is somehow completely unaware that Lane’s columns are all part of an act and they’ve only ever communicated to each other through the magazine’s editor (Dudley, played by Robert Shayne). So when Yardley insists that Lane and her husband host a war hero for a nice, domestic Christmas at the Lane family’s farm… yeah. Elizabeth and Dudley are both sent scrambling to find a way to keep up the charade and keep their jobs.

But not to worry — the Plot Convenience Fairy has been working overtime so far and she’s not about to quit now! See, Elizabeth has repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from an architect named John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), and he just happens to own a farm in Connecticut. In fact, it was the very same farm that Elizabeth based her fictional farm on. So John agrees to lend his help and host the whole affair on the condition that he and Elizabeth finally get married.

So Yardley arrives at the farm and everyone has to pretend that Elizabeth really can cook and John really is her longtime husband. Hilarity ensues. Then Jones himself comes along and falls immediately in mutual twoo wuv with Elizabeth. More hilarity ensues.

I’m sure you can already see part of the problem with this movie. All that contrived nonsense, that whole boring mess clogging up the first act, all in the service of setting up a flimsy goofball premise that wouldn’t even sustain a modern-day sitcom episode, much less a feature film.

Granted, a simple premise in a comedy might not be such a bad thing, except that the characters are all so flat and boring. Don’t get me wrong, Stanwyck does a very good job bringing warmth and energy to the female lead, but it’s all for nothing when her character’s very first action onscreen is to spend six months’ wages on a mink coat. Granted, I could understand splurging on a luxury or two for the holidays, but when that money was earned by way of lying and cheating, that doesn’t exactly endear me to the character. Similarly, the charisma and screen presence of Sydney Greenstreet is the only reason why Yardley even remotely works. Otherwise, he’s just some blustery imbecile who insists on whatever random thing the plot demands.

As for the others… yeesh. Jefferson Jones is a hopelessly bland Prince Charming, Dudley Beecham is an even sleazier con artist than Elizabeth is, Judge Crothers (Dick Elliott, playing the man who would formally marry Elizabeth to John) is a drunken idiot, and John Sloane is just boring enough to be an awful match for Elizabeth yet not so much that he’s any fun to hate. And all the other characters are borderline-offensive foreign stereotypes. Oh, and speaking of which, let’s not forget that this entire film revolves around the central conceit that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Talk about a dated concept.

It is so hard for me to get invested in a comedy (never mind a romance) when the plot and the characters are both so thin. The awkward pacing doesn’t help, either. So many jokes in this film depend on the characters talking around each other, but that requires a pacing much faster than the film can provide, and so the comedic timing fails to connect.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Wish That I Wish Tonight,” the song written by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl for the film. Like the rest of the movie itself, it’s a well-intentioned and lightweight mediocrity that fails to make any kind of emotional impact and so fades from memory immediately.

Last but not least, there’s nothing about this movie that strikes me as inherently “Christmas-y.” The sentiments of the holiday and the usual yuletide traditions play scarcely any part in what’s going on. The film could have taken place at any other time of the year and played out pretty much exactly the same. For a movie that’s supposed to be about Christmas (it’s right there in the title, after all), that’s a fatal error.

All the reviews I’ve read for Christmas in Connecticut say that it’s a lightweight bit of studio fluff, and that’s a perfectly fair description. Heaven knows that cinematic comfort food has never gone out of style and I’m sure this movie will be fine for people who enjoy such films. But personally, there’s no way I can recommend a movie that’s dated so terribly, with a contrived plot and boring characters that would never pass muster today.

I have an even harder time recommending the movie when there are funnier comedies and more festive Christmas films to choose from. Hell, The Philadelphia Story came out five years before this one did, and that movie is overflowing with whip-smart dialogue exchanges that are still funny 70 years later.

As for Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life was released a year after this one. Need I say more?

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