Christmas Food History Special, Part III:
Christmas In Connecticut (Starring Barbara Stanwyck), 1945
From Wales at the turn of the century we sail across the pond to America--it's 1945. A recuperating Navy shipwreck survivor gets a real treat for Christmas: some leave, and spent at an idyllic Connecticut farmhouse, no less!
Warner Brothers released this slapstick holiday comedy on August 11, 1945, just days before the Japanese surrendered on V-J Day. The movie starred the lovely Barbara Stanwyck (an orphan who went on to become the highest-paid woman in America by the 1940s) as food writer Elizabeth Lane, and the handsome Dennis Morgan as Navy war hero Jefferson Jones.
The movie opens with a scene that probably struck fear into the hearts of the viewers, a personal tragedy for Navy sailors and their families that happened far too often during the long war: a German U-boat sinks a Navy destroyer. We find Quartermaster Jones bobbing in a lifeboat on the Atlantic somewhere with a fellow sailor, hallucinating about food.
Jones dreams he's dining in a fine restaurant (French, of course), with his fellow shipwreck survivor, Sinkewicz, serving as the garçon. Jones calls for bernaise sauce and more wine to go with his nice meal. When Sinkewicz wakes him up ("You was callin' me garçon" he grumps), Jones wails,
The good news: Jones gets rescued and recovers in a nice Navy hospital (which is delightfully overstaffed with pretty, attentive nurses). The bad news: in his half-starved convalescent state, the doctors will only let him have warm milk with a raw egg floating in it for his dinner. His pal Sinkewicz, on the other hand, is doing better and gets the good meal Jones wants. Jones has to content himself with reading a tasty holiday menu from the magazine Smart Housekeeping, by food writer Elizabeth Lane:
Jones complains bitterly to his pretty nurse about his convalescent rations:
To win his nurse over and get better hospital food, Jones pretends to be in love with her. She brings him pork chops: result! Unfortunately his stomach can't quite handle chops just yet.
As he recovers, Nurse Mary hopes to win him over to marriage and domesticity by giving him a chance to spend some time in a "real home." She writes to Elizabeth Lane's publisher at the magazine Smart Housekeeping, Mr. Yardley, to inquire about the possibility of Quartermaster Jones coming to stay with Mrs. Lane (and her husband and 8-month-old baby) for the holidays.
Mrs. Lane does not, in fact, live on a lovely New England farm. No, no she does not.
In truth, she is Ms. Elizabeth Lane, a single woman living in New York in a cramped apartment, fabricating the whole thing for her column. Her knowledge of cooking is nonexistent, and she gets her menus and food writing inspiration from her neighbor and owner of Restaurant Felix, Felix Bassenak (played by the charming S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall). (As an aside, fans of classic film may recognize Sakall from Casablanca (1942), where he portrays the head waiter, Carl. A Hungarian Jew who fled to America with his wife in 1940 after Hungary joined the Axis, Sakall was incredibly lucky: many of his family members were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.)
Back to the film. One morning, Felix brings Elizabeth hot breakfast from his nearby restaurant, sniffing in distain at her hurried breakfast of sardines sitting next to the typewriter on her desk. He produces a nice hot mushroom omelette. Then, with a flourish, he pulls out the scribbled menus he's prepared for her next food column. Elizabeth says excitedly, "Oh goodie, what am I cooking?" As she munches on the hot omelette, the food writer says blissfully,
Her breakfast is interrupted by the bad news that she must produce a farm, a husband, and a baby by Christmas, or else lose her job by revealing to Mr. Yardley that it's all a fake. What to do?
Elizabeth hatches a convoluted plot to keep her job, and to keep her publisher in the dark. Unfortunately she now has to entertain her employer at her fictional farm in Connecticut, in addition to her sailor on leave. This involves getting quickly engaged to her architect friend John Sloan (played by Reginald Gardiner), who conveniently does own a farm she can use.
Mr. Sloan proposes to Elizabeth in a hilarious scene at the buffet at Felix's Hungarian restaurant. As Sloan stumbles through a rather unromantic proposal (with zero enthusiasm on Elizabeth's part, might I add), Felix ladles food onto their plates and comments disapprovingly at intervals: "Baloney...Horseradish...Nuts," to express his displeasure at the idea. Nevertheless, Felix agrees to come along and man the kitchen so Elizabeth's boss doesn't fire her during his Christmas holiday at the farm.
Shortly after they all arrive at the farm, and are waiting on the sailor, Mr. Sloan arranges for a judge to quickly perform the wedding. Elizabeth drags her feet. The couple is finally preparing to wed in a civil ceremony in the farmhouse parlor when up drives Quartermaster Jones in a jingling horse-drawn sleigh to interrupt the nuptials--much to Elizabeth's relief! The Navy to the rescue!
The whole thing begins to unravel at the seams after the Navy (devastatingly handsome in his uniform) arrives. Our sailor is not only curly-haired and broad-shouldered, he's also great with babies (the neighbor's borrowed one, to complete Elizabeth's ruse); furthermore, he's charming, witty, and plays the piano and serenades Elizabeth beautifully in this romantic scene (performing The Wish That I Wish Tonight by M.K. Jerome):
You know. The typical military guy. They're all like this (and I'm married to one, so I should know! Boot camp is actually charm school, complete with music and dance lessons). Of course, the magic is broken when Elizabeth runs over to light his cigarette, but then again, this is 1945. And how do you like all the 40's tinsel on that 50-foot Christmas tree in this scene? I'm telling y'all what, I would hate to have to take that sucker apart after Christmas. As if all the needles aren't bad enough...
Christmas Eve finds everyone (theoretically) going off to bed, then sneaking around (Elizabeth and Mr. Sloan to be quickly married--or at least to try again--by the judge in the front parlor, Mr. Yardley and Quartermaster Jones to munch on cold chicken drumsticks and chilled Chablis in the kitchen--love the '40s fridge on this movie set!). Elizabeth gets sidetracked (yet again) when Mr. Yardley spots her in the kitchen and asks for her permission to come down and watch her make flapjacks in the morning for breakfast. On Christmas morning she has to take a crash flapjack-flipping course from Felix: you can watch this funny scene here! With Felix praying in the background, Elizabeth not only flips the sucker, she catches it in the pan with her eyes closed!
The holiday comedy of errors continues with a Christmas Day gala to raise War Bonds. Our talented Navy guy "trips the light fantastic" too, as we find out when he takes Elizabeth to the dance in the village (and her husband, naturally, since Jones still thinks Mr. Sloan is married to her). Her being a married woman, however, doesn't stop Jones from dancing our food writer right out into the snowy Christmas night for a romantic sleigh ride (in a "borrowed" sleigh), under the suspicious watch of her boss. The pair runs afoul of the missing sleigh's owner, who calls the cops and briefly hauls them to the clink.
Hearts are broken and misunderstandings abound as the plot thickens.
Meanwhile, Mr. Yardley has finally realized the whole thing is a plot to mislead him, and fires Elizabeth. The morning after Christmas, he wanders into the kitchen for breakfast, where Felix is cooking kidneys. The chef is not in a good mood:
In the end, all is well for our food writer and her handsome sailor, and we get our happy ending (with a twist):
I just love this movie.
(If you're a classic movie buff like me, here are some further reading/viewing ideas!
+ A review of Christmas in Connecticut from the cool bloggers at Classic Film Freak
+ One of the better biographies (now out of print) of Barbara Stanwyck's remarkable career, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith (1974).
+ And...if you have $147.50 (at time of this writing) to spend, the 1954 autobiography The Story of Cuddles by S.Z. Sakall. Wish this was a little less expensive, it looks fascinating!)
Did you miss the earlier installments of our 2017 Christmas Food History Special? Please click here to get caught up!