I continue my series on old Hollywood Christmas movies. After a movie about church as a community, The Bishop’s Wife(1947), and the workplace as a community, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), I turn to a movie about family, the smallest but most natural community: Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck, one of the great Hollywood stars, Sydney Greenstreet (the Fat Man from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca), and Dennis Morgan.
With World War II coming to a close, men were returning to America and to home, to a domestic life for which they had made such sacrifices and that was to be their reward. Morgan plays one such man, whose sacrifices included starvation, and who dreams of nothing but homecooked meals. So, while convalescing in the hospital, reduced to eating baby food so his stomach will recover, he starts reading America’s favorite homemaking columnist and dreams of those recipes. Then, in a bid to make him really appreciate home (and settle down with her), his nurse writes to the columnist’s publisher that it would be really nice if this heroic young man could experience Christmas with America’s ideal housewife and her family. The publisher finds the opportunity too good to miss—it’s a win whichever way you look at it. It says thank you for your service. It’s great publicity once it hits the papers. And it allows the publisher himself to be part of those delicious meals. Thus we get to see Christmas on a farmhouse in the bosom of the ideal family, in Connecticut, no less, the magical land where romantic comedy happens only in Hollywood movies.
If this sounds too good to be true—well, of course it does. Stanwyck, who is supposed to be the ideal homemaker, is a cynical city woman who cares about fur coats more than anything else, is neither married nor a cook, and has never given a thought to children. The U.S. modernized while the men were off fighting the Axis Powers, as evidenced by the fact that she makes a living writing a successful column for homemakers while not being one. The America that raised those boys is threatening to turn into a fiction supplied by people like Stanwyck. She’s a talented writer, albeit a complete fraud, selling nostalgia to millions of Americans who want to hear that everything is as it always was in the midst of shocking changes.
This obfuscation will repeat itself in our history, a national spell of nostalgia that conceals social changes of concern to, for example, the men who fought wars in the Middle East only to return to an America where they’re the favorite scapegoat of the elites. But these days we don’t really make movies about patriotic soldiers; nor do we have romantic comedies, come to think of it. We’ve given up on marriage, to judge by the sociology, to say nothing of the culture, and we’re giving up on children, that is, on the future. Still, that’s how we all got here in the first place—our parents, so let’s try to remember what that America was like, which was sophisticated enough to include worry about the mass advertising of nostalgia but earnest enough to believe in love and family.
In Christmas in Connecticut, the young man is in no hurry to get married as he recovers after his service. He enjoys being treated like a hero, only to discover that he is far more vulnerable to feminine charm than he had previously supposed, that what drove him to serve in the military, and perhaps the habits of soldiering, still have a power over him—he wants to be protective of someone and something, which eventually must come to mean wife and home. You wonder whether it’s men or women who truly run America when you see how easily he falls in love—a classic theme of romantic comedy.
The young woman, however, is in a much trickier position, because she wants to live up to the all-American idea of freedom and independence. She has made herself into a success by her wits and now has a career, teaching American housewives about European cuisine according to recipes passed on to her by a helpful chef. In part, she’s selling the dream of sophistication or luxury, a temptation in trying times when people don’t have much to look forward to, as well as in better times when enjoyment and improving one’s social standing are a concern for women. She’s also doing the necessary work of perpetuating knowledge of homemaking in a society that has proved somewhat too mobile, which is in itself dangerous, making people strangers to an older way of life.
Nostalgia for home might be as necessary to her as it is to him, since if she were to commit to being a fraud, living in the sophisticated world of Manhattan while looking down on those people in the heartland, she would spare them facing up to the complexity of modern America at the price of going mad herself. She’d be living off a desire to have one’s own home which she can beautify in words stamped with the approval of democracy—high circulation numbers—but can never practice. It’s as though the national ideal required someone to live a lie to keep it plausible and even make it attractive.
This is the very strange charm of Christmas in Connecticut. A handsome hero and a beautiful woman of success meet, fall in love, yet must remain apart. She is the image of America for which he fought, but precisely because she plays that role to such national success, she cannot become his wife—she’s trapped in a fake marriage made of stories she prints in the newspaper. Love will bring them misery, but cannot fix their problems—Christmas could fix it, however, even though it seems they’re merely playacting a story in the beginning.
I would have to write a much longer essay to explain how this story was put together with a view to making Americans a bit more sophisticated without compromising their morality. How advertising, falling in love, and eating food are supposed to make the audience think about what it is they really believe, just like they have to teach our protagonists how to treat each other. The man is not entirely gullible and is charmed enough not to feel betrayed that the woman deceived him; she’s not altogether cynical, so she shrinks from hurting or humiliating him.
Their unwillingness to lie to each other depends on the Christmas setting because they need a guarantee that telling the truth will work out; they’re looking not just for forgiveness but for grace—they become aware they cannot fix their problems by themselves, however strong and clever they are. They become willing to compromise on the all-American idea of independence for the sake of happiness. Caught in a hilarious comedy, they also get help from their friends, who are of course quicker to see the budding romance, as well as what obstacles might need removing.
The fool in the movie is the media magnate, the editor who unwittingly forces everyone into a farce by concocting this publicity stunt: the wounded hero, the idyllic home—America gets the happy end we all want! The editor’s fat because he’s a glutton, won’t listen to his doctor (or indeed to anyone else0 but in his despotic way he’s trying to enact the American comedy, so the story is very sympathetic to him. Love of food reminds us of our nature, of our needs and our pleasures. But it’s not his money that solves the problem he creates; rather, it’s what made him rich in the first place—guessing what Americans really want out of life. Popularity means making safe bets: That is the truth about Hollywood, which specialized in middlebrow art, and it’s worth remembering that every romantic comedy has to somehow bear the burden of the national aspiration for home and happiness, has to treat with respect all those people across the fruited plains who read or watch these beautified stories.
The movie was remade in 1992 by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a rare directorial effort, for TV, starring Dyan Cannon and country singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson as the romantic couple, and Tony Curtis as her media producer. As with many ’90s movies, one feels that something is wrong—the Disney or Hallmark touch, the sense that we’re giving up on America for the sake of sentimental fantasies and abandoning much of the craft of writing, directing, characterizing in the process.
But the movie has a startlingly effective update of the story—the fraudulent homemaker is an actress rather than a writer, living in the era of TV, and she ends up unwittingly making a reality TV show, full of the revelations and scandals that would become typical of the genre later. This time around, almost everyone is in on the con, but they have embraced the fake reality they sell because it’s very successful and they’d have no careers otherwise. Cynicism and desperation hide behind the glamour, suggesting that America is really in rather bad shape.
On the one hand, the family Christmas in scenic Connecticut turns into a mockery of family sitcoms; on the other, it shows us how real life could be reduced to acting for the purpose of entertaining the national audience. In 1992, this was a joke. But fake life replacing real life is of course the theme of present-day social media. “Christmas in the metaverse,” however, would be a horror movie, not a comedy.