Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Veritable Feast of Talent in Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut is a sparkling Christmas comedy starring Dennis Morgan, Barbara Stanwyck, Reginald Gardiner, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Una O'Connor, Frank Jenks, and Robert Shayne.

Perhaps one of Barbara Stanwyck's best and most under-rated performances, this is a different type of comedic role for her, a departure from the strong, self-assured characters she played in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.

Although she plays a single career woman and thus by definition should be "in control", she manages to get into quite a tangle by constructing a Martha-Stewart-ish fantasy life as a marvelous cook named Elizabeth Lane, living on a farm with her husband and baby while she writes her popular cooking column in the magazine, Smart Housekeeping.

In reality she lives in a small urban apartment from which she writes the recipes for her column with the help of "Uncle" Felix Bassenak, played by the wonderful S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, who is a professional chef and restaurateur.

This film is as much about food as it is about anything, and putting together the brilliant cast must have been very much like whipping up a culinary masterpiece. Each carefully selected ingredient (or in this case, actor) lends a unique flavor to the mix.

The opening shots show a German U-Boat blowing an American ship out of the water, then two sailors on a life raft: Dennis Morgan and Frank Jenks. The Dennis Morgan character, Jefferson Jones, is dreaming about food, something with bearnaise sauce and a good wine.

Jenks is a veteran character actor you may have seen before, but you probably never knew his name. One of his earliest notable roles was "Red", the mischievous rogue who steals Fred Astaire's pants just before his wedding at the beginning of the Fred-and-Ginger classic, Swing Time.

He plays a smiling rogue in this movie too, a sailor named Sinkewicz who tries to explain to Dennis Morgan how to use the "old Magoo" on his nurse to get better chow in the hospital after their rescue.

The "old Magoo" works a bit too well, with Jones becoming engaged to his nurse Mary. Mary gets an idea that her Jeffie-boy needs to spend Christmas in a real "homey" home so that he will know how wonderful marriage can be. She writes to Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet), the publisher of Smart Housekeeping, to ask him if Elizabeth Lane will consider hosting her fiance for Christmas.

Just as Lane has reconciled herself to losing her job when Yardley finds out she has no farm, no husband, and no baby, Reginald Gardiner's character, John Sloane, proposes to her again and she remembers that he has a farm in Connecticut.

We won't spoil the movie for you by telling too much, but many of the best lines are spoken by Felix. This is the role in which he said "Everything is hunky-dunky!". Cuddles is really the glue that holds this film together, or perhaps he's more like the binding agent that helps to "set" this cinematic soufflé.

Sydney Greenstreet is a revelation; watching him do a comedic prat-fall in the snow, or go one-on-one with Cuddles or Reginald Gardiner is worth the price of admission.

The great Una O'Connor is in her prime, playing the flustered and frequently shocked housekeeper to the Sloane character. There are a number of wonderful, brief encounters between she and Cuddles...they had WAY too much fun in the kitchen when he "fixed" her Irish stew!

Stanwyck has an interesting time trying to hold her own with this crew of scene-stealers, but of course we know she's up to the challenge. One of our favorite scenes occurs when she's asked to flip a flapjack by Sydney Greenstreet in front of the entire household. You can see Cuddles praying in the background, and miraculously Stanwyck succeeds in flipping the flapjack.

Watching her face and body language in that scene as she goes from trepidation to panic to beaming with accomplishment in a matter of seconds is one of the highlights of the film.

Jefferson Jones and Elizabeth Lane try to resist one another but it's pretty hopeless. Of course he thinks she's married and she doesn't know about the nurse, Mary, so the plot thickens, and then thickens again.

If you've never seen this one, you owe it to yourself to rent the DVD, or to catch it next time it's on TCM.

But please avoid the terrible, made-for-TNT, 1992 remake (directed by Arnold the Governator) at all costs!

7 comments:

  1. Barbara Stanwyck, was a wonderful choice as the lead in this Christmas film. The tone is kept light and funny while having just enough of the holiday atmosphere to be believable. Also, loved the supporting cast: "Cuddles" Sakall and Sydney Greenstreet, who also have some wonderful moments.

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  2. Loved Sydney Greenstreet getting to show his comdic talent! Cuddles Sakall is always a joy to watch. Plus, Dennis Morgan was a vey underrated WB star -- he made some pretty good movies for ole Jack Warner. Finally, Stanwyck is in top form! I agree DO NOT watch the TNT remake with Dyan Cannon & Kris(Have I ever made a good movie?) Kristofferson directed by Arnold Governator.

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  3. Paul, I thoroughly enjoyed your review of a film that's become a seasonal favorite in our house. While IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, WHITE CHRISTMAS, THE BISHOP'S WIFE, and A CHRISTMAS STORY rightly dominate the air waves this time of year, I know many classic movie fans who wouldn't do without with a taste of what you so cleverly describe as a "culinary masterpiece." Barbara, Cuddles, and Sydney are all indeed delightful, but I'm so glad you also nominated the under-appreciated Reginald Gardiner and the always amusingly frazzled Una O'Connor. It is indeed a perfect cast!

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  4. What a wonderful review of a very charming movie! Your tribute to the performers is spot on, Paul. "Connecticut" serves up a wonderful dose of Christmas magic that is irresistable. Loved the film and loved your write-up!

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  5. I loved Cuddles and this is one of his finest films. He and Sydney Greenstreet make a marvelous duo! This is a Christmas must.

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  6. Paul, you have written a delicious article about this wonderful movie. Your clever descriptions of the movie and cast as allegories for holiday food is a really good piece of writing. This whole cast is just to die for, and I never get tired of this movie. Thanks Paul!

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  7. Everyone, thanks for the kind comments on the writing effort! Rick, toto, and Becky, I can't take credit for the clever food references, those are from my wife JoAnn.

    I'm glad you all agree with us on the importance of the supporting cast in this film and how they create the harmonious whole! Rick, I can't remember Reginald Gardiner ever giving a bad performance; this film and Yank in the RAF are two of my favorite Gardiner movies.

    BTW Gilby, I hate to disagree with you, but Kris K. is very good in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

    Toto, we weren't trying to compete with your great post from last year, which we thoroughly enjoyed; thanks for the kind words.

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