Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Celebrate Christmas with the subversive 1940s rom-com that turned gender roles on their head

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in Christmas In Connecticut (Image: LMPC via Getty Images)
Gif: Jimmy Hasse
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

I grew up on a steady stream of ’80s and ’90s comedies about how hilarious it would be if men had to parent their own kids. So you can imagine my surprise when I flipped on TCM a few years ago and discovered a romantic comedy from the 1940s that featured its dreamy male lead bathing a baby with the confidence of a well-practiced babysitter. There’s humor at play—he’s taking over for a woman who’s merely pretending to be a mother and the whole sequence has the high stakes of a false-identity farce. But the laughs come from the goofy situation, rather than at the expense of either of the characters. Instead, his natural nurturing abilities are part of his romantic appeal and her complete incompetence is part of her quirky charm. It’s a subtly progressive scenario that honestly wouldn’t feel out of place in a contemporary rom-com.

Such is the gift of Christmas In Connecticut, a thoroughly wacky 1945 screwball comedy that also doubles as a fascinatingly subversive commentary on conventional gender roles. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in the Christmas canon. Though it’s a favorite of TCM (and Tom Hanks), it hasn’t achieved the perennial status of It’s A Wonderful Life or White Christmas. Like those movies, however, it’s also set against the backdrop of World War II. And it uses its Christmas fun to specifically, if subtly, examine the seismic cultural changes brought on by the war.

Though Christmas In Connecticut was released a few months after VE day and just four days before Japanese surrender, it began production when the future of the war was still very much uncertain. The film opens with a brief battle sequence in which naval officer Jefferson Jones (Warner Bros. heartthrob Dennis Morgan) is left stranded at sea for 18 days. He spends that time dreaming of the comforts of home, and, more importantly, the comforts of a three-course meal. So when he’s rescued, he uses his war hero status to score an invite to spend Christmas on the picture-perfect Connecticut farm of America’s preeminent cook and housewife, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck)—a sort of 1940s Martha Stewart whose monthly articles in Smart Housekeeping set the standard for domestic bliss.

The problem is that Elizabeth Lane’s entire persona is a lie. Instead of a doting wife and mother living in Connecticut, she’s actually a single career gal living in a dingy apartment in New York City. She can’t make more than reservations, and her recipes come from her friend Felix Bassenak (delightful Hungarian character actor S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), whose restaurant she helped fund. Elizabeth is less concerned about settling down and starting a family than she is about finally springing for the mink fur coat she promised she’d buy herself when she found success as a writer. Unfortunately, her bullish publisher Alexander Yardley (Hollywood’s go-to baddie, Sydney Greenstreet) isn’t in on the ruse. So when Yardley invites himself to Christmas alongside Jefferson, Elizabeth has to scramble to pose as the person she plays on the newstand. Let the hijinks begin!

Set mostly in and around a gorgeous farmhouse, Christmas In Connecticut feels like it could’ve started life as a drawing room play, although it was actually based on an original story idea by Aileen Hamilton and written for the screen by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini. While the film is mainly defined by its feather-light tone and farcical scenarios (Elizabeth instantly falls for Jefferson even as she tries to keep up her married housewife persona), director Peter Godfrey has an eye toward the social commentary bubbling just beneath its tinsel-y surface. Godfrey began his career making experimental and expressionistic theater in London, including directing Paul Robeson in the premiere of a C.L.R. James play about the Haitian Revolution. In a small but impactful gesture, Christmas In Connecticut features brief speaking roles for two Black actors in non-stereotypical roles, played by an uncredited Emmett Smith and an unknown actress.

But the main focus is on gender roles. On the pages of Smart Housekeeping, Elizabeth Lane paints a breezy portrait of how easy it is for women to have it all—to run a farmhouse, take care of an eight-month-old baby, cook three meals a day, pretty herself up for her husband, and, of course, still find time to write an ongoing series of articles about it all. Elizabeth’s real life, however, reveals that “having it all” is just a glossy illusion. When she muses that maybe she should actually learn to cook, Felix tells her not to because then she’d discover that it’s not “all easy and fun” like she writes it. So it’s particularly ironic when Yardley later blusters, “Millions of women in these United States pattern their daily lives after that feature, and you’re going to live up to their ideals or my name isn’t Alexander Yardley!”

Christmas In Connecticut essentially argues that conventional gender roles are a mass delusion based on an ideal that likely never even existed in the first place. It was a relevant cultural anxiety at a time when men were shipping overseas and women were stepping up to take their place in the workforce. In fact, a big part of the reason Yardley is so determined to experience the perfect Christmas with Elizabeth is because his own grown-up daughter is too busy with her war work to visit him for the holidays. (Elsewhere, Elizabeth winds up borrowing her fake baby from the working mothers who need childcare when they clock in down at the war plant.) As the world shifts under his feet, Yardley only grows more adamant about the need to keep everything—and everyone—in their proper place. Yet Christmas In Connecticut makes it clear that very few people actually fit within prescribed roles.

Many of Christmas In Connecticut’s funniest scenes stem from how hilariously Stanwyck plays Elizabeth’s absolute incompetence in the domestic sphere—including a great silent sequence where she struggles to figure out how to even begin diapering the baby she keeps referring to as “it.” Coming off Stanwyck’s villainous, Oscar-nominated turn in Double Indemnity, Christmas In Connecticut presented one of the lightest, gentlest roles in her career. Unlike the seductive screwball heroines she’d played in The Lady Eve and Ball Of Fire, Elizabeth is like a hapless everywoman riff on Hildy from His Girl Friday. And while poor Liz struggles with even the most basic aspects of domesticity, it’s Jefferson who knows how to test the baby’s bathwater with his elbow; Felix who can showily flip homemade flapjacks; and Elizabeth’s persnickety fiancé/fake husband John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) who loves design and décor in a way she doesn’t.

Godfrey pointedly illuminates the social hypocrisies that swirl like snowflakes. Yardley doesn’t bat an eye when Elizabeth’s perfect Connecticut home comes complete with a housekeeper—a nod toward how often the upper middle class women who flaunt the notion of “having it all” are secretly aided by domestic help. But there’s also the fact that men like Felix and John can turn cooking and homemaking into well-respected professions as chefs and architects, while Elizabeth is expected to do all that same work for free. Even Yardley himself mixes his personal desire for wholesome domesticity with his savvy understanding of what sells magazines. Worried about competition from a rival columnist who’s just announced her pregnancy, Yardley pressures John into getting another bun in Elizabeth’s oven as soon as possible—to which John demurs, “Mr. Yardley, Elizabeth’s a very busy woman, and having babies to boost your circulation takes time.”

There’s so much about Christmas In Connecticut that feels newly relevant to our current era of mommy bloggers and aspirational Instagrams. Not every element of the film has aged well—particularly a “comedic” romantic climax with some uncomfortably forced kisses. But for the era in which it was made, Christmas In Connecticut has a wonderfully subversive streak, not least of all because Jefferson and Elizabeth’s courtship unfolds while she’s pretending to be a married woman. (“You don’t act as if you were married,” Jefferson tells Elizabeth during a romantic moonlight stroll. “I don’t feel as if I was married!” she enthuses in response.) Back in the ’90s, the timelessness of the premise caught the eye of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed on to direct a 1992 TV movie remake starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Tony Curtis. That version reimagines Elizabeth as the host of a cooking show, and remains Schwarzenegger’s sole feature directorial credit to date. And if that’s not one of the weirdest bits of Hollywood trivia, I don’t know what is.

Unlike the ’92 version, however, the 1945 original debuted at just the right moment to capture the public mood (even if it was a Christmas movie inexplicably released in August). Christmas In Connecticut reflected the euphoria the country was feeling as World War II came to a close. It nodded to the hardships of the war years, but also found fizzy fun in the story of a returning soldier rediscovering the comforts of home life. Sakall and Greenstreet had ushered in America’s involvement in the war in 1942’s Casablanca, and here they were marking its end with a warm and fuzzy comedy. Despite mixed reviews, Christmas In Connecticut went on to become one of Warner Bros.’ biggest hits of the year.

The film’s Yuletide joy also tapped into the uncertainty the country was feeling about its postwar future. Though Christmas In Connecticut is sometimes held up as an example of a rom-com where an independent career gal winds up sucked into domesticity by the end, the film’s actual message is more ambiguous. Jefferson and Elizabeth do wind up heading to the altar, but the film leaves it up to the viewer to decide what their future will look like. Perhaps they’ll settle into the sort of conventional domesticity that Elizabeth wrote about in her column. Or maybe they’ll pave a new way forward by keeping Felix around as a cook and having Jefferson take on the bulk of the parenting while Elizabeth focuses on her writing career.

Christmas In Connecticut doesn’t have an answer because the country didn’t have one yet either. And while the film’s open-endedness allowed socially conservative audiences to see its “happily ever after” ending as a reassuring return to the status quo, Christmas In Connecticut slightly tips its hand toward the more progressive kind of future it actually wants. While John and Yardley are put off by Elizabeth’s “unreasonableness,” it’s the very thing that Jefferson seems to like about her. As Felix puts it in one of the film’s final lines, “She can’t cook, but what a wife!” It’s too bad it took the country so long to catch up to Christmas In Connecticut’s pointed shenanigans.

Next time: After a brief holiday break, we return in 2021 to reexamine the underappreciated political rom-com, Long Shot.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.