Barbara Stanwyck is not only one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history—with such a copiously impressive body of work, each entry of which is decisively worth pursuing due to her presence—but one of the most versatile as well. Her forays into venomousness and unyielding feminist harshness often immediately surface in reminisces of her career, but her sweet and comedic performances are atypically opulent. The realism with which she performs the roles of hard-working taskmasters and “working women” is initially an unencumbered portrait into sterling truth, yet they are finally an inhabitation resulting in beatification. The voluminous versatility with which Stanwyck was singularly gifted indeed allowed her to give remarkably multi-planed performances, frequently playing characters who were, in essence, performing a part themselves. Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve (both 1941) famously offered such spellbinding excursions into the psychologically penetrative consummation of strong women possessively maintaining their respective shields of artifice. In those pictures Stanwyck urbanely took the demanding role in which she was perfectly cast and stole the spotlight from Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda.
It is fitting that in 1945's Christmas in Connecticut, Stanwyck's effervescently candied quality of affixing the complications of revue are brought to the forefront of the narrative. Stanwyck's serenely confident luminosity ensures that the game is not given away—even in the simplicity of the farcical plot, she playfully posits the appropriate merriment with which she carries the film's myriad central festivities and obligations. Playing an impostor posing as the perfect housewife and chef, her performance partly looks forward to Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray in this time period as well as women who offered delicious recipes for women magazines such as Stanwyck's fraud, Elizabeth Lane. Elizabeth, through her articles for a widely-read magazine, feigns tranquil domestication as a loving housewife with a husband and baby on a staid country farm in Connecticut. In reality, however, she gleans her recipes from a lovingly curmudgeonly restaurateur Hungarian Felix Bassenak (a hilarious S.Z. Sakall, whose line-readings such as the oft-repeated “hunky-dunky” in lieu of the more commonplace “hunky-dory” draws inexplicable chuckling), whose dishes usually feature a preponderance of paprika. (The more one learns of Hungarian dishes, the funnier this characteristic becomes.) She is unmarried and childless. She furiously types (reminiscent of her manipulative reporter in Meet John Doe), tirelessly fabricating pieces of her unreal life.
Peter Godfrey's direction offers a gently heartwarming integument—springing from Aileen Hamilton's story, written for the screen by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini—in which several members of the ensemble cast swimmingly thrive. Stanwyck's magazine publisher boss, Alexander Yardley is played to the hilt by the supply droll Sydney Greenstreet, inverting the caustic bellowing maliciousness and skulduggery of The Maltese Falcon's Kasper Gutman and other villains. Greenstreet imbuing the avuncular part with a contrasting frankness allows for the comic complications that later ensue to leave the prima face badinage a more fundamentally punctuated sense of irony. Dennis Morgan as recuperating World War II hero Jefferson Jones and Reginald Gardiner as John Sloan a friend of Elizabeth's who wants to be more, playing the part of Elizabeth's adoring husband, are both consigned to the ingenuousness of the classic romantic comedy rubric, the former fulfilling the position of Mr. Right and the latter well-cast as Mr. Wrong for dear Elizabeth.
The issue of feminism and its ostensibly assailed and encroached upon standing as starkly unattractive and unpalatable when measured against the humbly rewarding and copacetic everyday pleasantries of domesticity is undeniably at hand in Christmas in Connecticut. While peripherally and superficially favoring the life of home and hearth—with all of its attendant challenges and triumphs—the film is in actuality vastly more satirically aimed at the unrealistic expectations that many men have had of women. Through Jefferson's fixation on the ideal of Elizabeth—voraciously reading her articles and salivating at the delicious creations for which she is falsely credited while he rests, wounded, abed—the film is exposing the impossible standards against which women have been routinely measured. Preponderantly exposing the hysterical front Elizabeth must erect in an effort to sustain the image she has created for herself, the film most effectively raises the slyly subversive question at the farce's center of what length to which such a life, truly lived, is personally salubrious. A scene in which a discomfited Elizabeth passes a baby off as her own benignly satirizes the nearly compulsory contentment that is the demanded hallmark of motherhood. Nevertheless, the scene is not hurtful or hateful, and the film reaches an equally sweet and sanguine destination, casting Elizabeth's uncomfortably cynical use of the baby in the sensible point she is not this child's mother. Leaving aside Kant's a priori rationalism relegating mother-love to a category outside the parameters of morality, the film pervasively considers motherhood a wondrous possibility for women—Elizabeth slowly comes to recognize the inherent “cuteness” of the child while sharing the duties of holding it—while not forcefully advocating it.
Assiduously a comedy first and foremost, the confinement of the Connecticut barn at which the greater bulk of the film takes place manifestly engenders a familial warmth to the proceedings. The unambitious picture rightfully emphasizes the limitations and advantages of the story. Cameraman Carl E. Guthrie provides an apt glow to the black-and-white tableau, marvelously conveying the budding romance of Elizabeth and Jefferson in a literal snow sleigh-ride. Director Godfrey—with whom Stanwyck would re-team on the misunderstood 1947 gothic thriller The Two Mrs. Carrolls with Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith—allows his unadorned mise-en-scene to capture the occasionally pictorially crammed stagy verbal confrontations in statically muted shots that neither contribute nor detract to the film's frivolity.
The clydesdale pulling the wagon of Christmas in Connecticut is Stanwyck, however. Her turn shines brightly, magnifying every quality and diminishing every weakness. With effortlessly precise comic timing, she repeatedly brings forth just the delicately correct amount of knowing coquettish flashiness. Displaying many of her most prominent and overlooked talents alike, she crafts a character of nuance within the framework of a vehicle originally offered to Bette Davis. Coming off of the acidic Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity, here she is excitably responsive and openhearted, while, for a great period of time persistently remaining humorously hardboiled and shelled over. It is a role for which a great actress is needed—to buoy not merely the role but the entire film and its silly story. She makes the most of every particular episode, always charmingly at ease. In a particularly memorable scene, standing before her several guests, Stanwyck's Elizabeth, who is struggling with learning how to actually cook—unable as she is to boil an egg—flips a flapjack with her eyes closed, praying that it lands in a “hunky-dunky” manner. The smile emblazoned on her beguiling face when she succeeds is an exemplary moment, an earnest and candid immersing into the insignificance of small, personal victories, made happily significant.