9 December 2012
While all holidays are steeped in tradition, no holiday has as many customary practices and rituals as Christmas, at least here in America. Perhaps the most popular holiday on the calendar, Christmas’ ceremonial rites generally begin on Thanksgiving and run a full four weeks leading up to December 25th. Of course there are typical traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree, giving and receiving presents, and celebrating the holiday with friends, family, and a gluttonous amount of food; however, people also have unique traditions they have created or have carried through their heritage, and these are as wide-ranging as the millions of individuals who celebrate the holiday all over the world. But, even these self-made, atypical Christmas traditions are still habitual rituals put in place to celebrate in a customary way because, whatever the holiday tradition, the ritual is what makes the holiday familiar, comfortable, and reflective…right?
Moreover, the plots of most Christmas films spotlight holiday traditions. For example, if one sits down to watch a Christmas movie for the first time, that person knows they will likely see Christmas presents exchanged, a Christmas tree decorated and/or displayed, and, without a doubt, the main plot of the film will focus on developing relationships, likely familial, in the spirit of the season.
Most audiences look for this heart-warming type of Christmas movie during the holiday season. Watching the film itself perpetuates the Christmas movie tradition, but also, through its plot and subplots, reinforces the significance of traditions at this celebrated time of year.
But what about times in life when Christmas traditions are infringed upon by tragedy? What happens to the happy rituals of yesteryear when pain, fear, and sadness find their way into the Christmas season?
These questions are timeless, and it seems possible responses to these questions delicately and unexpectedly emerge in an American holiday classic written and released during WWII. In a time of global unrest, the American way of life changed and traditions, be them holiday or every day, were compromised; sadly, the war’s draft separated families, sent men overseas, and forced women to leave their children so they could work. Released in 1945 and set during a holiday season in World War II, Peter Godfrey’s Christmas in Connecticut, written by Aileen Hamilton, Adele Comandini, and Lionel Houser, is a romantic comedy which light-heartedly suggests how WWII-ridden American society reacted to Christmas during a distressing time in the nation’s history. The film’s plot captures a group of outsiders as they attempt to fake their way through a merry Christmas, similar to the way America, during WWII, forced its way through the traditions of difficult Christmases in the early to mid 1940s.
Briefly, Christmas in Connecticut is the story of Liz (Barbara Stanwyck), better known by her pseudonym, Elizabeth Lane. She is a columnist for a major American periodical. Elizabeth Lane, the image, is a well-off, fabulous, wife, mother, and homemaker living on a large farm in Connecticut. She shares her recipes, decorating suggestions, and advice with the country through her writing; however, the real Liz is single, childless, living in a small New York City apartment, and has no clue how to cook or desire to decorate. Her boss, Mr. Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), who believes Elizabeth Lane actually exists, decides the magazine should send a returning war veteran, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), to Elizabeth’s farm in Connecticut for Christmas, offering the soldier a traditional, wholesome holiday in thanks for his bravery during war. Of course, this is Liz’s worst nightmare, and she must quickly come up with a farm in Connecticut so she can satisfy her boss’ assignment without revealing her actual identity. Her fiancé, John Sloane (Reginald Gardiner), helps her secure a farm and pushes to marry her quickly so he will legitimately be her husband when the veteran arrives, and her good friend, Felix (S. Z. Sakall), a chef, agrees to play her uncle so he can cook the meals. John’s housekeeper Norah (Una O’Connor), who babysits children while their mothers are at work, completes the plan by getting a baby who Liz pretends is hers. Unfortunately, Jefferson arrives early, before Liz and John can marry. Yet, that turns out to be rather good luck when sparks immediately fly between Liz and Jefferson. The next few days are a series of close calls and shenanigans, especially when Mr. Yardley himself arrives to spend the holiday in Connecticut with Elizabeth, her family, and Jefferson. Amidst the charade, Liz and Jefferson grow closer, and by the film’s comically calamitous conclusion all secrets are revealed and love conquerors all.
Overall critics liked Christmas in Connecticut, however the film met resistance and has its share of naysayers. Theoretically, Christmas in Connecticut is not as embraced as its holiday-themed cinematic contemporaries because it does not drip with Christmas tradition; in fact, the film is all about faking tradition, and therefore it mocks yuletide rituals. But that is, perhaps, the film’s strength; it is authentic to the nontraditional time it was made. Within the turmoil of war, Christmas in Connecticut is a refreshingly honest, albeit somewhat silly, portrait of people who know exactly what a traditional Christmas should be, but find it impossible to pull off in their present circumstance.
First, Liz is forced to play Elizabeth Lane, the image, on Christmas. Never once does she mention having to miss a traditional Christmas gathering or family celebration to pull off this charade. Seemingly, Liz would have spent Christmas at home, perhaps alone. She obviously knows what the traditional Christmas “should” be; she writes about it successfully in a magazine, but she does not conform to the tradition she pens.
Why? Perhaps because when she tries, when she is Elizabeth Lane in Connecticut, Liz is a disaster. Circles don’t fit into squares, and Liz, symbolizing American Christmases during WWII, is too nontraditional to pull off the holiday rituals. Take, for example, decorating the Christmas tree. The film attempts to capture a picturesque holiday tradition: Liz decorating as Jefferson plays the piano and sings. However, Liz breaks an ornament and the moment is spoiled; the tradition is broken. Also, just after breaking the ornament, Liz holds a present it seems she wants to give Jefferson; however, she puts the present back, unopened, under the tree before he sees what she is holding. This is as close as the film comes to covering the holiday tradition of gift-giving and receiving. Somehow that tradition, like the tree decorating, fails in Christmas in Connecticut. As for other traditions, there is no Santa and no Christmas cookies, but there is a dance to celebrate the holiday. Yet, after a short time (just long enough for the director to shoot a large “Buy War Bonds” banner), Liz and Jefferson leave the dance, disinterested in the communal celebration of the holiday, and identifying once more how nontraditional a Christmas there is in Christmas in Connecticut, and, by extension, how nontraditional Christmases likely were for so many in America when the film was made.
Often, films made during WWII went out of their way and over the top to preserve American values and tradition in the face of war, suggesting the war would end and the American way would restore itself. In wartime, traditions become even more important because they represent a way of life threatened that must be defended. Because Christmas is largely about tradition, holiday films often become a foreground for spotlighting the value of tradition in American society. Christmas in Connecticut, ever so slightly, resists that. Godfrey’s film is not afraid to fumble or refuse many Christmas traditions, therefore honestly reflecting the tumultuous time in America during WWII. Instead of faking through Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut finds comedy in the artifice of it all. Thus, Christmas in Connecticut reflects its time, wittily and unpretentiously.
In all, Christmas in Connecticut is a nontraditional holiday classic. The film, true to the historical moment of its creation and release, embraces a difficult moment in American history. It may not be the prescriptive holiday classic so many films are, and it may be silly at times, but, when looked at thorough a certain lens, makes strong statements about its time and traditions during conflict, and for that it must be respected.