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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It's From The 40's For Sure

Have Yourself a Merry Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

Sirius radio broadcast a startling holiday greeting last week --- from Sydney Greenstreet. This is the Jolliest, Merriest, Christmas I Ever Spent, he declares just ahead of signature guffaw that by 1945 came with every Greenstreet performance. The line was part of Christmas In Connecticut's trailer, and I wonder how many 2014 listeners recognized the movie, or him. The picture wasn't built to last, being bound in 40's milieu, but somehow it has. Warners lately voted with a Blu-Ray release --- did their buyer research suggest eagerness for the title? Christmas In Connecticut never had a reissue, but like so many Yule-set oldies, was annual gift to viewers from initial syndication in 1956. Individual markets either had it regular, or not at all. We were among the not-at-alls, NC stations having backed off pre-49 WB's by the mid-60's and not shopping with them again until UHF burgeoned in the early 70's. Nowadays Christmas In Connecticut looks like a million. You can almost taste fake snow that fell upon sound stages posed as outdoor winter. Like so much of wartime Warners, this was shot entirely between walls, even as action called for trees, sleighs, the rest. Here is close as you'll get to a 40's Christmas card come to highly artificial, but endearing, life.

It's all less about Christmas than food. Everyone's got eating on their minds. Dennis Morgan dreams of a feast while on a lifeboat awaiting rescue, then affiances himself to a hospital nurse just so he can get steak and chops rather than gruel his stomach can stand. Barbara Stanwyck poses as a homemaker for sake of her magazine column where, among other things, she dispenses recipes. S.Z. Sakall is a chef who prepares meal after scrumptious meal. Ritual is observed for pancakes and how they're flipped. Menus are read like sacred text. Greenstreet is, of course, obsessed with eating, and will travel a distance to Christmas dine with strangers, so long as they set lavish table. So why this mulling over meals? Part of reason was ongoing shortage of ingredients. Sugar was still rationed in the US as of Christmas 1945. There wasn't enough butter in Wisconsin for the holidays, and bread was tough to come by in San Francisco, thanks to a bakery drivers strike. There was abundance of turkeys available (this not necessarily the case in other countries). Three million servicemen were home for the holidays who'd missed the year, or years, before. Christmas 1945 would be characterized as "The Greatest Celebration in American History," what with war over, most of boys back, and presumed plenty for everyone to eat.

Christmas In Connecticut fairly drowns in topical reference. Men are either in uniform or explaining why they're not. Neighbors work in war plants. A dance is held to sell victory bonds. Stanwyck "feels like Charlie McCarthy" when Greenstreet speaks for her. A player like S.K. Sakall, funny in the 40's, less so now, plants Connecticut roots deep in that era. "Cuddles" could earn laughs just for jiggling jowls, to sometime annoyance of fellow players (Cagney found Sakall a pain, Alan Hale couldn't stand sight of him). Christmas In Connecticut is based on 40's assumption that everyone read slick magazines, which at that time they nearly did. Sydney Greenstreet is high and mighty publisher of same, a benign forebear to Charles Laughton's Earl Janoth in three years later The Big Clock. Barbara Stanwyck is nationwide famous for her homemaker column, a concept utterly foreign to much-changed present day. Magazines did matter then, like newspapers. Now both seem quaint, as does notion that a whole country would read them.

Christmas In Connecticut has a lot of bawdy humor, the war having loosened censorship where sex jest was based on misunderstanding. In that circumstance, you could talk about the act, so long as no one was engaging it outside marriage vow. Housemaid Una O'Connor is ready to quit her post for thinking Stanwyck and fiancé Reginald Gardner have slept together. Greenstreet comes to towering rage in belief that Stanwyck has borne a bastard child. He'll come close to uttering the word, while O'Connor virtually does when misprouncing Sakall's character name, Felix Bassenak. Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan stand with a cow that he appreciates for having "a nice rump," Stanwyck assuming, of course, that he means hers. That's the sort of humor we're talking about, but I'll bet it raised ceilings at a crowded Strand and elsewhere. Christmas In Connecticut would have a first cousin in Pillow To Post, released but two months ahead, and remarkably similar in all suggestive, but ultimately innocent, ways.

Home came Christmas In Connecticut for holidays, decor after Early American example. This had been fashion since Williamsburg restoration in the late 30's and public embrace of things rustic/homey. Everyone, it seemed, wanted hearths warm and toasty as those sat before here. C In C star Dennis Morgan made request for set blueprints so he could duplicate the look in personal digs, and there was much mail to Warners with similar inquiry. Christmas In Connecticut wrapped on 8/1/44, but release was held a year to get out backlog of war-themed product before cessation of hostility rendered them moot. Nutty it seemed to release Christmas In Connecticut in depth of summer, but distribution knew a long autumn and run-up to holidays would see the pic in many of smaller situations likely to enjoy it most. Timing, as things turned out, could not have been more ideal. Christmas In Connecticut played like eggnog we'd come home for. It took no genius to figure the state of Connecticut for premiering, a stateside August 8 bow declared an early Xmas holiday by the governor, with Norwalk a focal point of twenty town/cities participating.

Well Along a Long Run in Chicago
Servicemen being transferred from European to Pacific theatres of war were honored, a parade led by radio's Colonel Stoopnagle, with opera fave Lawrence Tibbett in performance. Out-of-town press and magazine scribes "were met by beautiful young Santa Claus assistants dressed in short red skirts, trimmed with white fur; red bolero-style jackets, red caps, and white boots. Bare legs and bare midriffs added to their attractiveness." 20,000 participated in a jitterbug contest that would follow. All of war news was pushed off the front page of Norwalk's newspaper to record C In C's gala. A same week saw Warners pushing Pride Of The Marines at Philadelphia site of an equally large open. Such premieres needed teamwork the equal of effort in making the movies. Celebration of a Christmas In Connecticut or Pride Of The Marines would come and go as all such events do, but effect was felt for intense local interest and far-flung coverage (live radio always playing a part). Said Showmen's Trade Review: "Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these two Warner campaigns is the fact that enormous amounts of newspaper space was devoted to the events at a time when the most important news stories of the impending end of the war with Japan and of the atomic bomb were breaking."


Blogger b piper said...

Modern audiences may be able to appreciate Stanwyck's magazine homemaker character better than you think, what with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart smiling out from the covers of their own magazines at every supermarket check-out.

1:00 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This particular film played constantly on the Latin American TNT, and nowhere else, before they took away all of the movie classics (after TCM was introduced). If the film does feel and look artificial the Spanish dubbing used for broadcast was simply terrible since it seems that the Mexicans did not produce a soundtrack of their own in the late sixties nor the early seventies.

3:28 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I believe it was on TNT that a remake aired some two decades ago, with Dyan Cannon in the Stanwyck role (which was updated as a Martha-type TV host) - directed by, I kid you not, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Growing up just outside Hartford, rest assure we saw this one aired every holiday season... at least once. That 'expert-who's-not-really-an-expert' was a Hollywood evergreen (remember Howard Hawks' MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT in the 60's?)

Love the aside about James Cagney and S.K. Sakal. As nuanced and/or subtle as Cagney could be, he was an old school stage trained performer, and in virtually all of films he would take a moment to inject a little bit of theatrical 'business' to spruce up the doings. Since these touches are in almost all his movies regardless of the director, one can assume Cagney himself was the usual inventor. He could be generous, sharing these flourishes with fellow performers; think of his weird little chattering teeth schtick with Joan Leslie in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. There's a great little throw away with a nameless fiddle player in MAN WITH A THOUSAND FACES. This stuff is creative, even elegant and always fresh, but it is basically actor's gingerbread. So it's not surprising Cagney was sensitive about low grade scene stealing from supporting players. The same hammy tactics that endeared 'Cuddles'to other stars, set Jim's teeth on edge. In later years, Cagney claimed Sakal and Horst Buchholz were the only co-actors with whom he ever had serious issues but many of the Warners' stock company had to watch themselves around Jimmy. And Cagney did steer clear of some of the most notorious offenders like Peter Lorre (whom he disliked and distrusted.)

10:38 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Of all the features in which he appeared, Robert Shayne considered CIC his favorite.

12:02 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Yes, there was a TNT remake. At the time, Turner Entertainment was remaking a few of the films in their library. of which I saw only a few. The remake of TREASURE ISLAND (with Charlton Heston replacing Wallace Beery) actually was even released to movie theaters in Argentina, where I saw it and it was a carbon copy of the original film, using the 1962 MUTINY IN THE BOUNTY ship to the fullest, before its sinking a few years ago.

12:16 PM  

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