Friday, December 12, 2014

Barbara Cooks

I haven't been to a double feature in a lot of year, and I miss it.  So, it was a pleasure to attend the Fathom Event which featured two Christmas films.  I've already discussed the first feature in an earlier postChristmas in Connecticut (1945) was feature two.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Elizabeth Lane, the popular author of a cooking column in a national magazine.  She's an imaginative writer, who shares wonderful recipes and household hints, speaking at length about her life in Connecticut with her loving husband and baby.  There's only one little problem.  She isn't married, has no children, lives in a small New York City apartment, and she can't cook.  At all.  Her recipes come from her adored Uncle Felix Bassenak (S. Z. Sakall), the owner of a popular restaurant which Elizabeth helped to fund at start-up.  Her editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) is well aware of her deception, but the magazine owner Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) is not.  And he's a stickler for the truth.

The action starts just before Christmas, and a young sailor, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is hospitalized, after spending 18 days on a raft, with little food and water.  His nurse, Mary Lee (Joyce Compton), is eager to get a husband, and Jeff (or "Jeffy-boy" as she calls him) seems like a prime candidate.  To encourage a yearning for family in Jeff (who claims to have no family roots), she contacts Mr. Yardley (she once nursed his granddaughter), and asks if Jeff can spend the holiday with his favorite author, Elizabeth Lane.  To save her and Beecham's jobs, Elizabeth consents to marry John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), who has a home in Connecticut where she can host Jeff - and Mr. Yardley, who's decided to tag along.  Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
In the various Barbara Stanwyck films we've discussed thus far, we've not had a chance to look at her comedies.  She was a brilliant comedienne, but didn't always get the chance to demonstrate her remarkable timing. Interestingly, this film is only one year after the role that she is probably most remembered for - Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944); definitely NOT a comic part.  Ben Mankiewicz, in the introduction to Christmas in Connecticut, informed us that Ms. Stanwyck was not the first choice for the role of Elizabeth Lane - Bette Davis was (this is, after all, a Warner Brothers film, and Davis was under contract). But Ms. Davis declined, and Ms. Stanwyck, who had already shown her comedic abilities in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, was hired.

The film was released two days after the Japanese surrender, but (since it was filmed while the war was in progress), the military and the war are very much in the forefront of the story.  Jeff is at a military hospital when Mary Lee contacts Mr. Yardley; Yardley sees hosting a war hero as a civic duty (and good publicity for his magazines) and there is an implication at the end of the movie that Jeff will be returning to active service in the Pacific (where he was when his ship was destroyed).  War efforts abound in the film - even the dance which Elizabeth and Jeff attend is more a war bond function than a Christmas party.  This doesn't detract from the humor, but it is a note in the background of the film.  This TCM article briefly discusses the film's positive reception (though the New York Times did NOT like it very much).  As a side note, I discovered that, when it was released in New York City (at the Rialto) it was on a double bill with a Lon Chaney, Jr. horror film: The Frozen Ghost!

Wonderful character actors abound in the film. Una O'Connor as Sloane's housekeeper, Norah is very funny.  Sidney Greenstreet as Yardley is also amusing, in his always gruff way.  But the film is really stolen by S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, primarily because of the way he reacts with both Greenstreet and O'Connor.  His love for and loyalty to Elizabeth is ever-present. His tacit dislike of Sloane is always evident.   He methodically finds ways to prevent the wedding of Elizabeth and Sloane, making him all the more endearing. He is the film's Cupid, trying to make sure his beloved Elizabeth finds the right man.

I'll close with a clip.  It's probably the most famous scene in the film, in which Elizabeth Lane tries to flip a flapjack.  Stanwyck, as always, is priceless.