Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas with Barbara Stanwyck

It’s impossible to “spoil” great art. Everyone knows that Hamlet and Ophelia get married and have four children at the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but that doesn’t stop us from listening to the audio version over and over again. That said, this post contains very specific and detailed plot information about the two films discussed. If you don’t want to know what happens in them and you don’t want to educate yourself then quit reading right now!

Barbara Stanwyck, my celebrity exception, was one of the greatest film performers of the sound era. In movies like Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Baby Face, and The Mad Miss Manton, she showed her remarkable range. She could play anything from a beautiful femme fatale to a beautiful maneater to a beautiful conniver— and everything in between. On top of her incredible grace and skill as an actress, she was also stunningly beautiful. I’m not sure if I mentioned that already, but she had great natural beauty that was amplified by the intelligence and wit that were as important to her look as those amazing Edith Head gowns.

It so happens that two of Ms. Stanwyck’s best films also happen to be two of the best films of all time, and two of the best Christmas films of all time. One, Remember the Night, is a moving and very funny examination of the importance of honesty and sacrifice, and how your duty to others is reward in its own right. Then there’s Christmas in Connecticut, which is all about the importance of dishonesty, and venality rewarded.

In Remember the Night, Ms. Stanwyck portrays an unrepentant thief called Lee Leander who in the film’s opening moments casually walks out of a department store with an enormous jeweled bracelet for which she has not paid. She’s arrested and charged just before Christmas. Her ham-actor lawyer Francis O’Leary played by an inspired Willard Robertson concocts a bizarre and involved defense suggesting that Lee was hypnotized by the sparkling jewels in the bracelet, and walked out without realizing it. This defense suits the prosecutor John Sargent just fine, who gets a postponement until after Christmas because he’ll need a psychiatrist’s expert testimony in order to mount his prosecution. (It's hard to get a conviction against a woman in the best circumstances, and it's almost impossible at Christmas.)

This means that Lee will be held in jail over the Christmas holiday. Then John, in a fit of sentimental pique, decides to bail her out but the bail bondsman, Fat Mike, misinterprets John’s intentions, and brings Lee to his apartment. There Lee and John share a scene that goes from witty to emotional, with John offering to take Lee out for a Christmas dinner before he leaves for his hometown for Christmas break.

The fact that John Sargent is played by Fred MacMurray is like the lagniappe on the top of the cake frosting. He is charming, funny, tough and charismatic. Almost Ms. Stanwyck’s equal, which is important because let’s be real this isn’t exactly a realistic film, But it is authentic, which is even more important. (My life is “realistic” enough, why the heck would I want to watch a "realistic" movie?)

While dancing, Lee and John realize that they grew up within about fifty miles of one another in the great state of Indiana. While John returns home every year to visit his mother and aunt, Lee hasn’t been back home in years. Of course John offers to drive Lee to Indiana with him, drop her off then pick her up and bring her back to New York where he will PROSECUTE THE HECK OUT OF HER after the new year.

On the way to Indiana the two get stuck on a farm in the horrible state of Pennsylvania, where hardly anything good has ever happened except that fight between Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa. Through a misunderstanding they’re attacked by a rabid farmer who attempts to arrest them for stealing milk from one of his cows. They’re taken to the Justice of the Peace where they give fake names and are very nearly thrown in jail before Lee throws a lit match into the trash, starting a small but manageable conflagration, providing cover for their escape.

So at this point in the film we know that there’s going to be a connection—probably romantic—between Lee and John. They’re both charming and good looking, which means it would be an absolute crime if nothing happened between them. But we’re wondering: Will Lee’s venality corrupt John, or will John’s rugged morality “hypnotize” Lee?

At Lee’s mother’s home, John gets a glimpse of the crummy childhood that Lee must have had. Lee’s mother is, let’s call her imperious. As inhabited by Georgia Caine, she’s the nightmare of cold, loveless parental horror. Once again, John “rescues” Lee, and brings her to stay with him and his family.

And John’s family is basically the opposite of Lee’s. His mother, portrayed by Beulah Bondi, and his Aunt Emma, played by Elizabeth Patterson, dote on John, who returns their affection unconditionally. They make popcorn for the Christmas tree, gather round while Lee plays the piano and Willie, who is I suppose a sort of handyman who lives with Mrs. Sargent and Aunt Emma, sings “The End of a Perfect Day” (Willie is played by Sterling Holloway who I’ve always thought was an acquired taste but he’s perfect here), exchange gifts, and go to a barn dance. It’s a big vacation and it’s clear that Lee and John are ready to take their relationship to the next step, if you know what I mean and I think you do. But Mrs. Sargent goes to Lee and tells her how hard John’s worked to get where he is—when his father died the family had nothing and John had to start working from a young age, eventually working his way through law school. Lee tells Mrs. Sargent she wouldn’t jeopardize John’s life or career for anything and she decides not to go to John’s room for a “night cap” on New Year’s night.

On their way back they stop at Niagara Falls (they’re traveling through Canada to avoid the pestilential state of Pennsylvania, and who can blame them?) and John suggests she stay there because he doesn’t want to have to prosecute her when they get back. She tells him no. But they do share a kiss, with the promise of much more when they get back to New York.

But, alas, Lee has had a change of heart. John’s mother’s words are still ringing in her ears and despite the fact that John want to marry her right now and basically throw the case against her, she’s having none of it. John decides to throw the case anyway, tearing into her in court so that the jury will absolutely hate him and therefore acquit her. She realizes what he’s doing—compromising himself for her—so she realizes that now she has a chance to “rescue” him by confessing to stealing the bracelet. As the movie ends Lee is preparing to face whatever her sentence might be, so that she’ll be “all square,” and can be with John as his equal. So that they’ll be worthy of each other. But she has to accept responsibility for her past crimes before she can move forward into the promising future with John. It is a powerful, moving film with a great message of responsibility to those we love the most.

Then there’s Christmas in Connecticut.

In this film, Ms. Stanwyck portrays Elizabeth Lane, who writes a magazine column in which she writes about her life on her fabulous farm in Connecticut, her amazing husband, her delightful child and, of course, all the amazing food she cooks. But in fact, Elizabeth lives in a small New York apartment, is unmarried and childless, and she can’t cook, not even a little bit. Her friend Felix (the amazing S.Z. Sakall, who appeared with Ms. Stanwyck in Ball of Fire) provides her with recipes. Nevertheless her column is immensely popular, so much so that when she mentions in one that she’s looking for a rocking chair just like the one her grandmother used to have, thirty-eight readers have rocking chairs delivered to the office of the magazine where she works.

There’s something more than a little cruel about that— but it gets so much worse.

As the movie opens, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) have been lost at sea after their submarine was attacked. While in their life raft, Jefferson dreams of four course meals, but when they’re rescued, Jefferson’s stomach is so weak he can only eat milk with a raw egg in it. Sinkewicz is getting steak, so Jefferson asks him what his secret is, and Sinkewicz tells him to use the “magoo” on the nurse. In other words, he tells Jefferson to lay on the charm in order to get better meals. Jefferson does—going so far as to actually get ENGAGED TO HIS NURSE just so he can get chops, which end up making him sick anyway.

There’s something more than a little cruel about that, too. But it gets so much worse.

Jefferson loves Elizabeth Lane’s column, so the nurse writes to magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (the brilliant Sydney Greenstreet) suggesting that maybe Elizabeth and her husband could have Jefferson out to their farm in Connecticut. Being a sentimental cutthroat magazine publisher, Alexander thinks that’s a perfectly splendid idea. Now Elizabeth and her editor, Dudley, are sure that they’re going to be fired for perpetrating this massive fraud against Alexander Yardley and his readers (they’ve been publishing #FakeNews for years!)—and they ABSOLUTELY DESERVE TO BE FIRED THEY’RE LYING LIARS.

Like Remember the Night, Christmas in Connecticut has a meaningful piano scene. It also has a meaningful scene with a cow, and a meaningful small town dance scene. They're practically the same movie!

Meanwhile, dapper and erudite John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), a successful architect, has been proposing to Elizabeth for years apparently. She keeps turning him down. But now she can’t think of any more good excuses to say no, so she says yes, much to Dudley’s and Felix’s chagrin. But it turns out that John has a farm in Connecticut— it’s the same farm that Elizabeth used for the inspiration for her dishonest fake news column. So they ask John if they can have Jefferson and Alexander out to his farm for Christmas. John says, portentously, that he knows he’ll regret it for the rest of his life, but he’ll do it. He even manages to get temporary custody of a baby that they can pass off as their own.

John is, in other words, a contemptible fool who allows himself to be mercilessly manipulated by all these lying liars. All because he’s helplessly in love with a woman who happens to look exactly like the breathtaking and irresistible Barbara Stanwyck for crying out loud. Despite John’s best efforts he never manages to marry Elizabeth. And she takes one look at Jefferson and it’s a wonder they don’t start going at it right away, right under John’s nose. All the dramatic tension in the film revolves around whether or not Elizabeth and her lying friends will get what they deserve, or what they want. For some reason, you want them to avoid what they deserve.

Elizabeth and her friends work hard to hide their lies from people who don’t deserve to be lied to. There’s even a bit where Alexander thinks that Elizabeth’s baby has been kidnapped because the baby’s real mother comes to pick him or her (I forget if it’s the male or female baby), and he calls the state police who search all through the night and he offers a reward for the baby’s return. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jefferson have spent the night in jail for stealing a one-horse open sleigh and are oblivious to all the havoc going on—havoc caused by Elizabeth’s casual heartlessness.

I couldn’t tell you why I love this movie so much. In a way it's sort of a perverted classic. The message is horrible. Elizabeth gets Jefferson, and not only does she not get the firing she deserves, but Felix manipulates Alexander into actually giving her a raise for crying out loud. Jefferson gets Elizabeth. John gets… Well, he basically gets cucked, to use the modern terminology. Nevertheless, I tear up a little bit every time I see it. Maybe it’s because there’s part of me that wants to be rewarded for my weaknesses, too.

It’s a testament to her greatness that Barbara Stanwyck can make us feel happy for each of these very different characters, pull us into these very different worlds, and make us believe in these two very different messages. In my weaker moments I’m Elizabeth Lane, but I aspire to be Lee Leander.

For that, I'm deeply grateful to Barbara Stanwyck.

Want to know what I think is the WORST Christmas movie of all time? It's the execrable The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan picture source.
Remember the Night movie poster pic source.
Christmas in Connecticut movie poster pic source.

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