Christmas with Barbara

I love classic films, so naturally my favorite television channel is Turner Classic Movies:  I often have it on in the background when I’m home, as you never know what–or who–might turn up!  This month, I have to admit that it’s been on even more than usual, as December’s “Star of the Month” is Barbara Stanwyck, my very favorite movie star.  No one comes close to Barbara in her ability to fill the screen and capture her audience’s attention, in my opinion; certainly no actor or actress in the present (a time when movie stars seem much smaller), and perhaps only Cary Grant and Bette Davis in the past. I love everything about Barbara:  her toughness and her vulnerability, her flexibility, her stature, her walk, her ability to sit a horse, her little cropped jackets, her obvious professionalism. There is a sense of inner “simmering” in her that I find captivating, and I think she chose her roles very well. I find even her early 1930s movies–in which she seems to be playing the same downtrodden character again and again–watchable, but she really comes into her own in the 1940s, when she became the highest paid woman in America.

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Miss Stanwyck at the height of her power and popularity, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Two of my favorite Stanwyck films happen to be Christmas movies: Remember the Night (1940) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). For as long as I can remember, I have generally watched both at least once during the holiday season, but this particular month I seem to be watching them again and again, so many times that I almost feel like I’m having Christmas with Barbara!

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I think most people have heard of or seen Christmas in Connecticut, and it is certainly a wonderful film with a charming Barbara (and a great supporting cast), but she is even more endearing in Remember the Night.  This movie, the first of what I think were three pairings with Fred MacMurray, shows the actress in transition from her 1930s vulnerability to her 1940s confidence:  she is both sad and funny, tough and vulnerable, skittish and resolute. MacMurray plays a New York City Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes Stanwyck’s shoplifter character in a Christmas Eve trial:  when he realizes 1) that the joyful jury will let her off in a collective display of Christmas spirit; and 2) that she is a fellow Hoosier, he postpones the trial until the New Year, bails her out of jail, and offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays as he is heading home himself (you have to suspend some  judgement here). On the way west, back to the country, they have various escapades and encounters that bring them closer together. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when they arrive at her childhood home and face her dreadful mother; Fred will not let her stay there and he whisks her away to his own mother, the polar-opposite perfect mom, played, of course, by Beulah Bondi, Mrs. Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life!  On the farm, they celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way and fall in love, always knowing that they’re going to have to go back to the big city, and the big trial, after the holidays. And they do: neither compromises their principles or their admiration for one another and so the “resolution” of the film provides a nice contrast to more predictable Christmas fare, including Christmas in Connecticut.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray look over their scripts with director Mitchell Leisen in this behind-the-scenes shot, TCM Archives.

Actually, as I write this, I am realizing that there is a major similarity between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut:  in both films a very urban Barbara has got to go to the country and experience an “old-fashioned” Christmas (complete with country dances in both films) in order to find herself. In Christmas, Barbara plays a Martha Stewart-like character named Elizabeth Lane who writes a monthly column about her bucolic married life in Connecticut, including elaborate menus for perfect home-cooked meals. The problem, which doesn’t become a problem until her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) forces her to entertain a war hero named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays, is that Elizabeth Lane is actually a single “career woman” who lives in a New York City apartment and relies on local restauranteur Felix Bassenak (a perfect S.Z. Sakall) for both her daily sustenance and recipes for her column. She cooks up a scheme with her editor, Felix, and her long-suffering architect beau (Reginald Gardner), whom she promises to marry in exchange for his perfect Connecticut country house, which becomes the setting for their deception. The house is so perfect, with its vaulted ceilings, picture window, and huge stone fireplace, that it is almost a character in the film. In crystalline Connecticut, many situations ensue, involving babies, a cow named Mecushla (there’s a big cow scene in Remember the Night as well), flapjacks, a horse-drawn sleigh, and rocking chairs, and in the midst of all this Elizabeth/Barbara and her war hero fall in love. It is 1945, it is Christmas, and all is well.

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Barbara in my bedroom:  facing her architect fiancé (“when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about plumbing”), facing the war hero seconds later, and in her perfect little cropped Christmas jacket.


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