Double Feature Showdown – Christmas in Connecticut vs. Remember the Night
I love Barbara Stanwyck. I also love Christmas movies. So, it should come as no surprise that I especially love Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movies. As is turns out, there are two of them: Christmas in Connecticut and Remember the Night. Each one can hold its own in a showdown, but only one can reign supreme. Which movie is better? Read on and find out! (Also, you can watch both movies and make your own decision, but that’s less fun for me than telling you. But you should do it. They are both really good.)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Directed by Peter Godfrey, Christmas in Connecticut stars Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, America’s preeminent homemaker. She is a magazine writer who keeps legions of readers entertained with her stories regarding her husband and child and the country house she keeps for them. She’s also known for her exquisite cooking and menu planning abilities. Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is a seaman recently rescued from many days adrift at sea. He has tricked his nurse into falling in love with him so he can get better quality food at the hospital, and when it appears he is backing away from marriage, she arranges for him to stay with Elizabeth Lane and her family for Christmas so that he might experience the joys of a happy family. The problem is, Elizabeth is a complete sham. She is an apartment-dwelling city girl with no husband and certainly no baby. To top it all off, she cannot cook worth a dime. And not only will Jones be showing up to her nonexistent house in Connecticut, the owner of her magazine has invited himself along. With the help of her friends, restaurateur Felix (S.Z. Sakall) and architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), Elizabeth tries to fool everyone into thinking she is as her articles portray her. Of course, her heart gets in the way, and she must navigate one mishap after another before she discovers that maybe honesty is the best policy.
This is a fun, frothy confection that takes place at Christmas, but is not really Christmas-themed. Stanwyck is aces at portraying sassy professional girls, and Lane is both fun and vulnerable as the reporter who writes about things she knows nothing about. Dennis Morgan is a decent lead—I find him to be amicable, if not exciting—and the two have a pleasant chemistry that works because not terribly much is expected of them other than being nice. This movie is made for me by the supporting characters; Sydney Greenstreet is very funny as the pushy magazine owner Alexander Yardley, and personal favorite S.Z. Sakall is charming as the cook who provides Elizabeth with all the recipes and support she needs to hoodwink everyone into believing she can boil water.
Remember the Night (1940): It’s the week before Christmas, and shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) has been caught red-handed. Prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) manages to get the case held over Christmas until after the New Year, but suffers pangs of conscience when he realizes that Lee will be jailed over the holidays for such a small offense. (Although, she is a repeat offender, so if she gets convicted, she is totally going to jail.) He puts up her bail money and prepares to leave town to visit his family. The bail-bondsman, Fat Mike, misunderstands Sargent’s motives, and brings Lee to the prosecutor’s apartment. Lee also assumes the worst, and accuses Sargent of being just like every guy on the make. After he gets her to understand he doesn’t expect anything from her, she settles in and lets him know that she has nowhere else to go, and he is responsible for her. He has no clue what he is going to do with her, but it turns out she has family about 50 miles away from where he grew up. He offers her a ride home, and various adventures take place on their road trip. She ends up spending the holidays with his family, and they begin to fall in love. Considering the delicate position they are in legally, can he follow his heart without compromising his ethics and career? Can she find a way to be with him without feeling that she has destroyed what she loves most?
Filmed four years before Double Indemnity, Stanwyck and MacMurray show their chemistry in the later film is no fluke. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, Remember the Night has a screenplay written by Preston Sturges, and while it’s not one of his best, it is really good. It’s funny and warm, interspersed with moments of darkness and moral questioning. It’s another one of those films that uses Christmas as a backdrop, and it works so well because it uses the holiday as a catalyst for many things that happen in the film. This is one of my favorite Stanwyck roles, because—while she still plays the tough, world-weary woman that she does so well—she imbues her character with a believable longing for something better. She is decent to the core, but that decency doesn’t have much to do with the law. MacMurray is also great. He’s a good guy, but not so good that he won’t entertain a few improper thoughts. His character is not perfect, and when he puts himself in a moral dilemma, it is easy to believe that he might do the wrong thing for the right reasons.
The Winner: In spite of one really cringe-worthy representation of a “Negro valet” (I just die a little for that actor every time I see it), Remember the Night is my favorite of the two movies. Christmas in Connecticut is a ton of fun, but in the end it is just a little too insubstantial for me. Also, Fred MacMurray is such a more interesting leading man than Dennis Morgan, who has a nice singing voice, but who has always struck me as being rather bland. I like Barbara Stanwyck when she has a bit of an edge to her, and Christmas in Connecticut is as safe as they come. Also, Remember the Night has Sterling Holloway singing “The End of a Perfect Day,” and it is a truly lovely moment, without false sentiment or emotional manipulation. I do honestly enjoy both films, but Remember the Night tends to stick with me for a while. And in the end, I think it is the better movie.
Availability: Both movies are in print, and are available at all your finer retail and rental stores. (Although for some reason, Remember the Night is not available through Netflix.) I’ve also seen both movies play occasionally on TCM.