Jan 28, 2016

"Catastroph!": Faking Domestic Bliss in 'Christmas in Connecticut' (1945)


This is Elizabeth Lane. She has a husband, a baby and a farm in Connecticut. She's the finest home-maker around; knows about raising a baby, can flip a flapjack, owns 36 rocking chairs, is America's best cook and has her own column in Smart Magazine where she writes about all of this. All women want to be her and all men want to marry her.


This is the image of Elizabeth Lane that is projected upon us, before we even see her. When we do see her for the first time, she most certainly is not in a farm in Connecticut, but in a small New York apartment — the habitat a career woman ought to have, apparently. Instead of wasting time by fixing a proper breakfast, she is eating sardines (presumingly canned) whilst typing up her new column. Her Uncle Felix, who owns a restaurant, even drops in to bring her breakfast so she can continue working, switching gender roles in a not too provocative way. She is even paying for her new mink coat herself, even though it will cost her six months' salary, because "it's very important to keep promises, especially to yourself."


Due to circumstances I won't go into detail about, Mrs. Lane later finds herself doing her patriotic duty of hosting a sailor for Christmas. In order to do this she has to pretend to be living in the Connecticut farm of a stuffy friend who keeps asking her to marry him. She has to pretend to be married with (and actually getting engaged to) this man and borrow a baby from another woman. Also Felix has to be taken along with her to Connecticut to provide the food for the Christmas feast. She goes through all of this just to keep her job. "The things a girl does for a mink coat."

We become fully aware of how clueless as a mother Elizabeth is when it's time for the baby's bath. After taking off its diaper, Elizabeth casually tosses it in the air, not knowing what else to do with it. When she's struggling to put the baby in the tub, Jones offers to test the temperature for her, already rolling up his sleeve. Apparently he's a self-proclaimed expert at bathing babies, making him a better housewife than Elizabeth. She gladly hands the baby over to her guest, once again switching gender roles. Returning after Jones successfully bathed the baby, the struggle with the fresh diaper begins. Not knowing how to fold it, Elizabeth hands over the diaper to Jones, with the excuse that she will in the mean time fix the baby's dinner. Once again her hero knows how to handle the situation and Elizabeth is convinced: what a man.


One of the very housewifely acts described by Elizabeth in her column was the flipping of flapjacks. This strikes a nostalgic chord with both Mr. Yardley (Mrs. Lane's publisher who invited himself over) and Mr. Jones, persistently requesting Mrs. Lane to flip just one pancake for them. The word "persistently" is added deliberately to point out that the men won't take no for an answer, not caring for Elizabeth's excuses of not being in the mood for it or being out of practice. They want to see "America's most resourceful home-maker" do her tricks.

When Felix tried to teach Elizabeth to "flip-flop the flop-flips" that morning, she failed numerous times, with the flapjacks always ending up everywhere but in the pan. However, the men get what they wish for, and with three anticipating and one very nervous man looking on, she successfully flips the flapjack. This, I might add, doesn't do anything for the story, apart from letting her keep up the illusion longer.


Christmas in Connecticut is a Wartime Christmas classic and starts of differently than others of the same type. The first scene of the film has a German submarine torpedoing a US ship. Even though we start off with American men at war, the real battle takes place back at home, where the gender that needs saving is the American woman.

What we have here is a film rather mockingly telling us what the ideal post-war wife, the domestic goddess, should be and should be able to do. Remember that during the war, women's roles were of less domestic nature. When the men left to fight in the war, they left behind their jobs with only women to do them. Not only it became acceptable for women to become taxi drivers, operate heavy machinery, make munition and more; it was expected of them: "Do the job HE left behind." War, for many US women, was about gaining mobility, strength and freedom. It got women out of the home where they had been confined to.

After WWII ended, women were expected to go back to the place that society had destined for them, meaning: back to their domestic tasks, while the men would get back to their manly jobs. While some of them returned, things had definitely changed. Women had changed.

An article in LIFE dating from 1947 wrote about a woman's work, visualizing the 100-hour workweek of a housewife:

"Mrs. John McWeeney of Rye, N.Y. has a big, good-looking husband who works in a nut and bolt company, and three children, Shawn, a grave little 4-year-old; John, called “Rusty,” almost 2, and baby Mark, 4 months old. She lives in a bright new seven-room house that has a safe backyard for Shawn and Rusty to play in and a number of modern machines to help her with her household chores. She uses a diaper service and she can afford a cleaning woman once a week who does the heavy laundry.

"The picture [below] shows the household tasks that Marjorie must accomplish every week. She has a crib and four beds to make up each day, totaling 35 complete bed-makings a week. She has hundreds of knives, forks and utensils to wash, food to buy and prepare for a healthy family of five and a whole house to dust and sweep. . . "

The article emphasized the dilemma women of 1947 had. Before the war the only big decision a woman had to make was choosing her husband and after marriage her duties were confined to the household. After the war, however, a growing number of women were confused and frustrated by the conflict between traditional ideas about a woman's place and the increasing reality of female involvement in activities outside the home. Although she still wanted to marry and have children, she also wanted to take part in the world beyond the domestic. The problem was that society's norms and values didn't yet offer women decent alternatives to being a homemaker.

Housewife Marjorie McWeeney amid symbolic display of her week’s housework. Photo by Nina Leen for Life, June 16, 1947, p. 105
It seems silly to talk about this when discussing a lighthearted comedy like Christmas in Connecticut, but the many traces of wartime (and even feminism) in this film can't go unnoticed, although they are presented in the form of gags. The film's comedy depends on the domestic shortcomings of Elizabeth, but she never loses her desirability, apart from to Mr. Sloane. Sloane, the conventional type, is glad that in the end he didn't mary Elizabeth, because she isn't "how Mrs. Sloane should be". "You've disrupted my household!" he even accuses Elizabeth. But the sailor will gladly marry her, even though she can't cook. Felix even tells her never to learn how to cook, for if she does, she won't be able to write about it the same way she does now, "all easy and fun".

She may not be able to change a diaper, she can't flip a flapjack and most of all: she can't cook, but "what a wife!", to speak in Uncle Felix' words.

Next week a post about The More The Merrier (1943), also staying in the spirit of war, where torpedoes and wartime housing shortage play a big role.

Credits:

Produced by William Jacobs & Jack L. Warner; Directed by Peter Godfrey; Story by Aileen Hamilton; Screenplay by Lionel Houser & Adele Comandini; Cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie; Art direction by Stanley Fleischer; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet


Sources:

  1. “25 Days of Christmas: Christmas in Connecticut (1945).” Journeys in Classic Film. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2015/12/12/25-days-of-christmas-christmas-in-connecticut-1945/.
  2. “A Film Celebrating Bad Cooks: Christmas in Connecticut.” Cary Grant Won’t Eat You. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://carygrantwonteatyou.com/christmas-in-connecticut/.
  3. Bryant, Joyce. “How War Changed the Role of Women in the United States.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, n.d. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2002/3/02.03.09.x.html.
  4. Chafe, William H., and William Henry Chafe. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century. Oxford University Press, 1992.
  5. “Coleman’s Corner in Cinema...: Christmas in Connecticut (1945).” Accessed January 4, 2016. http://colemancornerincinema.blogspot.be/2008/12/christmas-in-connecticut-1945.html.
  6. Godfrey, Peter. Christmas in Connecticut. Comedy, Romance, 1945.
  7. Levison, Frances. “American Woman’s Dilemma.” Life, June 16, 1947.
  8. Ptak, John F. “‘Her Work’ Visualizing the100-Hour Work Week of the 1947 Housewife.” JF Ptak Science Books, June 1, 2010. http://longstreet.typepad.com/thesciencebookstore/2010/06/jf.html.
  9. says, Kelly. “1940’s Fashion - Housewifes Daily Routine | Glamourdaze.” Accessed January 4, 2016. http://glamourdaze.com/2011/02/1940s-fashion-housewifes-daily-routine.html.
  10. Stein, Sadie. “Silver Belles.” Paris Review Daily, December 19, 2013. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/12/19/silver-belles/.

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