This is not a Christmas romance like a Hallmark Channel movie would be labelled a Christmas romance, where Christmas activities, tree lights, carols, etc. are to all intents another character in the story. No, this just takes place at Christmas and is really a Winter Romance. Presents are more like hostess gifts, and the tree was professionally done and seems to be of little interest to anyone, except perhaps the maid. And yet – this is a really funny movie of deception and pretense, almost a French farce the way people are constantly running behind doors to hide, or shoving other people through doors to hide them, and yes, an unromantic wedding becomes a real romance, just not with the same man.
The film begins with a U.S. destroyer being torpedoed by a U-Boat. There are only two survivors, Jefferson Jones, a quartermaster (played by Dennis Morgan), and Sinkewicz (played by Frank Jenks), whose first name and rank may have been mentioned, but I didn’t get them. I can tell you that his nickname is “Sinky”. The men are starving in their life-raft. We see them at 15 days, and Jefferson has been dreaming of food. He says his first meal after rescue will be “a big, thick, juicy steak with a baked potato, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and chocolate cake and ice cream.” Later in the hospital their nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) says they were rescued after 18 days. Not so funny so far, huh? She serves a good meal to Sinky, but Jeff gets a raw egg floating in a bowl of milk. How sick IS this guy? He pushes the bowl aside and opens a magazine to: “Menu of the Month by America’s Best Cook ELIZABETH LANE: Christmas Dinner – Fresh Fruit Cup, Olives, Bouillon, Roast Goose Bernoise with Walnut Dressing, Giblet Gravy, Cranberry-Orange Relish, Buttered Green Beans, Tomatoes, Celery Souffle, Hot Rolls, Lettuce with Russian Dressing, Mince Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Ice Cream, Old Fashioned Plum Pudding, Fresh Fruit, Mixed Nuts, Mints, Coffee.”
You may think that I’m wasting a lot of space on lists of food, but food is kind of the basis of this movie. And yeah, the audience in 1945 probably reacted much like Jeff did to that menu, what with food rationing making most of those foods unavailable. More like Spam Bernoise (or maybe Oatmeal Bernoise) for the ordinary home-fronter! Unless, of course, Elizabeth could raise a goose or two on her farm, but that doesn’t explain the olives or the nuts or the oranges.
Mary returns to collect the trays and Jeff asks why Sinkewicz is getting sold food and he, Jeff, is not. Turns out starvation weakens the stomach and you can’t have solid food to start. “And…”, the nurse reminds Jeff of his sacrifice, giving the last of the K ration to Sinkewicz. Jeff says, “That’s no sacrifice! Have you ever tasted K ration?”
Next Mary reads to Jeff from an article titled, “Diary of a Housewife by Elizabeth Lane”. Lane tells about taking her 7-month old son into the kitchen with her and preparing her husband’s favorite meal. Here comes another list of scrumtious-sounding dishes – I will spare us both. Jeff is miserable, and he asks Sinky for advice. Sinky tells Jeff to use the old magoo – in other words, flattery, to get a decent meal out of Mary. Jeff balks since he already knows that Mary is marriage-minded, but Sinky tells him, “Magoo is different from Baloney” As Jeff gives Mary a sort of indefinite hope, she gets advice herself – set up a homey Christmas for him to get him in the mood. She can’t do much herself, but she can suggest that the famous Mrs. Lane might like to host a deserving serviceman over the holidays, and she can get credit for making it happen. So she writes to Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), the publisher of Elizabeth’s magazine (and many others – the dude is a mogul). He likes the idea and thinks the resulting article will appeal to housewives all over the country. So he calls Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne), the editor of “Smart Living”, the mag that publishes Elizabeth. And now we see that Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a complete fake, a phony through and through. The view from the window of her Connecticut farm’s kitchen is actually a view of a fire escape and tall buildings. There’s no baby – there’s not even a husband. AND she can’t cook! All the recipes come from her “Uncle” Felix – Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall), who owns and runs the Hungarian restaurant around the corner. And of course her editor, her boyfriend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), and Uncle Felix are all in on the deception. Dudley says that it’s simple – just tell Yardley that the baby is sick and you can’t have guests. Elizabeth says, “Whooping cough, or maybe scarlet fever. It’s a better color for Christmas.” But in Yardley’s office she can ‘t talk through his barrage. The man simply doesn’t stop talking. Finally she manages to use the whooping cough excuse, but Yardley booms, “Whooping cough? That’s not contagious to adults!” She says, “I don’t know how to tell you this…”, and he hustles her out of his office saying, “Dn’t try, my dear.”
Later she tells her coconspirators that every time she opened her mouth, he talked. She says she felt like Charlie McCarthy. Then Dudley comes through, telling Sloan that they can use Sloan’s own Connecticut farm for the deception, and John thinks, Aha! She needs a husband too! At last, an opportunity for us to marry, that she can’t have an excuse for! The wedding will be performed by the local judge, Judge Crowthers (Dick Elliott), but what about a baby?!? Sloan says that his maid Norah (Una O’Connor) babysits for a local woman and that the child is at the farm every day. But Elizabeth still can’t cook! Oh, we’ll just take Uncle Felix with us and he can do all the cooking! We’ll leave right now and be there long before Mr. Jones. So they’re set!
Well, actually not so much, because Yardley invites himself as well, and everybody turns up early. But you can see where all the farce-like elements come from, and you can be prepared to laugh a lot once the action shifts to the farm. And watching Sydney Greenstreet try to “form a star” while square-dancing is quite a treat.
Note for the very young: Edgar Bergen, the father of Candace Bergen (“Murphy Brown”) was a famous ventriloquist, who had two major dummies: suave, sarcastic Charlie McCarthy and uneducated yokel Mortimer Snerd. Bergen also appeared in many movies and had a highly rated radio show. He appeared in a Disney movie “Fun and Fancy Free”, where he, Charlie, and Mortimer narrated the tale of “Mickey and the Beanstalk”.