This essay from May 1987, succinctly titled "Connecticut in the Movies," looks at Connecticut's on-screen portrayals from the silent era on, and examines the various, sometimes contradictory ways Hollywood tends to view our state.
The author, Professor Paul Stacy, taught film and literature at the University of Hartford for 25 years. Readers who might have read this story when it was first published may also remember his Emmy award-winning "Stacy on Film" segments on WFSB Channel 3 from 1980–1985. (Professor Stacy passed away in 2018.)
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Connecticut in the Movies
A look at 67 years of Hollywood image making, in which our state has been variously portrayed as a silver-lined playpen of New York City, a land of rich, indolent snobs, a setting for horrible events, a harsh slob-world...and, sometimes, as a real place.
By Paul H. Stacy
There is an amusing scene in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—the 1949 Bing Crosby version—that will not mean much to natives of Iowa or Nevada. Hank the Yank recovers from being knocked out. He doesn’t say, “Where am I?” He says, “That can’t be Bridgeport.” Sir Sagramore smugly assures him that he has landed in paradise-on-earth: “That’s Camelot.” Hank’s response is great. He says, “Connecticut was never like this.” What was Connecticut like? Have movies given us an image—or a stereotype—of this state or of its natives?
Actually, there are several images, standing at varying distances from Camelot. The first is a pretty label: This is New England or This is America and Isn’t it Cozy? The second is closer to reality, except that it is never clear whether Connecticut is a place to escape from or into. The third image presents a grim Camelot-was-never-like-this portrait that, whether true or false, probably makes those poor souls in Iowa and Nevada glad to be where they are.
The last vision of Connecticut is as complex as life itself. This doesn’t mean that films in this category are always great; it means that they are honest. Without honesty there can be no greatness.
Connecticut first appeared in the movies nearly 70 years ago, in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East. (Hartford area residents will recognize Lillian Gish on a stretch of the Farmington River behind the Reading Room.) Then came the first version of A Connecticut Yankee (directed by Emmett J. Flynn, starring Harry Myers and Pauline Stoke), followed by a string of silents—Society Secrets (1921), The Heart Specialist (1922), Turn to the Right (1922), Little Eva Ascends (1922), Bad Company (1925)—and then dozens of talkies that pretend to take place in Connecticut, or may mention Connecticut, but to little purpose. For example, in Frank Capra’s Flight (1929), the hero plays football for Yale. In Capra's For the Love of Mike (1927), the hero rows for Yale. In Hold 'em Yale (1928), Rod LaRocque also plays football for Yale. In Splendor in the Grass (1961), Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) flunks out of Yale. And in Hawaii (1966), Abner Hale (Max Von Sydow), who in 1820 goes to Hawaii to convert the savages, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School. In Hawaii he meets Keoki, another Yalie. In such movies, Harvard or Princeton would have done as well. In none was there any filming on the New Haven campus, nor any reason for it.
The Heart Specialist (1922) is set in Essex; a doctor and his sister are trying to poison a wealthy man. When a female reporter discovers the plot, they throw her into a well. The plot, the well and the happy ending—the doctor is himself poisoned and the reporter escapes from the well to marry the wealthy man—have nothing in particular to do with Essex.
Similarly, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), which sounds as if it might present a Norman Rockwell picture of the state, has little to do with Connecticut. An unmarried newspaper columnist, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is asked by her editor to entertain a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan). Though she writes a column about houses beautiful, she doesn’t have one. The movie's comedy, or frenzy, is that in an hour she quickly rounds up a house, a husband and a baby (the props of respectability). Again, though Christmas takes place in Connecticut, it was filmed on Hollywood studio lots and sets.
Come to the Stable (1949), directed by Henry Koster, is based on an implausible Clare Booth Luce story: Two glamorous nuns want some land in Bethlehem (Conn.) for a children’s hospital. With cunning, prayer, hard work and seduction, they get a nice plot of land, an arts-and-crafts shop, and a racketeer for a sponsor. The two nuns are Loretta Young and Celeste Holm. The movie was not filmed in Connecticut, but would have been no less farfetched if it had been.
Tunnel of Love (1958), on the other hand, did have some scenes filmed in Connecticut. The tunnel in the title is the New Haven tunnel under West Rock Cliff Park of the Sleeping Giant. A childless couple (Doris Day and Richard Widmark) are eager to have a baby. A lady adoption agent (Gia Scala) comes to the house and offers her services—to Widmark. Gene Kelly misdirected. The film can’t be taken very seriously.
However, Promises in the Dark (1979) gives every indication of wanting to be taken seriously. Seventeen-year-old Buffy Koenig (Kathleen Beller) of West Hartford learns from her doctor (Marsha Mason) that she has terminal cancer. Buffy smiles bravely though her hair is falling out and her leg has been amputated: “Forgive me. I never died before.” Scenes filmed in Hall High School in West Hartford and on location in the area don’t help. (Vincent Canby of The New York Times took one look at the way the potentially tragic situation was exploited and dismissed the movie as “neither inspiring nor depressing but coyly morbid.")
Disconnected, made in Waterbury by Gorman Bechard and Carmine Copobianco, is a murder story full of “sex, violence and comedy.” ingredients that, says Bechard, “titillate the soul." A low-low budget effort filmed in 29 days in October and November 1983 for $26,000, and starring Frances Raines (Night Shift, Model Behavior, Cotton Club), the movie has scenes filmed in a bar called Toad's Place, in the Park Cinema and on Grant Street. Some authenticity is achieved by location shooting. But except for that offensive hillside Holy Land, it could be New Jersey. Delaware or Indiana. Nor do the horrible events in Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), filmed on location at Lake Waramaug and New Preston, have anything to tell us about Connecticut. [Ed. note, April 2021: 1981's Friday the 13th Part 2 (produced in 1980) was shot in Connecticut, but the original film was produced in New Jersey.]
One year before The Other was a movie (1972), there was, of course, the novel by Tom Tryon. Born in Hartford in 1926, graduated from Yale with honors in 1949, Tryon began his career by painting scenery at the Cape Playhouse, in Dennis on Cape Cod, moving on to Hollywood, where he acted in an assortment of B pictures, before going on to some fairly good parts in better movies— The Longest Day, In Harm's Way and Memento Mori. His most famous role was in The Cardinal (1963), the same part for which Gregory Peck, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole auditioned unsuccessfully. Though largely set in Boston, some scenes in The Cardinal were filmed in Stamford. Half dissatisfied with his acting career, and half inspired by reading Rosemary's Baby, Tryon turned to writing fiction, cinematically. His novel. The Other, is about 12-year-old twin boys, Holland and Niles Perry, one good and one wicked (though he looks like a Botticelli angel). Their supernatural story—in which the demonic brother murders a baby, frightens a neighbor woman to death and more— takes place in 1935 in Pequot Landing, "a typical Connecticut river town, small, unpretentious, elderly,” faithfully reproduced for the film in California.
Pequot Landing is obviously Wethersfield. The places mentioned—the Avalon ridge across the river, the Shadow Hills, Valley Hill Road, Talcutts Ferry, Church Street, Knobb Street, Fiske Street, Packard Lane and Pilgrim Drug Store—are thinly disguised places around Wethersfield. The novel’s Babylon, however, does not really exist in Wethersfield. It is a fictitious institution at the end of the trolley line, a symbolic End of the Line. The trolley line did exist, however: Until Sun., May 18, 1941, the Blue Hills Avenue trolley passed right in front of the Tryon family home on the comer of Wolcott and Church in Wethersfield.
Films like The Other address the metaphysical or mystical eye. The place where strange events unfold is mere background; true authenticity may threaten the suspended belief required of us. Other films address the physical eye, demanding an attention to either the land itself or the materialistic values of the place where character molding and interacting take place. In such films, our belief requires authenticity of place. Filming a Connecticut film in Connecticut is no absolute guarantee of authenticity, but it is the right place to start.
Consider the importance of place to any character in a Robert Flaherty documentary; Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, Louisiana Story, Moana of the South Seas. One gets the impression in a Flaherty film that the real focus is less the person in his natural setting than the natural setting itself and its impact on whatever is in its way. If you glance at a history of movies, you will be struck by how often centrality of place marks documentaries—not just Flaherty’s. Remember Berlin: Symphony of a City, Land Without Bread, Son of Ceylon, Spanish Earth, The River, Que Viva Mexico, NY NY, Harian County, The Silent World. Often documentaries achieve their authenticity by a slight shift of focus from the people to the environment. When this shift occurs in non-documentary films, the people in and against the landscape—the Joad family, Lawrence of Arabia, Shane, Sally Field in Places in the Heart—achieve a heroic stature that is more gratifying than the self- contained nobility of heroes like Rocky, Indiana Jones, Superman, James Bond, Dirty Harry and Rambo.
In the 1958 movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, a plot of land becomes obsessively important to three people. Ephram Cabot (Burl Ives), whose pride of ownership is practically his very manhood, marries in order to have a housekeeper so he can give more time to his land; he has children to help him on the land. Anna (Sophia Loren) marries him not out of passion, affection or companionship—but simply to have a home and to protect her future. And behind every move on the part of Ephram’s eldest son (Tony Perkins) is his concern for inheriting the land. It need not be, of course, Connecticut land. It is land per se. But it is unfortunate that the film is so conspicuously filmed on a set.
Parrish, Mildred Savage’s 1958 novel- turned-movie (1961), is another film that, following the naturalistic tradition of farm, plantation or ranch movies, stays close to the earth. At its best, it takes its significance and values from the farming of tobacco; at its worst, it wanders away from the land into “Dynasty”-type melodrama.
Half of the characters derive their function in life directly from their tobaccoing; Parrish MacLean (Troy Donahue), city-bred, moves in to claim the soil as firmly as James Dean in Giant. Others stay remote from the soil; Ellen McLean (Claudette Colbert), Parrish’s mother, is “like some kind of Dresden doll you had to be careful not to break.” (But even she “could coax a dry turnip into a blooming rose.”) Both groups define their identities against the backdrop of land that makes them what they are.
Parrish has half a dozen scenes of interest to Connecticut residents. The movie opens with Parrish crossing the Connecticut River on the East Haddam ferry. In another scene, an airplane flies over Windsor, Granby, Suffield and Bloomfield—“6,000 acres of tobacco under tent,” the pilot explains to Parrish and his mother. They are driven to the Sala Post (Dean Jagger) home in South Windsor— a white clapboard house with green shutters, a large porch with elegant columns and a big two-car garage. The more imposing house, which belongs to the wealthiest man in town, Judd Raike (Karl Malden), is the Thrall estate (owned by Mrs. Francis Milliken) in Windsor Raike has an office in what is now the Parkside Hilton; from his window, you see the State Capitol Building. Both families often go to “the shore”—Groton, Old Saybrook, the Terra Mar Hotel in Essex—and to yachts anchored at a nearby marina. When Parrish joins the Navy, he is stationed first at the New London Submarine Base (many shots of the gate, the buildings, the training field, the submarines) and then on the USS Nautilus.
Parrish returns from the Navy to take over Sala Post’s fields. The crew he gets to work for him come from “Valley High.” Actually, they were 100 Loomis Chaffee students—75 girls and 25 boys—hired by the day. Two of those onetime student extras, Bancroft Greene and Maryanne Lavitt, remember well how they got out of classes for a day-and-a- half, had to sing a work song they hated, and were paid $22.50 a day—which the school insisted they turn over to a building fund.
The fire that destroys Tully’s shed and fields was staged in East Windsor, between Route 5 and the Connecticut River. An unused barn there, behind St. Philip’s Church, belonged to First Selectman John L. Daly; having given up tobacco farming five years earlier to enter politics, he sold the filmmakers the empty barn, watched them fill it with hay and light it. He reports that the Warehouse Point Fire Department, three miles away, rushed down and put the fire out, not knowing it had been intentionally set.
Unfortunately, all the marvelously authentic exterior scenes—documentary-like shots of tobacco planting, growing and harvesting, and tobacco problems (fire, worms, blight, fire poisoning)—are undermined by the music. Max Steiner seems determined to carry you off to Old Virginia, cotton plantations, Tara—anyplace but Connecticut tobacco country.
In many movies about Connecticut, the state is not so much a place as a signal for a particular audience response. Connecticut is a bucolic suburbia—a dullness from which one must escape, perhaps into the excitement of New York, or conversely, a serenity where one retreats to get away from it all. Sometimes Connecticut is simply a rural bedroom for New York, a bedroom where one recuperates, creates life or ends life (often by suicide).
Let’s look at the escape pattern: Connecticut as numbing dullness or imprisoning suburbia. In Boys' Night Out (1962). for example, four Connecticut men—Tony Randall, Fred Williams, Howard Duff and Howard Moss—rent an apartment in New York City where they can engage in sexual hanky-panky. Three of these men are married. It is interesting, if unconvincing, that only the single man becomes seriously entangled with one of their pickups (Kim Novak). Then, she turns out to be a student doing research for a sociological tract.
Loving (1970) shows us a commercial artist, played by George Segal, happily married to Eva Marie Saint and living in Westport, where some scenes were filmed. He has a mistress, or mistresses, in New York, in whose arms, presumably, he finds solace from dreary domesticity. The film ends with a big Fairfield County cocktail party, where closed-circuit TV reveals him in a number of additional sexual betrayals. Westport, possibly because it’s New York's bedroom, is frequently the perfect stereotype of Connecticut’s upper-class milieu. The word Westport seems to conjure up a world of upper-class modes and mores.
Jenny (1970) is also about people trying to escape. Unmarried Jenny (Marlo Thomas) leaves Connecticut for New York because she is pregnant. Delano (Alan Alda), desperate to avoid the draft, agrees to marry her. (The Connecticut scenes were actually filmed in New Jersey.)
Amore classic escape from Connecticut is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first movie version, a 1921 silent, is merely slapstick. In Twain's novel, the young blacksmith is bumped on the head and sent reeling into a different century. But what does a Connecticut blacksmith have to escape from? Not mechanization, but class snobbery. So, this 1921 version makes him a wealthy young man whose mother wants him to marry Lady Gordon; he, however, is in love with his mother's secretary. This snobbery is at the very heart of the image of Connecticut in Hollywood movies—a point we’ll get back to.
The second movie version, made 10 years later after a Depression that made snobbery offensive, resurrects the Twain blacksmith (here played by Will Rogers) who is hit on the head. He is thrown back into the world of King Arthur (William Farnum), Morgan LeFay (Myrna Loy) and others (Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Albertson), but for no very good reason, social or otherwise.
The third movie version (1949) is a Technicolor musical. This time, it is a singing blacksmith, played by Bing Crosby, who is captured by Sir Sagramore (William Bendix) and taken to Camelot.
In another batch of films, the theme becomes escape to Connecticut, a serene retreat where the exhausted or desperate come from New York to find peace. A farcical look at suburban paradise is Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). A young advertising man (Cary Grant) wants to be a country gentleman. He earns $15,000, has a wife (Myrna Loy) and two daughters, commutes during the building to New York; in building his Connecticut house, he runs into construction bandits (Reginald Denny, Ian Wolfe, Harry Shannon).
In My Six Loves (1963), Debbie Reynolds, a Broadway star, collapses on stage and is ordered to go to her home in Connecticut for “absolute peace and quiet.” In the same year, Van Johnson in Wives and Lovers, suddenly wealthy from the sale of a novel to both Broadway and Hollywood, buys a home in Connecticut to escape the pressures of success. Perhaps the most dramatic example of Connecticut as an escape destination is seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Two wealthy young men, whose privileges convince them they are above the law, decide to prove their superiority by committing a murder. The stronger and more arrogant of the two (John Dali) keeps commenting that to recuperate from the evening's excitement, he will have to go to the peace and quiet of his mother’s home in Connecticut. (The home is the proof of the boy’s aristocracy.)
In Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), Doris Day plays a character who comes to Connecticut looking for peace of a more permanent kind. When Margaret (Day) discovers her husband's infidelity, she retreats to her cottage in Connecticut. (Some people say it was filmed in Killingworth; others say no, Chester. Margaret is too distraught to care.) There, she drinks poison and dies. Meanwhile, Waldo (Robert Morse), another troubled soul—he’s feeling guilty about having embezzled from his company—is driving by. Lost, he goes to the cottage to use the telephone, finds the door open, sees the glass of water. Naturally. he drinks it—who wouldn't?—and dies. He collapses across Margaret's body. At this point Margaret's husband, Peter, drives up and finds the two of them, entwined in death.
Elizabeth Taylor, too, chooses Connecticut as a good place to die at the end of Butterfield 8 (1960). As Gloria Wandrous, a high-class prostitute (“I was the slut of all time”), she can't find happiness, so she comes to Connecticut to find peace.
Sometimes people leave New York for Connecticut not for peace and quiet, but because their work brings them here. A theatrical troupe in Little Eva Ascends (1922) tours the state, coming to the Goodspeed Opera House (actually a Hollywood studio set), in Reuben, Reuben (1983), poet Gowan MacGland (Tom Conti) comes to "Woodsmoke, Conn.," a town near New Haven, to give a reading. Kelly McGillis, an actress in the film, says it was not filmed in Connecticut, but in North Carolina. In any case, the women of Woodsmoke come across as bored, frustrated, effete.
Which is just how a great many Connecticut people come across in the movies—as wealthy, indolent snobs. Even if snobbery is defeated— even if, for example, the society man marries the farmer's daughter or his mother’s secretary—the triumph of equality is sanctimonious and holier-than-thou.
Hollywood's idea of Connecticut glamour goes back to the '30s, when the good life of Connecticut was pleasantly if unconvincingly depicted in such screwball comedies as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Topper (1937) with Gary Grant, Topper Takes a Trip (1939) and Topper Returns (1941). (In the Topper films, decidedly upper-class ghosts, played by Cary Grant, Constance Bennett and Joan Blondell, keep returning to visit elegant homes with French windows, delicate furniture and spacious gardens, and to hobnob with their classy occupants—Roland Young and Billie Burke.)
Speaking of ectoplasm, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud of 1975 has scenes filmed at Bradley Airport, but the transference of a murdered man’s psyche into the body of Peter (Michael Sarrazin) transcends geography and class.
The class difference is never merely the Rich vs. the Poor. A fuller definition is needed. First, wealthy Connecticut characters are almost always from an old family—with name and family tree, land and a traditional home, servants, pool, jewels, big cars and lean horses. (The high tone is also cinematic—a matter of lighting, camera angles, color, music and editing.) And Connecticut aristocrats are always WASPs. They are probably of English, maybe Scottish, descent—but hardly ever Irish or Welsh, and certainly not Jews, Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, blacks or Orientals. Non-WASPs can be gardeners or cooks or chauffeurs or maids. Dooley Wilson is a butler in Come to the Stable (1949). In Splendor in the Grass (1961), Bridgeport in 1920 is nothing but a Polish reservoir of hired hands for wealthy families in WASP enclaves such as Westport and Greenwich. In Without a Trace (1983), which has scenes filmed in a house in downtown Bridgeport and on I-95, the kidnappers are immigrants, hiding Kate Nelligan's boy in pathetic lower-class squalor.
Quite unlike the terrible events of Without a Trace, the problems of Connecticut people in most movies are depicted as slight, domestic or comic, the characters are frothy, foam-headed and superficial. In Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), based on then-Westporter Max Shulman's novel, the problem revolves around the fact that Paul Newman, married to Joanne Woodward, discovers his neighbor to be Joan Collins; things come to a head when Paul's wife finds him and Joan together—she in a flimsy negligee and he with his pants off. The Four Seasons (1981), filmed partly at Wesleyan in Middletown, is also about marital problems among a rather tight group of four couples; the most serious mishap is that an expensive Mercedes car sinks through the ice of a frozen pond. Sometimes the problem is money, as in The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968): A Connecticut widower (Dean Jones) lives beyond his means; on top of that, his silly daughter runs up horrendous bills at a riding stable. And very often the biggest problem is boredom: In The Stepford Wives (1975), the women of a small Connecticut town—the movie has scenes filmed at Norwalk's Lockwood Mathews Mansion, Darien (shopping scenes) and Weston (the psychiatrist’s house)—are weary of drinking, garden clubs, bridge and playing at women's liberation.
When sound first took movies by storm, few Hollywood actors could speak well. Their accents were wrong, their pitch was wrong for the microphones. So Hollywood took its cue from Broadway: The elegant speech of the Barrymores became the standard. It is the standard speech of the Connecticut stereotype—somewhat nasal, theatrical, self-conscious, educated and aristocratic. In All About Eve (1950), the speech is not only theatrical, but articulate and witty. The dialogue is some of the brightest of any American movie. It won an Academy Award for best screenplay. Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) lures Margo Channing (Bette Davis) to her country home and causes the star to miss a train, and thus a performance of her play, so that ambitious understudy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) can go on. The tryout is in New Haven (a scene unfortunately marred by conspicuously poor back-projection work). The critic, Dewitt Clinton (George Sanders), tells Eve that “to the theater world. New Haven, Conn., is a short stretch of sidewalk between the Shubert Theater and the Taft Hotel surrounded by what looks very much like a small city.”
Even the silent film Society Secrets (1921) points out the way in which Connecticut class and speech become intertwined. There are good country people who talk like hicks and there are sophisticates who speak Manhattanese, or theater language The difference splits a family wide open. Amos and his wife live in a Connecticut farmhouse; their son and daughter move to New York, become so sophisticated that they cannot invite their rustic parents to visit them until they go to a finishing school, like Miss Porters, to learn English. The happy ending of Leo McCarey's film is, of course, that they learn to speak and are accepted by their children and their New York friends. In Connecticut, it seems, speech is an important factor in determining whether one belongs on the top or bottom.
Dragonwyck (1946), an intertitle tells us, begins on “A Road near Greenwich, Conn., 1844.” The plot poses one question: Does dreamy Miranda (Gene Tierney) belong in the harsh slob-world of Greenwich (an unexpected reversal of the usual cliche) or in the refined but decadent world of the Hudson Valley aristocracy? Miranda's conclusion is that since she comes from the bottom of Connecticut, she doesn’t belong at “the top of the Hudson."
Class is precisely the point, finally, of a number of movies in which a Connecticut locale or the mere mention of Connecticut helps to establish a sense of the pampered, superficial lives of people beneath whose surfaces there sometimes lurks treachery and violence. “I've always noticed," says someone in the British film, Firepower (1978), “it’s you rich, soft, pampered people who are so in love with violence. You’ve never experienced it. You just want to see it.”
In some movies—Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train—this is certainly true. In the latter, which opens with railroad-track scenes filmed in Danbury, Hitchcock establishes class differences just by showing two different pairs of legs. And despite the murders in both films. Connecticut aristocrats are shown not so often as violent as socially cruel.
In the Frank Perry movie, The Swimmer (1967), based on a John Cheever short story, a man of the land crosses FairfieldCounty, stopping at—and swimming across—10 different pools. The people the swimmer (Burt Lancaster) meets are only fractionally human; they are absorbed in their lawn mowers, pool filters, champagne, caviar and sexual escapades.
Though Cheever was from Ossining, N.Y., the noise of air traffic made filming there impossible. So Perry, who had lived in Westport since the age of 14 and got his theatrical start at the Westport Country Playhouse, chose Connecticut. "We could have found in California an area visually similar to the Connecticut locale, but it would have lacked the validity so essential to the film," he said.
He and his wife. Eleanor, who wrote the script (earlier they had together done David and Lisa) had friends in Connecticut, so during the three months that Burt Lancaster was in training with UCLA swimming coach Robert Horn, Perry went scouting for locales, settling on 14 homes in Westport (including Lawrence Langner’s) and Weston (including J. Delano Hitch’s) and the Lake Club of New Canaan and hiring extras (including 50 school kids on summer vacation). He used a lot of Connecticut talent—his artdirector was Peter Dohanos of Westport, and his actors included Jan Miner, who was appearing that summer at Stratford as Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Barbara Loden of Newtown and Larry Haines of Westport.
Behind the opening credits, the camera pans for three minutes (exactly as The Other opens), showing us the countryside of Connecticut. In vowing to return home by this mock-heroic route, Ned Merrill resembles Ulysses—noble, compulsive, vainglorious, a man of lyrical outbursts, a love of adventure and a kinship with place.
Rachel, Rachel (1968) is one of a handful of movies about Connecticut so fine that they fall into another category: films that are works of art because they evoke a true sense of place, and of people within that place, in such a way as to illuminate the meaning of what it is to be human.
Rachel, Rachel shows Danbury to be a typical New England town—farms, movie houses, stores, schools, woods, fields, cow pastures and people—people who have the uptight haunted quality of O’Neill characters. Watch the discomfort these characters have with the religious love-in. Emotions flash forth awkwardly—the kissing of a hand, talking of abortion, the abrupt confessing of love.
There are many ways in which the movie achieves psychological veracity—excellent acting, astonishing editing by Dede Allen (juxtaposing present events against the past, contrasting dark scenes and light), voice-over narrative (allowing ideas to contradict action), visual symbols, and so on—but not the least of them is filming outdoors in Connecticut in such a way as to contrast a wavering personality against a solid unyielding locale. Joanne Woodward's Rachel is not unlike Lillian Gish's Anna in Way Down East: a sensitive, complex, trusting soul at the mercy of natural and human events slightly beyond her experience or comprehension.
When Rachel, Rachel illuminates the problems of life, living and death against its Danbury locale, it manages to reach universality. Such transcendence, more easily achieved in literature than in film, allows us to recognize ourselves, our family, our friends as anchored in a particular localized condition that is also representative of something larger—the human family.
A few years later, Paul Newman caused a flap when he said in a 1973 Cosmopolitan interview not only that Bridgeport was “a terribly depressing little town" but that even the mayor agreed. The mayor denied he had said it. The evidence of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the- Moon Marigolds (1972)—showing a more dismal Bridgeport than even Without a Trace does—supports Newman.
The Effect of Gamma Rays shows Connecticut at its worst. The Bridgeport locale includes an awful downtown section, with dreary scenes in a grocery store, on broken streets, at a school, at a bleak Hundorfer house. The house consists of, as Beatrice (Joanne Woodward, again) herself says, a “junk heap" of a living room, a “pig sty” of a kitchen, and a shabby backyard with clothes on the line, discarded furniture and piles of trash. It is as ludicrous for anyone to turn it into The Man-in-the-Moon Tea Shop as it is for bargain wigs to turn Beatrice into a glamorous, seductive woman. As Mark Twain, might have said of her, “She was soiled and seedy and fragrant with gin.“
At one point Beatrice drives along I-95, through one of the toll gates, to a nearby town to get money from Floyd, the brother of her husband who abandoned her and her two girls. Another scene takes place on a country road to which Beatrice has escaped from a half-hearted and ambiguous attempt at rape by a shoddy antiques dealer. He did indeed offer her $30, but the offer was as likely to have been for her lamp as for her body.
In her review for The New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael observed, “Newman has blended Zindel's play into a naturalistic setting ... the play works on its crud and so does the movie."
But these bleak images are [the] exception, not the rule, in movies about Connecticut. Most often, our state is portrayed as a big silver-lined playpen in New York City's backyard. In some cases, restless natives can't stand the dullness of the playpen and escape to what they hope will be big-city glamour.
However, it's two-way traffic. People disenchanted or burned out by New York long for Connecticut's green grass—and pools and horses and big houses and fresh air. Alan Alda in California Suite (1978) has to remind Jane Fonda that “New York is not the center of the goddamn universe; I grant you it's an exciting, vibrant and stimulating, fabulous city, but it's not Mecca—it just smells like it."
With few exceptions, movies agree on one important fact: Connecticut smells good.
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Utopia Studios promised bring a piece of Hollywood to Preston, but it turned out to be a paper moon. ("A Giant Plan," September 2006)
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. (" to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)