Today we get into a festive spirit and reminisce about
Christmas Holiday (1944)
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Starring: Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly
It is Christmas Eve in the midst of World War II and Charlie Mason is a young soldier in the Army who has just graduated from boot camp. He is expected to be shipped out the following week with the rest of the recruits; before that, is going back home to marry his sweetheart over the Christmas holidays. Unfortunately for him, he receives a telegram from her indicating that she married someone else but Charlie decides to go home anyways. Bad weather strikes and his plane is forced to land in New Orleans where he is put up in a hotel until the next available flight. There, he meets an offbeat reporter by the name of Simon Feniman who, seeing Charlie’s sadness, offers to take him someplace that will cheer him up. They arrive at a nightclub called Maison Lafitte and Charlie becomes acquainted with a beautiful yet reserved singer named Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin). They share a bit of small talk and eventually go to midnight Mass together, where Jackie becomes very emotional. Afterwards, they get a bite to eat and eventually back to his hotel where she begins to tell him about her husband.
In reality, “Jackie” is Abigail, a young woman who was married for six months to Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) before he was sent to prison on a murder charge two years prior. Abigail and Robert lived together with his mother. One day, Robert’s mother discovers a huge wad of cash in his pants when trying to remove a stain from them. Robert becomes panicky and Abigail later sees mother put the pants in an incinerator. Shortly thereafter, the police come to the house asking to see Robert, though they will not specify exactly as to why. Ultimately, Robert stands trial for the murder of bookie Teddy Jordan and is sentenced to State Prison. Both Robert and his mother blame Abigail for his conviction, so she promptly leaves town and starts as a new life as “Jackie”. Despite Robert’s wrongdoings, she still loves him and when he escapes from prison on Christmas Day, tries to help him.
Why did Robert come back to Abigail? Will she leave with him and, if so, will they get caught? How will Charlie react to the events?
Background & Thoughts
The first thing that most people, including myself, notice about the film is the ‘against the type’ casting of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Durbin was Universal’s It-girl who dominated romantic comedies and musicals while Kelly, though then relatively new to Hollywood, was a song and dance man. Putting them in a film noir was bold yet spurred interest because they were very well-liked within the industry. The result was positive at the box-office and for Durbin, who recorded her highest grossing film then to date. Though financial numbers were good, it did not have a huge effect on breaking Durbin’s on-screen image and bringing her more varied roles. As for Kelly, the film was hardly a remarkable notch in his career. He had received considerable praise earlier in the year for his work in Cover Girl opposite Rita Hayworth and right after this film would go on to do Anchors Aweigh for MGM. Christmas Holiday had no influence on MGM’s plans for him and is sometimes omitted from listings of his online filmography. Kelly would later attempt to do as Durbin did and try to breakout into more serious roles to no real avail. He eventually conceded to being best known for his musicals, at least grateful for that success especially after work dried up towards the mid-to-late 1950s.
Despite stellar star treatment, the film failed to live up to my expectations. It is quite a shame particularly since there were many talented people behind the film’s premise. The story is based on the novel of the same name written by W. Somerset Maugham. He also penned the novel Of Human Bondage which had earlier been made into a feature film starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Considering that Maugham was known for his rather controversial approach to writing, I find it regretful that some of the darker and racier details of his novel were completely ignored. The screenplay was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, older brother of Joseph, who found his treatment to be some of the best work in his career. Granted that Mankiewicz had to respect the Hays Code at the time, he failed to develop key information such as the Manette family being aristocratic and revealing the tainted nature of Robert’s personality. Also, “Jackie” was supposed to be a prostitute working in a brothel though it was conveniently changed to being a nightclub. (In all honesty, I was not fooled at all upon seeing Jackie’s professional surroundings for the first time.) As for director Siodmak, this film is now considered one of his most watered-down efforts and, overall, a weak entry to the catalogue of 1940s film noir.
The actors themselves leave much to be desired. Durbin hardly looks like a femme fatale character although she is dressed accordingly. She was only 23-years-old when filming took place and she appears much younger, at times almost like a schoolgirl. Most of her screen time is spent having either an expressionless regard or one where her eyes are filled with tears and her lips are quivering. Even her singing performances are lacklustre. There is a severe lack of range in her dramatic acting capacities, very much like her co-star Kelly. He is almost laughable at times in his attempt to portray a cold-blooded killer. You can see that he at least tries to do the job but all that shows is terrible overacting. (This is not isolated to Christmas Holiday in Kelly’s case. His other attempts at playing straight roles were usually not successful or convincing.) The supporting cast is largely un-noteworthy with the exception of Gladys George, a fantastic character actress of the day best remembered from her role in the James Cagney gangster noir The Roaring Twenties. Dean Harens, who plays Charlie, gives a very decent performance for his first film role but you can see why he only starred in six more pictures after this one.
Luckily, not all aspects of the movie are bad. There are many great, classic film noir characteristics present. Notably, you have people up and about at all hours of the night and it gets to a point in the film when you are slightly confused as to what time it is … even what day it is. Charlie and Jackie go to eat at a diner after Midnight Mass, which surely makes it around 2 a.m. and people are bustling like it is the daytime. I have always found that fascinating for some inexplicable reason, perhaps because I enjoyed late hours in my younger years. There are also many shadowy shots as well as men in trench coats and hats slightly tipped to the side. It is clear that the production team invested in concocting a very plausible film noir atmosphere. If only the writers had taken the time to expand on the story and find ways to work around the Code’s restrictions. When you look at it, Christmas Holiday’s 89 minute runtime is short, especially for a film noir. Heck, Kelly does not even appear until after the 25 minute mark.
I am happy that I came across this film because I made a pretty great discovery, even if my experience is more valuable to me in terms of film history knowledge gained rather than being treated to a Christmas-related film noir. Admittedly, I was excited when seeing Gene Kelly’s name because I have seen a large portion of his body of work and am a great fan of his. Oh well, you can’t win them all! In any case, I would absolutely recommend this but more for die-hard Classic Film fans over just being a casual viewer.