Friday, August 24, 2012

Classic Movie Blog Association’s Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon: Christmas Holiday (1944)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association in honor of the 100th birthday of one of the silver screen’s most talented and innovative practitioners of dance.  For a list of the blogs participating and the movies and subjects covered, click here.

After triumphs in such Broadway plays as The Time of Your Life and Pal Joey, Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly signed a Hollywood contract with independent überproducer David O. Selznick in October of 1941—who then proceeded to sell half of that contract to M-G-M, which allowed Kelly to make his impressive debut (alongside Judy Garland) in the musical Me and My Gal.  Buoyed by the success of that film, M-G-M unit producer Arthur Freed bought the other half of Gene’s contract—despite reservations from the studio—and began to cast the young talent in musicals such as Du Barry Was a Lady and Thousands Cheer.  With Kelly on the cusp of movie stardom, the studio also tried him out in dramatic roles in non-musical pictures like Pilot #5 and The Cross of Lorraine.  His success in both of those films demonstrated that Gene Kelly was more than just a song-and-dance man.

In 1944, Kelly was loaned out to two other studios—first to Columbia to make Cover Girl (which co-starred Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers), the musical that inarguably put him on the musicals map (Kelly devised the innovative sequence that allowed him to dance to his own reflection), and then to Universal to play a dramatic role opposite one of that studio’s big moneymakers, Deanna Durbin.  Durbin had rescued Universal in the late 1930s from bankruptcy with a string of successful musical comedies that featured her as the winsome girl-next-door who usually had to settle a crisis within the span of each film’s running time.  Durbin was anxious, however, to break out and do something different—so she convinced Universal to let her exercise her dramatic chops with a film loosely based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  The result: Christmas Holiday (1944).

The film opens with a young Army lieutenant, Charles Mason (Dean Harens), preparing to embark on the titular sabbatical courtesy of a week’s leave from the service…but before he’s out the barracks door he gets a “Dear John” (a telegram, of all indignities) from his fair-weather fiancée letting him know there won’t be trouble with the seating arrangements at their nuptials…she’s married someone else.  Distraught, he decides (for reasons unexplained) to head out to San Francisco but when his plane is grounded in N’awlins due to inclement weather, the airline puts him up in a hotel room for the night.  At the hotel, he meets up with in-his-cups reporter Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf), who’s apparently working on behalf of the city’s tourism bureau since he graciously offers to take him to a whorehouse run by madam Valerie de Merode (Gladys George).

Okay—they don’t come right out and say “This is a cathouse”…but it’s fairly obvious that’s what it is (there are a lot of young women in there showing men a good time, and despite what you may have seen in movie and TV westerns, dance hall girls did more than just dance), with Fenimore acting as pimp to lure male customers to the joint, collecting a monthly stipend for his trouble.  Lt. Roberts takes a shine to chanteuse Jackie Lamont (Durbin), who, after belting out the Frank Loesser classic Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year, agrees to join Charlie at his table.  She also accepts an invitation to accompany him to midnight Mass for Christmas Eve (the management asks that you refrain from any It Started with Eve jokes) and afterward he treats her to a nosh at an all-night coffee shop.  When she reveals that she’s going to have to hang around the diner until the next bus comes by in the a.m., he chivalrously invites her to spend the night in his room (all perfectly innocent—she in the bed, he on the couch).  Touched by his kindness, she begins to open up by telling him that her real name is Abigail Lamont…and then relates her sordid story.

Abigail meets a charming young broker named Robert Manette (Kelly) at an evening concert, and afterward the two of them engage in a whirlwind courtship.  She’s very much in love with Robert (their “song” is the Irving Berlin standard Always, heard and sung by Durbin throughout the film), and he’s serious enough about marriage to introduce her to his mother, played by Gale Sondergaard.  (TDOY’s admiration of Ms. Sondergaard is well-known throughout the Internets—but if we were a demure young thing wanting to marry into a family at which she sat as head, we would run fast and run far.)  Mother Manette welcomes Jackie into the family fold because she believes the two of them can restore her son’s strength—but as it turns out, he’s a bit of a wastrel and a cad…and murders a man one night for his bankroll.  The cops pick Bob up for the deed and a subsequent trial finds him guilty as sin…so while Manette is made a guest of the state, Abigail enters her own purgatory by becoming a torch singer in that sleazy New Orleans dive.

A movie whose reputation is loftier than the finished product, Christmas Holiday is not a readily accessible film for viewing in this country—I purchased a DVD copy from a Mom-and-Pop outfit many years back but when I got the chance to score a Region 2 disc I handed off Mom-and-Pop to my longtime online pal Pam.  Holiday is a favorite among Deanna Durbin fans, chiefly because she was cast against type and allowed to stretch her cinematic muscles some.  I think Deanna is wonderful in the moments of the film that detail the early days of courtship between the characters played by her and Kelly.  But when things get dark and “Abigail Manette” descends into the hell that is the New Orleans brothel where she gets by with tips and a song…Durbin comes up woefully short.  She mistakes speaking in a monotone for world-weariness, and all through the movie I kept thinking that a stronger actress would have made Holiday a more rewarding watch.

Though there are some flaws with Kelly’s Manette—it’s never really explained to my satisfaction his descent into crime other than a fundamental weakness in his Southern aristocrat character—Gene is able to pull off his change-of-pace portrayal far more successfully than his co-star.  It’s a shame Kelly never attempted another role like this once he matured more as a thespian—the closest I think he came was in the 1950 noir Black Hand.  Again, the innate charm of Kelly comes to the fore in the scenes where he and Durbin’s Abigail are just getting acquainted…and it’s not that difficult to believe that Abigail never stops loving her husband even after she learns that he’s a killer and is on a one-way trip to the Big House.

In Holiday, the Deanna Durbin character describes how happy the first six months of her marriage were with "Robert, Mother and me."  What's wrong with that picture?
The most interesting scenes for me in Holiday belong to Sondergaard, who is…well, there’s no getting around it—that woman is pure dagnasty evil.  You know just from the first glance of her character that Mother Manette has a twisted Freudian hold on little Robbie, and yet Gale is able to modulate her performance by reigning in the urge to go over the top with it.  There’s also a very effective scene just after Kelly’s Manette is convicted of murder and both Sondergaard and Durbin are walking in lockstep out of the courtroom and through the court house, ignoring reporters’ questions…then all of a sudden Sondergaard stops and confronts Durbin, blaming her for her son’s predicament and slapping her across the face.  Durbin’s character has been relating this to Harens’ Roberts and she’s seen forlornly holding her hand to her face as the flashback ends, letting the audience know she can still feel the physical and mental sting of Sondergaard’s rejection.

Christmas Holiday was scripted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’s perhaps best known as the Oscar-winning scribe of Citizen Kane…and like Kane; Holiday uses the flashback technique as a framing device to further the plot.  I don’t think this was a particularly good idea because it sort of waters down a bit the fascinatingly bleak tone of the film (I’m not going to reveal the ending here, only to tell you it’s not a happy one); it also introduces characters that I think the movie could have done without, chiefly Lt. Roberts.  (Actor Dean Harens had a rather extensive career in movies and TV, most notably a semi-regular role on The F.B.I.—but I really wasn’t all that impressed with him here.)  Gladys George is great in the kind of role she could have played in her sleep, and of course I always have difficulty refraining from grinning when I spot serial and B-movie favorites like Eddie Acuff, Oliver “Geoduck” Drake, Joe Crehan, Louise Currie, John Hamilton and Cy Kendall in bit parts. 

But I don’t want to wave anybody off in watching this film; the expert direction by TDOY fave Robert Siodmak is first-rate as always (I love the extended crane shot as Durbin and Kelly descend several flights of outside stairs at a restaurant) and the musical score by Hans Salter grabbed an Oscar nomination, adding a feather to the film’s cap.  Christmas Holiday did very well at the box office for Universal…though Durbin took a little heat at the time from her fans, who have since forgiven her for taking a walk on the wild side in the “hostess” role.  If you can track down a copy of Christmas Holiday it’s definitely worth your while to watch young Gene Kelly at the beginning of what would be a long and fruitful career.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent review, as always. I haven't caught up with this one yet, but the idea of these leads in those roles is intriguing.

policomic said...

I like the film, and Durbin's performance, more than you do, Ivan, but those are obviously subjective judgments. I do want to clarify one plot point, though: Harens is going to San Francisco because that's where he was supposed to marry his girl. After he gets the Dear John, his friend tries to talk him out of following through with the trip, but now he's determined to go there and--well, that's not made entirely clear, but his ex-fiance and her new hubby are going to get a stern talking-to, at best.

In the end, Durbin's obsessive devotion to Kelly's sociopathic character convinces Harens that sometimes it's better to let go of resentment and get on with your life.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

After he gets the Dear John, his friend tries to talk him out of following through with the trip, but now he's determined to go there and--well, that's not made entirely clear

Perzacrly...which is why I engaged in the "for reasons unexplained" shorthand that I did. So he's going out to Frisco to...what? Confront his unfaithful girl? Deliver a fondue set? Offer to house-sit while they're honeymooning? The framing device with Roberts is, I think, the weakest part of the film -- he's not a very interesting character and I think the movie would have been better if they had just started with the Durbin-Kelly romance from the get-go.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

The framing device with Roberts is, I think, the weakest part of the film

His character is named "Mason," not "Roberts." Don't ask me why I keep doing that--I've no idea.

KimWilson said...

An interesting film on two fronts: both Kelly and Durbin got to play against type. Nice post, Ivan.

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, I've read a lot about this film in the last few years, but your post is the first I've read that actually makes me want to see it! I'm not that familiar with Deanna Durbin, so I don't think her being cast in an atypical role would bother me as much as Alice Faye in "Fallen Angel." The presence of Sondergaard and Gladys George, Mankiewizc as writer, and noir expert Siodmak as director are certainly good recommendations for this film.

Classicfilmboy said...

I have not seen this one and while your admirable review points to its shortcomings, I'd still like to find this one and give it a go. For all of its faults, it still sounds intriguing. And I do like watching Gale Sondergaard go all nasty in a film :)

Rachel said...

I only got to see half of this movie and it's definitely intriguing, if hardly Siodmak's best. The Christmas mass scene is beautifully shot. For me, the problem with the framing story is that it has no real relation to Durbin's. If Harens' plot had more dramatic weight, you could turn it into a tale of two lost, tormented souls finding a connection on Christmas, but tormented Harens is not. Great review, Ivan, as always.

Dawn Sample said...

I hope, that TCM airs it this December. So, I can view it for the first time..

Thank you for spotlighting it..