Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holidaze Review: Christmas Holiday (1944)

With a title like Christmas Holiday and stars like Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, the viewer wouldn’t be unreasonable in expecting a holiday-themed song-and-dance extravaganza, full of laughter and cheer.

Instead, the viewer gets…Christmas noir?

Robert Siodmak, who’d directed the eerily effective Son of Dracula for Universal the year before and would go on to helm such film noir classics as The Spiral Staircase, and Criss Cross, applies his dark sensibilities to Herman Mankiewicz’s adaptation of a W. Someset Maugham short story. And the results are not exactly overflowing with holiday cheer.

Newly minted Amry officer Lieutenant Mason (Dean Harens) is about to head off to San Francisco to marry his girlfriend, Mona, when he gets a Dear John telegram from her. (She’s gone ahead and married someone else.) Heartbroken but determined, he tries to fly to San Fran anyway, but a storm forces the plane to land in New Orleans.

Mason is provided accommodations at a local hotel and heads down to the bar for a bite to eat. There, a drunken reporter (Richard Whorf) convinces Mason to go to a “joint” with him where there are lots of pretty women in pretty dresses, including Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a hostess and singer. (It’s subtly implied that she does more than host and sing, but the Production Code likely frowned upon mentions of prostitution, especially in a movie with “Christmas” in the title.)

When the prospect of going to midnight mass is raised, Jackie practically begs Mason to take her with him, even though he’s not even sure he’s going. He does go, though, and Jackie cries inconsolably throughout.

Afterward, at an all-night diner (and later, in Mason’s hotel room), Jackie explains her behavior: Her name’s not really Jackie Lamont, but Abigail Manette, wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette (Kelly). He’s a ne’er-do-well Southern aristocrat charmer who, unfortunately, is also heavily into gambling and one night kills and robs a man. Robert’s mother (Gale Sondergaard) tries to cover up for her son by burning his blood-stained clothing and hiding the money, but he’s convicted of murder anyway, and Mom blames Abigail for it.

Jackie/Abigail still loves Robert, though…which is quite convenient, really, since he just escaped from prison in time for Christmas.

The gritty material is an ill-enough fit for a holiday-themed movie, but the casting of Durbin (a contract player at Universal best known for her fluffy ingénue roles and beautiful singing voice) and Kelly (on loan from MGM) makes the film feel downright bizarre. Sondergaard is well suited to her role as the domineering, forceful mother, and Durbin and Kelly are charming together in the scenes where Robert is wooing Abigail. Once the story turns dark, though, Kelly looks clearly uncomfortable in the role of a gambler/murderer, and Durbin’s usual bubbly screen persona is suppressed nearly out of existence. She spends most of the movie wearing an expression of beat-down resolve—surviving rather than living—although she does at least get to sing a couple of songs (including a lovely rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which also serves as a recurring theme throughout the movie).

It’s not that Christmas Holiday is a bad movie. There’s plenty to like about it--it’s beautifully shot (Durbin looks exquisite throughout), the music is good (Hans Salter was nominated for an Oscar for his score) and the actors all give it their best shot. Unfortunately, the whole thing is too dour to work as holiday fare and too dark to let Durbin and Kelly sparkle the way they usually do.

Christmas Holiday would be a fine film to watch as part of a film noir marathon or to suit the mood of a rainy day. But if you put this movie in your Christmas stocking, you’re more than likely mistake it for a lump of coal.

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