Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Holiday (1944)

With the exception of an extended scene which takes place at midnight mass, there’s little here to suggest either Christmas or a holiday. What we have is two stories of lost love and final redemption woven together in a drama/noir under the direction of one of the incomparable masters of noir, Robert Siodmak.

The protagonist in this piece is played by the songbird of Universal, Deanna Durbin. According to reports, Durbin was single handedly responsible for pulling Universal from the grasp of bankruptcy. Seems I’ve seen this same remark applied to everyone from Frankenstein to Abbott and Costello but that’s beside the point. Here Miss Durbin is allowed to forsake her schoolgirl persona and actually display both her ample dramatic talents and cleavage. Seeing them both is a pleasant surprise given her cinematic resume up to this point.

Starring in the role of the homme fatal and also playing against type is the master of acrobatic dance, Gene Kelly. This was an early screen appearance for Kelly and perhaps the powers in Tinseltown had yet to determine in which direction his career would go. If so, with the release of Anchors Aweigh the following year, the point would be moot.

The story unfolds with the receipt of a “Dear John” letter to a newly graduated Army officer (Dean Harens) who hops on the first flight heading west to confront his former lover in San Francisco. Fate steps in to play a hand with foul weather forcing the flight to land in New Orleans to wait out the storm. While drinking away his misery in the hotel bar, the young Lieutenant is visited by a drunken (is there ever any other type) news reporter who also serves as a pimp for the local house of pleasure. Convincing the young officer he can offer a solution to his problems, he gets him to ride out with him to the whorehouse that supplements his reporters pay and keeps him well liquored up.

Arriving at Madame Valerie de Merode’s joint we and the Lt. are introduced to Durbin’s character, the resident canary, Jackie Lamont. Little surprise that with Durbin in the film we’ll of course be “treated” to the obligatory staged musical number found in most noirs of the period. Rather than being the classy numbers we’re accustomed too, here the lighting is bleak and the mood somber. In other words, just what one would expect given the type of establishment and the direction of Siodmak. While others within the place are doing what comes naturally, boozing and hooking up, Jackie and the Lt. decide to attend mass! In an elaborately staged scene in church Jackie breaks down to the point of being inconsolable when the weight of her troubles can no longer be contained. We’re now sure things are not what they appear to be and the Lt.’s problems will soon become secondary to the story about to unfold.

Moving on to an all-night diner Jackie reveals herself to be one Abigail Martin, and tells her story via the staple of noir flashback. The story is one of her meeting and marriage to the lying, gambling, murdering, and generally no good momma’s boy, Robert Monette (Gene Kelly) and his overbearing mother played beautifully restrained by Gale Sondergaard. Suffice to say, Robert turns out not to be the man Abigail fell in love with or more correctly she was blinded by love to the real man he was. As if building a house of cards, one by one the foibles of Robert manifest themselves to the point that the inevitable collapse must occur.

While lacking some of the action we’ve come to expect from noirs, Christmas Holiday nevertheless packs an emotional punch that more than makes up for those missing on the physical side. While Kelly’s adequate here, the real centerpiece here is Durbin in a performance that’s sure to change one’s impression of her talents.

Backing up the stars in addition to Harens, and Sondergaard are a bevy of noir stalwarts; Gladys George, John Hamilton, Oliver Blake, John Berkes and Charles Cane. While not Siodmak’s strongest noir outing (my vote would be for The Killers, while many would opt for Criss Cross) Christmas Holiday is thoroughly entertaining.

Couple of last notes; while Durbin get the opportunity to warble though a couple of songs, Kelly’s not given the same chance to demonstrate his non-parallel dancing talents. That said, in an obvious tongue in cheek move there is a scene in which Kelly asks Durbin to dance. Precisely upon the point of arriving on the dance floor the band concludes the number and the dance never comes off. Lastly, when if came time to hand out the Academy Awards, Christmas Holiday walked away with one Oscar, that for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. With Durbin and Kelly how could it not win something related to music?

Written by Raven


Anonymous said...

Good review. It might interest you to know that Durbin did not want to sing at all in the picture. That decision was made by the suits. She was trying to break out of her "little miss fixit" songbird persona. Alas, the public want that.

Anonymous said...

Here is some background information about this amazing film:

Anonymous said...

It was an odd little film. Who would have thought that something with the word "Christmas" in the title would be a real film noir?

You failed to mention that the story was by British author W. Somerset Maugham, which is a curiosity. He's not known for noir.

I was somewhat puzzled by the Gene Kelly mama's boy character. It seemed to be hinted at that he was gay, with a taste for the rough trade of the gambling scene. Was his marriage to Durbin a bit of a lavender relationship? Or am I misinterpreting things?

I got real tired of hearing "Always."

Wes Clark

Anonymous said...

I especially love the cathedral scene in this movie - it is quite haunting and beautiful. Deanna Durbin is fabulous in this role - quite a contrast to her usual movies.

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