Have yourself a very noirish Christmas…
After recently hearing about this film, I was optimistic that I had found a gem for the holiday season, a film noir with a Christmas setting directed by one of the masters of dark cinema, Robert Siodmak. To say the least, it sounded intriguing. When the DVD arrived in the mail, I watched it that same night staying up later than I should, considering it was going to be rise and shine at 5AM the following morning.
With the title, “Christmas Holiday” and the two stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, on the surface this sounds like a festive holiday film along the lines of “White Christmas” or “Holiday Inn.” However, with Robert Siodmak directing you know you are not in for bright fluffy musical extravaganza. The film is more fascinating in spots than a first-class work overall. Sad to say the two leads offer rather flat performances, though Durbin has one shining moment. The script by Herman J. Mankiewicz is written with an uneven storyline. Deanna Durbin, best known for light musicals, is unconvincing in what was supposed to be her big dramatic breakthrough. A nervous Universal threw in two songs for her to sing, Frank Losser’s “Spring Will Be Late This Year” and the Irving Berlin classic, “Always” just to cover their bases.
The film is set on Christmas Eve and day, though you would not know it from the opening scene. It is graduation day for a group of new cadets at West Point. Now consider what was just said, Christmas Eve, December 24th at West Point in upstate New York. It should be cold; freezing, instead the weather and the clothes all are wearing make it seem more like June in Florida. You also have to question the validity of a cadet class graduating on Christmas Eve. I won’t even mention the oddity of there being a Christmas tree in the barracks…oops I just did. I thought this was all a bit sloppy and quickly put me off. More important is the rest of the opening sequence that introduces secondary character, Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens) to the story. After the ceremony, Mason receives a cruel “Dear John” letter from his fiancé and decides to catch a plane for San Francisco to try and convince her the breakup is a mistake. Inclement weather, forces his plane to land in New Orleans (an indirect route, to say the least, going from West Point, New York to San Francisco but this is 1944 and I have no idea what air travel was like in those days). Anyway, in New Orleans, the young officer meets Jackie Lamont (Durbin) a “hostess” at a sleazy nightclub run by Valerie de Morode (Gladys George). This is arranged by sleaze bucket newspaper reporter, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). We find out Jackie Lamont is really Abigail Manette who has had a rough go of it. She unloads on Mason, and us in flashbacks, her tale of woe. She first meets Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) at a concert and is quickly charmed by the young handsome man. Quicker than you can say “Gotta dance!” they marry, however it soon becomes apparent there are hidden secrets; a domineering mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), and a husband with a gambling addiction who cannot pay off his debts and eventually murders his bookie. Despite mother covering up for her son’s crime, (she burns a pair of his blood-stained pants) Manette is caught, put on trial and sent to prison. Blamed by her mother-in-law for not helping Robert enough with his problems, Abigail’s dream marriage has turned into a nightmare of the darkest proportions. Back to the present, we soon learn Robert has escaped from prison and is seeking revenge.
Based loosely on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the location was switched from Paris to New Orleans. The nightclub where Jackie/Abigail works, a bordello in the novel was turned into a nightclub in the film, though you can easily read between the lines and realize Durbin’s character is working there as a prostitute, and that newspaper reporter Fenimore has a sideline pimping for the Madam, club owner de Morode.
As a film, it is better in parts than as a whole. Director Robert Siodmak does the best possible with an uneven script and to his credit he does gives us one of his most visually startling sequences in the film. This occurs when Lt. Mason and Jackie go from the nightclub/whorehouse she works at directly to this cathedral size house of worship where midnight mass is in progress. Siodmak lingers on the ceremonial proceedings, the music, and the prayers before closing in on our couple in one of the crowded pews. Here we see Jackie breaking down and crying, overcome with the emotional pain and guilt life’s ugly events have bestowed on her. Definitely, Durbin’s one shining moment in the film.
Acting kudos go to Gale Sondergaard’s performance as the overprotective mother, Gladys George as the nightclub owner and Richard Whorf as the slimy newspaperman. If you find yourself overdosing on the saccharine coated festive fare, you may want to try this dark holiday treat and have yourself a very noirish Christmas.