The brassy confidence of Robert Siodmaks twisted 1944 tale starring Gene Kelly cast against type as a charming murderer deserves to win it more plaudits during the annual Frank Capra love-in
Maybe in some far-off galaxy theres a planet that is a complete replica of Earth, with one exception. No one knows or cares much about Frank Capras 1946 movie Its a Wonderful Life, but every Christmas all the TV stations and cinemas show Christmas Holiday, made a couple of years before. This entirely bizarre but captivating noir melodrama, which takes place over one Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, is directed by Robert Siodmak and written by Herman Mankiewicz, adapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham.
Christmas Holiday is really strange; it even beats Die Hard as the least Christmassy Christmas film of all time. But its my favourite seasonal movie. It baffled everyone on its original release. In her book The Star Machine, a study of the Hollywood studio system, Jeanine Basinger writes that audiences were initially attracted by the cast: lovable musical comedy stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin. That, and the title, led them to expect feelgood yuletide entertainment. But they positively reeled out of the cinemas, alienated by this weird, fragmented, obsessive story of killing and unwholesomely close mother-son relations, in which Kelly was playing a creepy murderer.
Actually, Kellys performance is fascinating: the nice guy with a nasty secret. By casting against type (although admittedly Kellys sunny image would only be fully formed in the next decade), Siodmak gives him something menacing, the air of reined-in violence and torment that Hitchcock would give attractive performers like James Stewart and Cary Grant. It was only on seeing this film that I noticed the scar on Kellys left cheek, just above his mouth.
The story features a clean-cut army lieutenant, Charles Mason (Dean Harens), going home to San Francisco for the holidays, miserable and unlucky in love. Bad weather forces his plane to make a stopover on Christmas Eve in New Orleans. In a hotel lobby, he is accosted by the drunk and louche journalist Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf) who insists on taking him to a joint, apparently a nightclub, where dances from hostesses can be bought and much else besides. One of the singers is Jackie Lamont (Durbin), a shady lady who makes desultory conversation with Mason.
Then, in a truly bizarre twist, the boozy reporter appears to make a joke about Masons uptight, clean-living attitude he gives him a leaflet for Midnight Mass at the nearby St Louis cathedral. Mason decides there and then to go, and Jackie begs to join him, with a strange, overwhelming passion. Once there, she bursts into hysterical tears at the sound of everyone singing O Come All Ye Faithful. Durbins crying really is rather shocking in its very real-sounding anguish. On this terrible night before Christmas, she spills her awful personal story. She has changed her name (its really Abigail) and is married to a notorious convicted and imprisoned murderer, Robert Manette, played by Gene Kelly, who killed a bookie for a roll of cash. Flashbacks, shown daringly out of sequence, reveal how their relationship disintegrated as Abigail came to suspect that her charming husband was capable of awful things. The movie has an interesting cinematic coup when the obnoxious journalist Fenimore steps on to the screen in this flashback section, linking past and present.
What is most oppressive is the fact that they were living as young newlyweds with Roberts very grand and protective southern mother, played by Gale Sondergaard, who appears to be withholding from Abigail what she knows about her sons propensities. It all builds up to a horrible climax in the present day that is, Christmas night, although it is one of this films oddities that aside from some remarks at the beginning, and the midnight mass scene, none of the characters refers to the fact that it is Christmas, or that various diners and clubs are open on what the title declares is a Christmas holiday.
Of course, the film is flawed: it is disconcerting, to say the least, that Roberts crime itself is not explicitly dramatised in flashback. But the brassy, eccentric confidence of Siodmak and Mankiewicz creates a cult noir classic. The unapologetic intensity of the acting, just short of out-and-out hamminess, makes Christmas Holiday addictively watchable, right up to Siodmaks preposterous flourish, a moment verging on crazy camp, when there is a Christmas miracle, and Abigail is released from the emotional hold that Robert has still has on her, and the clouds part to reveal a beautiful starry sky. Is it an allusion to the Christmas story? Difficult to tell. But this work deserves Christmas classic status.
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