' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Christmas Holiday (1944)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Christmas Holiday (1944)

The title of Robert Siodmak’s 1944 film is taken from the Christmas Holiday of a young G.I., Lt. Charlie Mason (Dean Harens). He is all golly-gee and gee-whiz and intends to fly home to San Francisco to propose to his truly beloved. It’s setting itself up as another in a long line of festive yuletide romances, keeping us warm around the flickering silver screen. But then Charles receives a telegram. It is from his truly beloved. She has gone and married another. (Assume Hans Gruber vocal affectations...) Ho. Ho. Ho.


That is when we receive our first inkling that “Christmas Holiday” may not be content to play so nice. Indeed, Siodmak, working from a screenplay by the great Herman Mankiewicz, seems to purposely be trying to throw us off the scent. Now you may know the film stars Gene Kelly and so you may know he will have to factor in at some point, but the film remains intent to lay down the groundwork with Lt. Mason instead. If his naïve outlook is stained by his not-to-be fiancé, it is ruined by his encounters in New Orleans when his flight is diverted there in the midst of a storm.

At his hotel Mason meets a hard-drinking writer named Fenimore (Richard Whorf), whom you can imagine Mankiewicz modeling after himself, who explains a (cough, cough) hostess at the Maison Lafitte nightclub, Valerie de Merode (Gladys George), is notorious at getting wayfaring strangers out of jams, and so they hustle over in the rain and lightning to see if she can provide a solution. Frankly, booking Mason passage in a raging storm when all the flights are grounded seems beyond her or anyone’s doing, but then Fenimore is less aid-worker then iniquity-enticer.

Mason meets Jackie (Deanna Durbin), a singer when she’s not busy (cough, cough) hostessing. They chat. They dance. They get a bite to eat. He squires her back to his hotel room and makes up a place for her on his couch because she INSISTS she will not take his bed. It’s all warm & fuzzy, rated PG. Sentimental, yes? Hmmmmmm, to quote another Mankiewicz script, yes and no. Jackie confesses her secret. Her real name is Abigail Manette, wife of Robert Manette (Kelly), whose charming veneer belies a problematic Mama’s Boy Disorder – mirroring a couple notable Hitchcock villains – and a penchant for gambling, which is his downfall when he murders a bookie and he and Mother (Gale Sondergaard) go to great lengths to cover it up.


She relays her whole story to Mason on the night before Christmas, opening with the tragedy, doubling back to the believable romantic prelude and then reciting the inevitable downfall. Mother blamed Abigail, because of course she did, because her boy is only God’s greatest gift even if he’s clearly not. There are more than a few shades here of Anna Schmidt and Harry Lime, a woman who cannot bring herself to stop loving a man committed to an illicit lifestyle. Kelly does a nimble job playing a smoothie with a heart of darkness, and the further into the film we get the more we and Abigail are able to detect the motherly manipulations at play. Thus, Abigail is left with a choice - stand by him or start over.

Ultimately "Christmas Holiday" is not as much about its aw-shucks G.I. being made to roll around in the gutter nor Manette's true self revealed as it is about Jackie genuinely giving way to Abigail. With sleight of hand, the film slowly wins us to Jackie's side, much like Mason finds himself to drawn to Jackie, and we root for her to leave her past behind and complete the necessary process to becoming new woman.

But that's nonsense for Christmas fables and, as Jackie says, Christmas is really just for kids. We ain't kids anymore. We know better. We know Christmas is the darkest night of the year, and it is Christmas night when we realize Jackie's true self - she is Abigail, she is in the throes of her own psychosis, and a character we thought we felt genuine affection for, we feel nothing for at all.

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