Sunday, July 24, 2011

Christmas Holiday (1944): Have Yourself an Edgy Little Christmas or Respite From the Heatwave


Christmas Holiday. The name sets forth images of festive shoppers, skirting past lavishly decorated store windows, Yuletide parties, both hip and homespun, trees, lights, carols and mistletoe. Given these impressions, a film by such a title might seem to be filled with music, laughter and/or a warm hearted message of hope and happiness. Anyone who has ever seen Christmas Holiday (1944), knows that assessment is dead wrong, dead being the operative word. In fact, the production from low key, low cost Universal Studios, is a dark and brooding film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, no stranger to the genre.

Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the story centers around the relationship between a handsome and seemingly affable young man (Gene Kelly) and the pretty young woman (Deanna Durbin) he meets and marries. But it soon becomes clear that the young man, Robert, is a gambling, psychopathic mama’s boy, who murders a bookie. His na├»ve and trusting wife, Jackie, continues to love and believe in him, even after she discovers his shady alter ego. With hints of incest and gossamer veiled prostitution (Jackie’s self inflicted punishment for not “helping” her screwed up husband enough), Christmas Holiday is a psychoanalyst dream, complete with a mysterious, possessive mother (Gale Sondergaard, who was born to play such a part).

Casting the leads was the real surprise for moviegoers who saw the film in 1944. Deanna Durbin was the reigning sweetheart at Universal since she signed on almost a decade before. Unknown Durbin had made a short film called “Every Sunday” in 1936 at MGM with then also unknown 14 year-old Judy Garland. It was a screen test of sorts for the two young hopefuls. Metro kept Judy and Deanna signed with Universal. It is said that the lively Durbin’s popularity saved the struggling studio from bankruptcy. Her films were light as a feather and always featured her lilting operatic voice. Christmas Holiday was chosen as her first dramatic role and it was reportedly her favorite.

Like Durbin, Gene Kelly was cast strongly against type. Getting his start in musical theater on Broadway, Kelly had only been in films a couple of years, mostly starring in musicals. The role of Robert Manette was a complete about face for him. An interesting turn though and one that showed a different facet to a growing film star. The novelty of an already intriguing film was the casting of such fluffy and pleasant musical celebrities as dark downers in an offbeat offering.

Contrary to what one might think, the musical lilting heard by Deanna (after all, this IS a Durbin picture), has nothing to do with Yuletide yearnings but instead love ditties by lyric powerhouses including "Spring WIll Be A Little Late This Year" written by Frank Loesser and “Always” by Irving Belin. No dancing though, Kelly saved plenty of that for his other 1944 photoplay, Cover Girl, also on loan-out.

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