Toronto Film Society presented Christmas Holiday (1944) on Monday, August 26, 2019 in a double bill with Phantom Lady as part of the Season 72 Summer Series, Programme 7.
Production Company: Universal Pictures. Director: Robert Siodmak. Producer: Felix Jackson. Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell. Editor: Ted J. Kent. Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman. Set Decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Edward R. Robinson. Gowns: Vera West. Music: Hans J. Salter. Release Date: June 28, 1944.
Cast: Deanna Durbin (Jackie Lamont/Abigail Martin), Gene Kelly (Robert Manette), Richard Whorf (Simon Fenimore), Dean Harens (Charles Mason), Gladys George (Valerie De Merode), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs. Manette), David Bruce (Gerald Tyler).
Poor Gene Kelly! This unparalleled Broadway dancer and singer was brought to Hollywood on the basis of his huge success in the starring role of Pal Joey. But his studio, MGM, had little faith in their new star, and willingly lent him out to other studios. In 1944, his performance in Cover Girl at Columbia left no doubt in the MGM administration’s mind that they had a treasure on their hands. But the same year, Universal cast him in a non-singing, non-dancing role in Christmas Holiday as a dark, psychologically disturbed gambler and killer. Welcome to film noir, Mr. Kelly. He acquitted himself very well here, but fortunately for him, his subsequent return to his home studio freed him from this dark world to allow him to shine in the musical genre to which he was destined. The next year, he even received an Academy Award nomination for his leading role in Anchors Aweigh. He would return to the world of crime once more, in the mafia film, Black Hand, in 1950, replacing Robert Taylor. When Pal Joey was finally filmed at Columbia Pictures in 1957, it was Kelly’s co-star from Anchors Aweigh, Frank Sinatra, who copped the role.
Co-starring with Kelly in Christmas Holiday is Deanna Durbin, who at the age of 22, tiring of her sweet films, had requested a truly grown-up role. Her wish came true as a kind of femme-fatale in Christmas Holiday. Her performance is startlingly satisfying, but Deanna’s public was displeased with their idol’s about-face. Therefore, aside from one more detective film, the intermittently comic Lady On a Train, Deanna returned to musicals until, in 1948, totally, fed-up, she married for the third and last time. Her new spouse was the French director of Lady On a Train, Charles David. Deanna then retired permanently to Europe.
Deanna’s retirement to a suburb of Paris was uneventful until many years later when her presence in France was quite clearly brought to the attention of the public. The press reported that there was indeed a former Hollywood star residing in France, for one of her still-numerous and ever-zealous fans (no longer young) had bravely climbed over a sturdy fence surrounding her property in order to catch a glimpse of his aging dream-girl. The break-in was reported by Miss Durbin’s next-door neighbour, none other than Marguerite Duras, the Nouvelle Vague author and filmmaker. (Dare one imagine the conversations that these two ladies might have had over the garden fence while hanging out their laundry?)
Deanna’s popularity is, of course, famous for having single-handedly saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy in 1936. One also likes to imagine the conversations she might have had with another Queen of Universal, the exotic Maria Montez. Our Deanna found herself more than once far removed from her hometown of Winnipeg!
Miss Durbin and Mr. Kelly had the good fortune of being directed here by one of the great talents of film noir. Robert Siodmak had learned his craft in the German Expressionism of the 1920s. In fact, he was one of a team of co-directors of the Expressionist landmark film, Menschen am Sonntag, in 1929. The team included Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann. Eventually, at Universal Pictures, in spite of his talent for noir, Siodmak was obliged to direct Miss Montez herself, who played twins in the campy Cobra Woman of 1944, the same year as Christmas Holiday. Such was his contract in the classical studio years.
Indeed, Siodmak had varied assignments, but in some ways, nothing could equal the uniqueness of Christmas Holiday, the misleadingly titled film noir adapted from a 1939 novel by the author of The Razor’s Edge into a screenplay by the scriptwriter of Citizen Kane. Somerset Maugham meets Herman J. Mankiewicz who meets Robert Siodmak, in the censored Hollywood of 1944. An unlikely trio, to be sure.
Christmas Holiday is their child, – and Deanna Durbin’s favourite film. But what would Deanna have thought of it, had Mankiewicz not diluted Somerset Maugham’s themes of homosexuality and incest in his screenplay?
It would be criminal for us to neglect mentioning two important character actresses who grace Christmas Holiday. Gale Sondergaard, who plays Gene Kelly’s mother, was born in 1899. For her first film, in 1936, she was awarded the very first Academy Award in the new category of Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for a villainous role in Anthony Adverse. A subsequent memorable role was as Bette Davis’s nemesis in The Letter of 1940, also based on a Somerset Maugham source. The next years found her under contract at Universal where she terrified a whole generation of filmgoers in horror films like The Spider Woman. Her career suffered an abrupt interruption when she and her husband, director Herbert J. Biberman were blacklisted during the communist witch-hunts. The critic Pauline Kael recalled in later years that her generation of filmgoers had marvelled at Miss Sondergaard’s performances when they first saw them. In later years she marvelled at their misplaced admiration.
No actress portrayed world-weary pathos better than Glady George. Born a year after Miss Sondergaard, in 1900, she reached an Oscar zenith in the same year, 1936. That was the year when Gladys George was one of the five nominees for the Best Actress of the year, thanks to her compelling performance in the melodramatic Valiant Is the Word For Carrie. Her film career alternated mainly between leads in minor films and supporting roles. Typical of the latter was her small but memorable role as the widow of “Miles Archer” at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon. People still praise her performance as Dana Andrews’ mother in The Best Years Of Our Lives. But, sadly, her roles diminished as her alcohol consumption increased. Gladys George died in 1954 and is now almost forgotten.
Introduction by Cam Tolton
Many noir psychotics hold onto romantic obsessions in ways that destroy themselves rather than inflict harm on others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most memorable of these nervous wrecks are women: Joan Crawford in Possessed; Marily Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock; and Deanna Durbin in Christmas Holiday. Iconographically, all three actresses make fascinating victims: Durbin because she is here radically different from her usual homespun image; Crawford because she is an obviously hard, mean woman playing a pathetically vulnerable one; and Monroe because her own fragility is here presented, for the first and really the only time in her career, as psychotic. In Christmas Holiday, Deanna Durbin atones for her failure to save the man she loves by becoming a whore and a torch singer whose theme song, fittingly enough, is “Always”. She maintains her obsession even after the discovery that her husband is a murderer; she cannot change her feelings even after it becomes increasingly clear that she has married a lily-livered mama’s boy who is also insane. Waging a deadly battle with the dragon lady mother for possession of her husband, she is trapped in a brutal game of psychological warfare. After her husband breaks out of prison and comes to the club where she sings to attack her, she is “cured” of her enflamed and masochistic loyalty. At the end of the film, she stands alone, seemingly transfigured, staring up at the sky, her compulsions safely behind her. But, as so often in films of the ’40s, as Barbara Deming notes in her brilliant study, “Running Away From Myself”, the attempted happy resolution goes against the grain of the entire film. Durbin’s character has been shown as so pathologically obsessed that it is impossible to believe that her husband’s hysterical cruelty towards her after his jailbreak would result in a change of heart. Sustained by her self-imposed role as a guilt-stricken martyr, she is really quite as mad as her husband and his mother.
Christmas Holiday treats its loaded material—there are hints of incest and sado-masochism, along with the heroine’s use of prostitution as a form of self-punishment—in a glancing way typical of many kinky films noir. What gives the film some added impact is that its tough, masochistic heroine and its pathological mama’s boy are played by the normally sweet-natured Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. The clash between the stars’ personae and the twisted characters adds to the gnarled psychology that permeates the drama; it is as if, in addition to all their other problems, the characters are also schizophrenic. Durbin is remarkably persuasive as a lowlife noir psychotic, departing from her syrupy mode yet retaining echoes of it. Gene Kelly is less successful in a part equally rich. He does not suggest a true and intimidating darkness beneath an agreeable façade. His performance looks like nice Gene Kelly trying to be mean. He is really too lightweight—too much a prisoner of his own image—to fill the role of a self-destructive, emotionally-stunted con artist.
Film Noir–The Dark Side of the Screen, by Foster Hirsch, Da Capo Press, New York, 1981.
Notes compiled by Peter Poles
October 2022 – April 2023