In 1944 when a film co-starred Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, one would think the moviegoer had a right to expect light musical fare — especially with Christmas in the title. But this film with a script by Herman J. Mankiewicz based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, is a film noir directed by Robert Siodmak.
When Joe first saw the film he thought he knew what to expect, but even he was surprised. Kelly gives a chilling performance as a slightly crazy murderer. Gale Sondergaard, the superb character actress plays his possesive and protective mother. Durbin is a bit out of her element but is enough of an actress to make the material work.
But the material is a bit confused. As was typical of the day when censors wouldn’t let a lead character be a prostitute in a brothel, Deanna is a singer/hostess in a nightclub.
It’s worth seeing the film at least once. It’s such an oddity. Supposedly Durbin considered it her only good film.
What strikes us is that today it is difficult to measure the star power Deanna Durbin had. Although some fans and some critics were displeased with her choice of material, they were still loyal. The film grossed over $2,000,000 making it one of the highest grossing films of the year and her biggest grosser to date. In today’s dollars it would be equivalent to the film grossing over $100 million.
When we first discussed this topic (almost 10 years ago) we asked “What could Universal be thinking??” At the time one of our readers, Mark, commented:
What “they” (e.g. Universal executives) were thinking was giving Deanna Durbin an opportunity to play an “adult” dramatic role. She had wanted to for some time, and the box office success of earlier quasi-dramatic Durbin vehicles like THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY (1943) ( a popular success despite its confused production history under Jean Renoir and a largely negative critical response upon its’ release) and HERS TO HOLD (1943) (the final installment in the triumvirate of THREE SMART GIRLS pictures which finds the now (young) adult Penny Craig working in an aircraft factory while pursuing pilot Joseph Cotten, suggested she (and the public) were ready for it.
I too saw CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY on the “big screen,” several years ago at the Harvard Archives. I’m a little surprised Joe wasn’t aware of its’ very adult film noir plot, as, despite its’ lack of availability for public screenings, it’s a favorite topic of film buffs and film noir enthusiasts. Although I wasn’t around when the film was originally released, I’m always surprised (and a bit suspicious) to read that the public who did see it, even those who weren’t fans of Deanna Durbin or Gene Kelly, were “shocked” at the stark and tragic plot of this film. If they were, it certainly wasn’t Universal’s fault. The film received mountains of publicity (“DEANNA GOES DRAMATIC!!”) for months prior to its’ release, and there was a great deal of interest in seeing how Deanna would fare in such an out-of-sort vehicle.
Since its’ release it has remained a controversial film with partisans of Durbin and Kelly, professional and amateur, debating over who gave the more successful performance, and film noir enthusiasts marveling and disparaging over Siodmak’s moody directing style. Although I think both Deanna and Gene Kelly give fine performances, I find Deanna’s the more successful and intriguing of the two, and her role the more demanding one. While Kelly is good, as Jeanine Basinger observed, it is, for much of the film, the typical “Gene Kelly” screen character, his psychopathic tendencies only becoming clear in the last part of the film.
Deanna, in essence, plays three parts: the young girl from Vermont who begins a whirlwind courtship with Kelly after meeting him at a classical music concert, the confused but loyal newly married wife who’s too nice to ask all the right questions when Kelly begins to exhibit his darker side, and the world-weary, disillusioned “hostess” of the classiest, gleamingest looking brothel you’ve ever seen. Siodmak’s moody direction is often marvelous, especially during the extended Midnight Mass sequence, and though the Production Code compromises show, the film remains a stark production of two disturbed individuals destroyed by their obsessions with each other. (If a good look at Gale Sondergaard, perhaps the cinema’s all-time greatest SNEERER, at her creepiest isn’t enough to make you head for the hills, nothing will!)
Despite the almost immaculate look of the “brothel,” there’s little doubt that this is a house of ill repute, and even less doubt what the elderly gentleman has on his mind when he slips a note to a waiter and instructs him to give it to Durbin after she finishes her desultory rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” (Which she introduces in this film in a jazz-inflected style radically different from her commercial recording for DECCA.)
The film is available for viewing on Youtube. Not perhaps the best way to see it, but it’s definitely a film worth seeing, and though it remains a controversial film to this day, appreciation for its’ virtues and fascination with its’ intents have continued to grow through the years.