Maybe you’ve gotten sick on December gingerbread and need some noirish entertainment to cleanse your palate. Maybe you’re craving a warped, dark, mean movie for any month of the year. In any case, you won’t regret watching Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday—even if it is the bleakest film ever to include Christmas in the title.
This stunningly perverse crime drama stars Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as evil incarnate. Warning: there will be NO singin’ in the rain. Just lots of rain. Its subversive beauty and the wrenchingly effective against-type performances of the two leads will stay will you.
This masochistic little yarn follows the recently commissioned Lieutenant Mason on his holiday furlough. He’s stuck in New Orleans for a torrentially rainy Christmas Eve on the way to San Francisco to confront his girlfriend who recently dumped him… via telegraph—Merry Christmas!
Dragged to a nightclub and (let’s face it) a brothel, our young man happens upon baby-faced torch singer and (again, let’s face it) hooker Jackie who begs him to take her to Midnight Mass where she breaks down sobbing. And a Happy New Year!
Jackie eventually tells the impressionable Mason that her real name is Abigail Manette. She ‘fesses up about her marriage to a charming, well-born gambler and n’er-do-well Robert Mannett who ended up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he definitely did commit.
As she remembers, we see Robert and Abigail’s doomed, codependent romance unfold in a series of non-sequential tangled flashbacks. We also watch Robert’s faded Southern belle mother (Gale Sondergaard, wicked and spooky as ever) deciding to blame Jackie for not saving her baby Robert from himself.
Ignoring enough red flags to communicate the script in semaphore, Jackie persists in her delusional love for her murderous, glib bastard of a husband. She wallows in her guilt and punishes herself by becoming a lady of the night.
If the plot sounds predictable and sentimental, I can tell you it simply isn’t so. This film discards clichés like unsold Christmas trees on December 24th. Take the prostitute-crying-in-a-church cliché, lifted straight from Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” in which a troupe of weeping whores teach a group of peasants about the true meaning of Easter.
Well, guess what? When Durban’s fallen woman starts to noisily heave and weep in her pew, she doesn’t offer a spectacle of redemption and spirituality. She’s an embarrassment. An uncomfortable reminder of the discarded people we want to forget about at merry times—the times when we ought to be remembering them most.
As all the faces turn toward the Lieutenant, her escort, as if to say, “What is the matter with you and your girl?” Jackie crumples on the floor. Lieutenant Mason looks down with pity (not empathy, I’d say) and hides her with his coat. The withering indifference of the whole world strips us of many illusions about the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Upon the film’s release, the ever-crabby Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed Durbin’s acting, stating that “[she] is merely adequate in her role.” I disagree.
Throughout the film, Durbin’s rendering of the Garbo-Dietrich fallen woman shtick feels askew—but intentionally so. Because of its awkwardness, its unexpectedness, her performance is simply perfect. We’re watching something we’ve come to see as pure—Durbin and her image—being unmercifully sullied. Durbin never abandons the wholesome, radiantly loving vibe that she channelled in all those musicals… which makes the occasional low-life mannerisms that Jackie’s acquired all the more unsettling and perverse.
Rather than giving us a lesson in noirish coolness, Siodmak employs Durbin’s soulful naïveté to superb effect and demystifies the “gallant hooker” trope. He refuses to glorify a disgustingly twisted relationship, a coupling that would degrade any sane person’s idea of love.
The cuts back and forth between the pure, fresh-faced Abigail of the flashbacks to the faux-vamp Jackie of the present make us realize the silliness of her charade. Jackie’s tough babe act only points to the saccharine motive behind her degradation: atoning for not being a good enough wife. She’s internalized every victim-blaming message beaten into her brain until she wholeheartedly accepts her victimization.
Jackie’s masquerade contrasts with that of her husband. Robert Mannette pretends he’s a decent guy with a few flaws, when it’s not hard to recognize a sociopathic sponger.
Bet you never thought Gene Kelly could look this scary.
Since this is based on a story by Somerset Maugham and adapted to screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane acclaim), we get some off-hand discussion of this identity play in the dialogue, too:
Robert: “Which do you like better: the person I pretend to be or—”
Abigail: “The person you are.”
Of course, the problem with this exchange is that Abigail cannot know the real Robert. This astute shyster possesses enough skill to reveal a few of his minor vices so as to insist on his overall transparency. His disguise is a double disguise—because he acts like he’s taken off his mask.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most deceptive publicity shot Hollywood ever produced… and that’s saying something.
Through exploring these rancid guises, Christmas Holiday punctures two sets of Hollywood myths. Classical American cinema tends to perpetuate, in my mind, two main types of fantasy.
1. The normalcy or domesticity myth: “I’m young and perky and will overcome any obstacles to happiness by standing by my man!”
2. The bad-faith noir or tragically hip myth: “I live a bad life because life itself has ruined me for everything else. You wouldn’t want to be me, but you still do, and you know it, because I’m really cool.”
Yes, these are generalizations, but as my math teacher told me, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
Well, Christmas Holiday takes these two clichés and knocks their heads together. First, we see that homey, domestic dramas of redemption don’t work out in reality. Girl, you can’t pull him up. He’ll pull you down.
Second, and more crucially, Siodmak mocks the glamorous despair of film noir’s beautiful and damned denizens. Bordellos, bookie bars, dance halls—they’re not dreamy or desirable. They’re shabby and absurd. Snap out of it! Which is what we long to tell the heroine of this mordant drama.
Gee, how I love my awful, momma’s boy, murderer of a husband!
Jackie, you see, loves being in love. And not in a good way. She’s addicted to the idea of an eternal, unhealthy, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, a child’s concept of l’amour fou. We feel her swelling girlish visions of passion through grandiose shots of a concert hall where she listens, rapt, to Tristan und Isolde… sitting next to a stranger who she’ll end up marrying. (Warning: do not listen to Wagner before agreeing to go on a date.)
Indeed, two musical motifs dominate Christmas Holiday’s Oscar-nominated score: there’s the majestic, tragic strains of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and then the syrupy repetitions of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (Now, it’s a great song, and a favorite of mine, but anything is absurd on repeat.) The movie contrasts these two love anthems to suggest that when real people try to live out the “Liebestod,” though, they don’t become sublime Tristans and Isoldes or even tragically hip lost souls. They turn into cornballs and bad jokes.
This film also boasts gorgeous chiaroscuro photography by Elwood Bredell, especially during the scenes of pageantry at the high mass, in the nosebleed seats of the concert hall, and in the seedy nightclub.
However, I most appreciate the ways in which the noirish flavor of the domestic sphere comes alive. In this noir, the cozy home isn’t the opposite of the dity city. No, this den of domesticity is just as dirty. Maybe more so. Every place is bad. Some places are just more honest about their badness. Sinister Mrs. Mannette looms in the frame, ogling the newlyweds with malice. Bedposts, windows, bars, and the shadows of windows and bars imprison Jackie/Abigail in almost every scene.
And, by the way, don’t watch this movie if you love Gene Kelly. You will never be able to look at Kelly again without seeing the man who comes home from killing someone and proceeds to make love with his wife as if nothing happened. Or the man who says, “I want a shave. I wanna look pretty when I see my wife again…” even as he plans on murdering her.
Kelly’s spry, lithe physicality suits a vile cad with surprising aplomb and he dives right into the subtle depravity of his character, bringing his wife to a gambling den to teach her all about the things he promises he’ll never do again. As he makes one particularly florid protestation to his fiancée, the sound of unrelated laughter in another part of the bar lets us know, in case there was any doubt, that this man’s promises are worth “two percent of nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.
For me, the greatest scene, the one that gave me shivers, occurs at the very end of Christmas Holiday—and involves a serious spoiler. Robert dies in Abigail’s arms after he tried to kill her. Lieutenant Mason, looking on, gently tells her, “You can let go now.” We see Abigail cradling her husband, her childish face contorted in an unbecoming sob.
And then, something magical happens: a jump cut to a close-up of Deanna Durbin—she suddenly shines, looking grown-up, transfigured, and glamorous, like a cross between Norma Shearer and Garbo. You can see her thoughts click. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault. I couldn’t save him. I shouldn’t have had to save him. I can only save myself. Catharsis. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it. It happened in the space of two shots.
Abigail stands and walks to a window. The stunning backlighting makes her glow. Gazing out a window, she sees clouds part, revealing a twinkling starry sky. It sounds corny, but when I watched it, by God, did it ever work on me. The scene delivers an exhilerating sense of liberation, the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath. I’ve read at least one other review that pans this ending, so perhaps it won’t work for you. But I “bought” it, and I am by no means easily sold on anything.
It’s like a fresh start, albeit one with enough ambiguity to avoid total happy-ending bathos. Sincere, but not gushy. After a downward spiral, we, the viewers, are rewarded with beauty. And we learn a little about what beauty means.
Beauty isn’t commitment to a bad man. It’s not abject self-sacrifice. It’s not despair. It’s none of the platitudes or cynicisms that we may blindly accept.
Beauty is freedom. The freedom to let go of things before they kill you—which they usually do in Siodmak’s work. And that’s the closest to the true meaning of Christmas that any film noir is going to get.