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CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: from the book by W. Somerset Maugham/Herman Mankiewicz; cinematographer: Elwood Bredell; editor: Ted Kent; music: Hans Salter; cast: Deanna Durbin (Jackie Lamont), Gene Kelly (Robert Manette), Dean Harens (Charles Mason), Gladys George (Valerie de Merode), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs. Manette), Richard Whorf (Simon Fenimore); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Felix Jackson; Universal; 1944)
“A compelling film noir despite not digging into even darker depths.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Siodmak (“Phantom Lady”/Criss Cross”/”The Killers”) stylishly directs and Herman Mankiewicz does the taut screenplay, of a dark film noir based on a story by Somerset Maugham. The Christmas title is misleading, as there’s ‘no joy to the season’ in this movie. Gene Kelly and Deanne Durbin are cast against type. Durbin, Universal’s savior because of the huge grosses from her family musical films which saved the studio from bankruptcy, chooses an image change in requesting the lead in this bleak drama. But she balked at playing a prostitute, as her part was written by Maugham. Instead she plays a blues singer in a New Orleans dive. Most of the film is told in flashback.

The film opens with newly appointed army officer Charles Mason (Dean Harens) receiving a telegram that his fiancée Mona jilted him to marry another, even though he was flying to San Francisco on his Christmas leave to marry her before shipping out overseas. The shocked second lieutenant still flies to San Francisco, but his plane makes a forced landing in New Orleans because of bad weather. Stopping overnight in a hotel he’s befriended by a loudmouth reporter Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf), who senses how lonely it is for the soldier to spend Christmas Eve alone and persuades him to relax in a nightclub (which appears to be a front for a brothel). The club’s hostess, Valerie de Merode (Gladys George), introduces Charles to the star attraction, the singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin), and the two later go to a Midnight Mass and she then innocently spends the night in his hotel room where she gets a chance to tell him her story.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Jackie reveals that her real name is Abigail, and that she’s a transplanted Vermonter who three years ago fell in love with Robert Manette (Gene Kelly), who comes from an old aristocratic Louisiana family. Robert’s a charmer and has a pathological devotion to his overbearing mother (Gale Sondergaard), who consents to the marriage because she thinks Abigail can help her wastrel son become more responsible. After six months of a blissful marriage where Abigail is unaware of her husband’s faults, Robert slays and robs a local bookie. Abigail becomes involved in covering up the crime with Robert’s mother as police investigate, but it’s to no avail as Robert is convicted and sent for a long stay in Angola prison. When the mother blames her for not saving her son, Abigail leaves the family mansion, changes her name to Jackie and works in the nightclub. Jackie still is in love with Robert, which confounds Charles. But her story straightens him out, and when the rainstorm clears he decides to skip flying to the west coast and instead plans to go back to the base. Before Charles checks out, he learns Robert escaped and goes to look after Jackie. The soldier discovers Robert holding the reporter hostage in his wife’s dressing room and threatening to kill her after accusing her of being a tramp and unfaithful. Abigail explains she took the gig so she can also be in prison like him. Before the tormented Robert can shoot his wife, a policeman kills him. The last words heard are “You can let go now, Abigail.”

The film uncovers an ugly side to family values, even hinting at incest and homosexuality. Hans Salter’s use of Wagner’s Tristan theme to open and close the relationship between the star-crossed lovers, and Durbin doing a nightclub number of Always to indicate how blind love can be destructive in the way it consumes the soul–reinforces the bleakness of the film noir thriller.

It’s a compelling film noir despite not digging into even darker depths, which is mainly because Durbin refused to be made into a soiled character. Nevertheless, it ably conveys a brooding sense of despair and the sinister performances by Kelly and Sondergaard are special.

REVIEWED ON 10/27/2004 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”