CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, despite its cheery title, tells a decidedly unhappy tale, directed with style by Robert Siodmak in 1944. It began five years earlier as a bestselling book from W. Somerset Maugham, but had resisted screen adaptation with Hays Office censors taking issue with the plotline of an Englishman meeting a Russian prostitute in a Parisian brothel as a “story of gross sexual irregularities.” Trope-averse screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz massaged the characters into a lovelorn G.I. meeting a nightclub hostess in New Orleans, with ‘nightclub’ a veiled bordello and ‘hostess’ code for hooker. That the dame in distress was played by one of America’s reigning musical-comedy sweethearts, Deanna Durbin, was considered jolt enough.
Jilted just prior to shipping out, a dejected Army officer meets singer/hostess ‘Jackie Lamont’ (Durbin), who reveals herself to be ‘Abigail Manette’, wife of convicted murderer ‘Robert Mannet’ (Gene Kelly), the dissolute scion of an aristocratic Louisiana family. Surface charming but unable to best his impulses, Robert was shielded by his domineering mother (Gale Sondergaard): innocent and trusting Abigail has been drawn into a web of psychological corruption and malevolence.
Kelly was tapped to play a good number of guys who were in one fashion or another heels, light variety, redeemed by the right gal or cause: here he’s an outright louse, maybe a bit too arch to fully convince. Sondergaard revels in the ‘high drama’ aspect as the warped mama. Durbin (who quite liked this role) does fine by the downbeat material, bereft of the gaiety that marked her sunny musical comedies. She does get to sing once or twice, and the plaintive Irving Berlin ballad “Always” figures, as does a concert hall sequence featuring a segment from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: Hans J. Salter’s scoring earned an Oscar nomination.
Solid box office of $6,200,000 took 48th place for the year. With Dean Harens (as the sad sack soldier), Richard Whorf (the scuzzy reporter), Gladys George (running the ‘nightclub’), David Bruce, James Flavin. 93 minutes.
* 1944 was a terrible year for much of humanity, but a good one for Robert Siodmak, scoring with this (one of Durbin’s top moneymakers), Phantom Lady, The Suspect and Cobra Woman. Noir, though not yet christened as such, emerged as a dynamic theme in ’44 with Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Laura, To Have And Have Not, The Woman In The Window and Murder My Sweet. In the next five years Siodmak would add to the banquet The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry Of The City, Criss Cross and The File On Thelma Jordon.
The ever-compelling Gale Sondergaard, racking seven movies that year, was for some reason demoted to 6th-billing here, even though she’d won an Oscar (the first Supporting Actress, in 1936, for Anthony Adverse) and had added sly luster to numerous high-profile productions.