When I think of Christmas, I don't necessarily think of film noir. By the same token, when I think of film noir, songstress Deanna Durbin and hoofer extraordinaire Gene Kelly seldom, if ever, come to mind. But Universal's 1944 Christmas Holiday combines all of these elements to produce a memorable Yuletide experience -- with a shadowy twist.
Christmas Holiday centers on Durbin's character, Abigail Manette, also known as Jackie Lamont, the name Abigail adopts in order to distance herself from her past. (But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
At the film's start, we meet Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a serviceman excitedly preparing to travel home to San Francisco to marry his beloved fiancee during his Christmas furlough. Before he can depart, however, he receives a 'Dear John' telegram from his girl, in which she informs him that she's married someone else.
Despite this devastating news, Mason refuses to alter his travel plans, but they're altered by circumstances beyond his control when bad weather forces the plane to land in New Orleans. Put up in a local hotel, Mason meets and forms a connection with nightclub singer Jackie Lamont, who shares her story with him over coffee at a lunch counter. Chief among the information she imparts is that her husband, Robert Manette (Kelly), is a convicted murderer.
In a series of flashbacks, we get better acquainted with Abigail and Robert, who are married only six months when Robert commits the crime that lands him a life sentence in the slammer. Sweet and trusting, Abigail is a blissful newlywed (even though she and her hubby live with his mother, played by Gale Sondergaard) until the morning after the crime.
That's when Abigail starts noticing little things -- like Robert showing up with a bushel full of cash from an unexplained source, and his mother burning a pair of his stained trousers in the incinerator. Or the cryptic conversation between Robert and his mother about something that's not in the newspaper. Not to mention the cop who visits their home looking for Robert.
We learn Robert and Abigail met by chance at a concert, and that Abigail was attracted to his charms, despite -- or maybe even because of -- the fact he seems to be a bit of a loser. Shortly after their meeting, he tells her he's been fired from his job ('I get fired quite a bit,' he further admits), and that while his family's name is well-respected in the town, he doesn't quite measure up.
She agrees to marry him despite the veiled forewarning delivered by Robert's devoted mother: 'There are certain traits in Robert that you may not -- they're nothing really evil, believe me -- he just sometimes forgets his sense of responsibility, that's all...That's why I'm so glad you're the kind of person you are. Between us, we will make him strong.'
But, as it turns out, neither of the Mrs. Manettes are able to save Robert from himself, though you couldn't say they didn't try. After Robert's arrest, his mother hides the money Robert brought home by sewing it into the lining of her bedroom draperies. And, unbeknownst to her mother-in-law, Abigail goes a step further, finds the money, and burns it. Still, his mother blames Abigail for failing her son -- especially when he's found guilty of murder.
In Christmas Holiday, Durbin -- looking far different from the slightly chubby, adorable little moppet who starred in such films as Three Smart Girls (1936) -- does a good job playing a soulful, tortured woman still desperately in love with the man who first stole her heart. Though you may sometimes have the urge to shake some sense into her, you can't help but sympathize for her plight.
She's especially touching in an early scene early, when the lieutenant takes her to a midnight Christmas mass and she falls to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably as the choir sings Adeste Fideles. And as for Kelly -- I can't think of many actors who remind me less of a sociopathic killer, but he pulls it off, using his good looks as a perfect mask for his character's madness. (Incidentally, Kelly doesn't do any dancing in the film, but we are treated to two musical numbers by Durbin.)
Others in Christmas Holiday include Gladys George, as Valerie De Merode, the protective, kind-hearted owner of the nightclub where Jackie/Abigail works as a singer, and Sondergaard, as Robert's steel-willed mother, whose regal bearing conceals a disturbing devotion to her son.
The film was skillfully directed by noir veteran Robert Siodmak, whose other credits included The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1946), and The File on Thelma Jordon (1950). Here, Siodmak keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace and -- in tandem with cinematographer Elwood Bredel -- tosses in enough shadowy scenes to satisfy any noir lover.
Christmas Holiday doesn't feature any scenes with carolers in the snow or shoppers with their arms brimming with gaily wrapped packages, but if you don't mind a little darkness with your drummers drumming, then Christmas Holiday is the Yuletide film for you.
\*\*Christmas Holiday remains unreleased on DVD but those looking for Deanna Durbin in a Christmas noir can watch Lady on a Train (1945)\*\*
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry writes about all things pre-Code and film noir at Shadows and Satin. She is also the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and edits a bi-monthly newsletter on film noir called The Dark Pages.