Deck the Halls December: Holiday Affair (1949)
Chestnuts over an open fire, stringing popcorn for the tree covered in Shiny Brite ornaments and angel's hair, hot chocolate after an afternoon of ice skating: it's time for another classic movie Christmas. Cozy up with Rodney and Samantha this week as we discuss Holiday Affair.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: When I think about this movie, little stars start sparkling in my eyes. It is such a wonderful feel-good movie tucked away into the depths of the black and white movie world rarely seen by those unfortunate plebes of the mainstream masses.
Janet Leigh is beautiful in her first film for RKO as the young war widow who calls her son Mr. Ennis and feels reluctant to settle down with her boyfriend Carl (Wendell Corey), even though he is a successful lawyer and a stable presence in her life, qualities she thinks her son needs, though he seems to reject them. She is clearly a young woman unsure of her own mind, allowing other people to guide her through life. There are parallels between Connie and Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street. They're both single mothers who have experienced struggles and have opted to raise their children in a blunt, no-nonsense way who are softened when love enters their lives.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Agreed completely. Leigh is absolutely ravishing here and really shines in a role that has some depth that a lesser actress couldn’t bring to the role. She’s too wise for her age, and yet displays a nuanced naivete as she forges a friendship with Mitchum’s character. This is also an early role for Wendell Corey, who is typically not an actor that I feel sympathy towards, but I do a bit in this film. He’s clearly trying to give Connie what she thinks that she and her child need, which is of course, stability that most people in the actual non-movie world would love. However, as we have learned time and time again through the movies (and also sometimes in life), stability is often a poor substitute for love and compatibility.
SG: Corey is a great contrast to Robert Mitchem as Steve, an unemployed unconventional soul who acts on impulses and imparts his passion for life on Connie Ennis. Upon reflection he isn't a logical choice, but considering Connie isn't required to settle down with anyone, having a relationship with Steve sounds much more attractive than being bored with Carl. He would be a stable choice, but a dull one. They discuss their feelings for Connie openly and maturely, which is a nice change of pace for a film from this era. They give the choice to Connie rather than trying to make it for her.
Off screen, the two men picked on Leigh good-naturedly, and it was a popular set, with people like Lex Barker, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor stopping by to visit.
RB: Mitchum really plays against type here, and that was on purpose. Surprisingly, this is the second time when discussing holiday movies this month that his marijuana conviction has come up. After his prison sentence, Mitchum was forced into this role in an attempt to reform his image. Lila Leeds, (who had a small role in Lady in the Lake ) was not given an opportunity for reform and was introduced to heroin during her prison sentence, which cut short her promising career.
SG: Although he wasn't the original kid cast in the film, Gordon Gebert is an essential component of this magic movie. He is an intelligent kid with a natural presence on screen. He never seems to be acting or reading lines. In the scene when he sneaks a peek at the train set his mother has purchased and told him not to peek at, his paranoia over getting caught and attempt to cover his tracks feels familiar. What kid hasn't done something he knew was wrong and then tried not to get caught for it? Leigh remembered in her autobiography learning a lesson from the boy in their scene in the kitchen. He was eating corn flakes and missed his cue, so she asked him twice if he was listening, but he continued to pile as many grains of sugar onto a single flake as he could, ignoring her completely. She looked at the director Don Hartman and shrugged, spoiling the take, and he scolded her, saying she should have used it and chastised him like a mother would for playing with his food. She described her surprise later when Gebert jumped on top of her to wake her in the Christmas morning scene. She felt his naturalness made the movie feel real. "I liked that picture a lot," she said. Gebert's enthusiasm in the film feels genuine and I fall in love with him more with each subsequent watch. Modern Screen's Christopher Kane wrote, "That kid could open an acting school, just like Madame Ouspenskaya, if he wanted."
RB: Those little moments with Gebert are really amazing. He totally just acts like a kid, and it’s amazing how he just gets it. You can’t teach those kinds of things, at least I don’t think you can. To me, you either have it or you don’t. He had roles in a few more notable films, like The Narrow Margin and The House on Telegraph Hill, but this is likely his largest and most notable role. Happily, he’s still with us, the only surviving cast member of this film, and I’d wager, any of the other films in which he appeared. I bet he has some great stories to tell.
SG: There are so many things I like about this movie. I love the locations. We see the inside of Crowley's department store during the busy holiday season, the streets of New York crowded with people, iced-over Central Park, and a small apartment decorated in the style of the times. I love the sentiments. The cozy holiday dinner, the generosity of the family inviting Steve to dine with them, and his generosity in giving his tie to a bum in the park (though it backfires) all feel evocative of the season. I love the love story. The romance is a textbook "meet-cute" with the extra layer of the pre-existing relationship and the son.
RB: Busy department stores always get my anxiety up in arms, but I do sincerely love seeing them in holiday films; the communal ritual of commerce is not a distraction from the holidays to me, as much as it’s part of the season itself, as much a part of it as the kindness that is seen in the family dinner and gift giving scenes. These are traits worth emulating today, and it’s a pleasure to see them enacted so ably in the film.
SG: Showmen's Trade Review wrote, "Producer-director Don Hartman deserves credit for the understanding way in which he handled his players and the effectiveness of the various situations. It is through his efforts that this simple story has become such an entertaining film."
Elsa Branden for Photoplay said, "It's a tenderly-told, ably acted movie which leaves you with that good-to-be-alive feeling."
Four stars. Do we give five stars? Highest honors available for Holiday Affair.
RB: The trades were right, and you were right when you told me how much I’d enjoy this film. It’s an easy four stars, and while we’ve never gone all the way to five, I think we could make a good case for why this is deserving. It’s a wonderful film. Sweet, but not saccharine in its delivery, full of expert performances. Simply a must-see.
Now I guess I'm so happy if I was a dog, my tail would be wagging.