Depending on the ratio of naughty to nice in your soul, you can describe Christmas Holiday in one of two ways. In the first, you rely on buzzwords, like ‘Gene Kelly,’ ‘New Orleans,’and ‘set over a Christmas vacation,’ which allows potential viewers to create their own expectations. Most people would think a brassy Technicolor musical, with bad accents, rosy cheeks aplenty, maybe a crazy nightclub ballet, and the miracle of snow falling on St. Louis Cathedral at the end, right? You would think It’s A Wonderful Life with music and a different star’s more wonderful butt (sorry, Jimmy Stewart). You would be right to think that, knowing what you know about Gene Kelly, one of Hollywood’s most engaging, athletic singing and dancing men. If you want the full experience of going into Christmas Holiday expecting these things, be my guest. It makes for interesting viewing. I’ll wait until you’re gone.
Okay. The rest of you? Christmas Holiday is a film noir. With Gene Kelly. It’s a hugely misleadingly titled film noir, directed by Robert Siodmak, starring (at the time) wholesome teenbop sensation Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. I know, right?
Besides being the perfect bait-and-switch for unsuspecting relatives during the festive season, Christmas Holiday is also really kinda gorgeous to look at. Robert Siodmak, the German director behind noir classics like The Killers and Criss Cross, utilizes smoke and shadows with a precision that borders on the occult. His New Orleans night scene is exactly as sultry and glistens as slickly as you think it should; and while the lighting here isn’t as angular or extreme as in some examples of the genre, it goes a long way to alleviate any doubts you may have about Durbin’s ability to play a lady of darkness.
In fact, Durbin is one of the best things about Christmas Holiday, which is odd, considering how Siodmak’s smoke and slow, slinking camera obscures her character’s motivations (until the very end). Built, like great noirs often are, around a delayed flashback structure, Durbin’s recollections seem a little more fevered and muddled than most. However, it gives the film a melodramatic, impressionistic quality that’s kind of fascinating and weird, in a good way.
The film’s mood and camerawork certain have to compensate for the plot. The first 20 minutes of the film focus on third wheel character Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a newly minted lieutenant who receives a Dear John letter right before his Christmas leave, and makes for San Francisco with intensions as stormy as the weather that grounds his plane, inexplicably, in New Orleans. It is there he meets “Jackie” (Durbin), a nightclub singer who secretly wants to be taken to midnight mass, if you know what I mean.
And then they actually go, and there’s an extended sequence of the ritual of mass at St. Louis Cathedral before Durbin breaks down sobbing in the aisle. This scene is the cinematic equivilent of turning a corner and catching yourself right before you run into a brick wall. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it kills the momentum the film had built up and changes its course in a way that startles a little. The majesty of the mass is supposed to be this big cathartic thing for Jackie, but we have no idea what the cause is, so the viewer goes through the whole thing a little nonplussed. Aftwards in a coffee shop that is definitely not Café du Monde, Durbin reveals to the LT what brought her to tears: falling in love with her murderer husband, a gambler named Robert Manette.
This (finally) brings us to Gene Kelly. His Manette, while definitely an homme fatale, essentially still has the same sweetness and levity to his movements, the same smile that promises sunshine and puppies, as his characters in Singin’ in the Rain and On The Town. He wears a bow-tie, for goodness sake. While it’s easy to see how Durbin is – in flashback much closer to her actual screen persona as the dewy-eyed “Abigail” from Vermont – it’s less easy to see Kelly as a vicious wastrel capable of murder. The psychological veneer the script throws on him to explain this exists in the form of Kelly’s grim, over-involved mother, played by (never a good sign) Gale Sondergaard. But the unstable momma’s-boy syndrome just makes you pine for Anthony Perkins, or someone truly creepy, who would have brought more mania or menace to the role.
Kelly, for all that he does an okay job playing Manette as a charming rake, never really looses his marbles. It is not until after the flashback that Kelly’s return to the picture to confront Durbin (he escaped from prison on Christmas eve, naturally) electrifies the screen with a real thrill of danger, and it makes you wish the whole film had been like that. The real problem with Christmas Holiday lies in the odd, delayed placement of the flashback. We get 20 minutes of Dean Harens without knowing anything about the main couple, and then Durbin basically tells the story of her fall, but there isn’t the same sense of overarching doom as there is in more satisfying noirs like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity.
A film more objectively fascinating than good, Christmas Holiday is still worth a watch for Siodmak’s beautiful imagery, Durbin’s against-type turn as a femme fatale, and the novelty of Gene Kelly asking a girl to dance, and then not actually dancing with her.
Take a Drink: when Christmas is referenced in a way devoid of cheer.
Take a Drink: whenever you think Gene Kelly is scary (take a second drink if you ever think one of his bow-ties are cool).
Take a Drink: every time Deanna Durbin sings.
Take a Drink: whenever you think Gene Kelly’s mother can’t get any creepier.
Finish Your Drink: when the clouds part to reveal the light of the Christmas moon.