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"Christmas Holiday" (Universal, 1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, is an interesting drama with "film noir" elements, (based on the story by W. Somerset Maugham which changes the local from Paris to New Orleans), starring two performers long associated with musical-comedy, Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly (on loan from MGM), in their only film together. Deanna Durbin's long awaited dramatic role, with two songs thrown in for good measure, might have earned her an Academy Award nomination, but didn't. Due to its lack of television revivals during the last couple of decades, "Christmas Holiday" just remains only a memory to anyone who has any recollection of ever seeing it.
The story begins with Lieutenant Charlie Mason (Dean Harens) about to have Christmas leave from military service to return home and marry his fiancée, Mona, but he receives a letter written by her that reads that she has married someone else. When his plane lands in New Orleans due to a bad rainstorm, Mason, quite depressed, makes the acquaintance with Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf), a reporter, who invites him to accompany him to a night club managed by Valerie De Merone (Gladys George). While there, Mason meets Jackie Lamont, a night club singer (Deanna Durbin), and after she finishes vocalizing, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," Jackie has Mason accompany her to a church. During the Mass, she starts to break down and cry. Mason covers up by placing his coat over her. He then escorts this troubled girl to a diner where she tells him her story: (Flashbacks reveal Jackie to be Abigail Martin. She meets Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). They fall in love and are soon married. Their marriage is happy and blissful for six months until Abigail learns that her husband, a troubled gambler, has just murdered his bookmaker. Abigail goes through a series of unpleasant circumstances during her husband's trial, especially when Robert's domineering mother (Gale Sondergaard) gives her a hard slap across her face for not having been a stronger influence on him after her son is found guilty and sentenced to serve time in prison.) Forwarding to the present: Abigail finishes her revealing story to Mason. She later learns that Robert has escaped from prison and is out to get her, adding more to her troubles.
When I first saw "Christmas Holiday" in one of its very rare television presentations on a PBS channel in 1982, I was moved by it and Durbin's performance from start to finish, and have never forgotten it. Possibly watching this movie again after so many years, I would not have that same reaction I had the first time, but otherwise, it still brings a new kind of experience in seeing Durbin in a serious role, that shouldn't go unnoticed. Durbin sings two songs, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year," and her lovely rendition to Irving Berlin's "Always." I was even surprised to find Gene Kelly playing a role against type. Still new to movies (making his debut in 1942), his dramatic acting comes off somewhat awkward. I've seen Kelly act in other serious roles, some good, some not, but his character in this production is definitely unsympathetic. He even gets a chance to carry a gun and use it in a shoot out. No dancing for him here unless he's dodging bullets bouncing from the floor. As for Gale Sondergaard, she looks too young to be playing Kelly's mother, a role that would have been far better suited to the likes of Margaret Wycherly (best remembered for her gangster mother role in James Cagney's in "White Heat" (1949)), but Sondergaard doesn't disappoint with her domineering performance over her "Momma's boy."
Also seen in the supporting cast is Universal contract player, David Bruce playing Gerald Tyler. Bruce would soon be elevated to Durbin's co-star in her only Technicolor musical, CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944).
Yes,"Christmas Holiday" is a rare find indeed, a different kind of Christmas story, the one that doesn't get to be added in the package of other Christmas movies that air annually on television, including all versions to "A Christmas Carol" (1938), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) and/or "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). While this movie has never been presented on classic cable channels like American Movie Classics, it's currently available (as of 2006) in the VHS format and can be purchased through Movies Unlimited. I recommend seeing it, at least once, if not for its dramatic content, but for its casting. (***)
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