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Pairing sunny star Deanna Durbin with stormy director Robert Siodmak is like coupling Snow White with Orson Welles. So who's going to win outUniversal's top money earner or noir's artistic vision. It's a struggle between luminous halos, on one hand, and creepy shadows, on the other. Actually the odd pairing works pretty well, thanks to Durbin's genuine acting ability, Gene Kelly's subtle ambiguity, and an unusually suggestive script. Clearly, Durbin is looking to change her virginal type casting, while Kelly has yet (I believe) to settle into his premier dancing career.
But, it's really Kelly's Manette who steals the film, with both a startlingly sly performance and the script's unconventional suggestions of incest and homosexuality. For example, there's a rather emphatic reference to Manette's being his mother's "all", plus mom's (Sondergaard) consuming attachment throughout the film. There's also repeated reference to Manette's "weakness", just ambiguous enough to go beyond a gambling habit. Couple that with his shaded behavior in several scenes, especially in the "anything goes" gambling den. Needless to say, such forbidden themes could only be hinted at in 40's Hollywood.
Adding to the 40's exotica is Durbin playing what amounts to a barroom hooker. She may remain pure at heartconfirmed in the midnight mass scenenonetheless, the role amounts to a risky departure for Universal's teen idol. Thus director Siodmak's challenge is to reaffirm Abigail's (Durbin) basic innocence no matter what else happens, which he does through selective cameo lighting, even though that conflicts with his noirish sensibility. Then too, Dean Haren's sweetly normal escort is there to reassure fans that underneath it all, Durbin remains Durbin.
And to think the studio entitled this odd excursion into the dark side, Christmas Holiday, of all things. I sympathize with unsuspecting fans plunking down money to see the usual Durbin fluff. Nevertheless, the movie remains a fascinating study in conflicting styles and ambiguous characterization.
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