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Christmas Holiday (1944): Never mind the melodrama

christmas holiday 1944 Christmas Holiday (1944): Never mind the melodrama

Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday starts off conventionally on Christmas Eve with the graduation of an army lieutenant at an army base.  Back at barracks to pack for the Christmas holidays before shipping out overseas to join the war effort, he gets a dear john telegram from the girl he hoped to marry in Frisco the day after Christmas. He still boards his flight ready to have it out with her.  But bad weather forces the plane to land in New Orleans for passengers to wait out the wind and the rain at a hotel.  The conventional is instantly jettisoned. We now enter a dark surreal world animated by suppressed taboos and violence contained within a strange subterranean universe.  Siodmak proceeds to smash genre conventions by unleashing a wild expressionist ambience that has you appalled yet enthralled.  Full of bizarre surprises like Gene Kelly as an homme-fatale!

”A lurid, crazy, and weird, yet totally compelling phantasmagoria that transcends banal genre imperatives.”
At the hotel bar our lieutenant is befriended by a bored local newspaper reporter who is a bit of lush.  The reporter takes the soldier to a bordello to see if a local fixer can get him to Frisco faster, and if not, for a good time.  A band is playing and a sour-faced ‘hostess’ steps up to the stage and sings a sultry number motionless and deadpan – but with a voice to die for. Enter Deanna Durbin totally against type. The madame at the reporter’s suggestion has Deanna keep the soldier company while the increasingly drunk reporter goes to the office to be paid his weekly ‘honorarium’.  The reporter passes out, but not before he gives the madame an invitation to midnight mass to pass on to the lieutenant. The soldier wants to take a raincheck, but strangely the singer begs that he take her.  At the cathedral the melodrama goes into over-drive with the girl collapsing into a crying fit.  Later at an all night diner the girl reveals her current employment is a kind of escape and punishment for her husband having being convicted of murder. The rest of the scenario then plays out as a lurid story of obsession, guilt, and entrapment via a series of disjunctive flashbacks, with the dénouement played out in the darkly lit madame’s office.

Never mind the melodrama and the absurd script – by Herman J. Mankiewicz of Citizen Kane fame no less.  Siodmak subverts melodrama tropes with a series of brilliant set pieces that take your breath away.  Classical music, brilliant lighting, a meticulous mise-en-scène, the deadpan Durban visage, and the use of monumental spaces filmed with sweeping tracking and crane shots, and in deep focus – church, concert hall, and the expansive lobbies of the hotel and the brothel rendered in sublime majesty – each with an achingly intimate counterpoint – by a perverse alchemy forging a visual cornucopia that fully realizes a chemistry with DP Woody Bredell that Phantom Lady (1944) only hints at.

A lurid, crazy, and weird, yet totally compelling phantasmagoria that transcends banal genre imperatives. The crescendo of saintly escape into the black abyss of the clearing night sky revealed by departing clouds in the final scene eclipses the ending of Criss-Cross (1949).

Essential.

 

10 Comments

  1. Sam Juliano

    “The conventional is instantly jettisoned. We now enter a dark surreal world animated by suppressed taboos and violence contained within a strange subterranean universe. Siodmak proceeds to smash genre conventions by unleashing a wild expressionist ambience that has you appalled yet enthralled. Full of bizarre surprises like Gene Kelly as an homme-fatale!”

    Brilliant descriptive passage and on I can certainly put my own stamp of approval on after seeing the film just two weeks ago at the Film Forum as part of a Siodmak double feature with THE DARK MIRROR. While I can see why they opted to pair these two together (they both are similarly bizarre and have an underpinning of expressionist ambiance. But CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY goes much further in that direction, and I do agree that while I like PHANTOM LADY for a few reasons, the mise en scene there only hints at what we get in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. Some viewers remarked that they thought Kelly was “miscast,” but these are really the perceptions of those who are used to seeing the side of Kelly that defined his career. Part of the film’s perversity it to have Kelly go completely against type, and it sure keeps his character and his performance most interesting! Love the use of songs and music in the film as well. You frame it superbly when you note it’s a tale of entrapment, obsession and guilt, and that it bends genre conventions in a big way. The lighting, the deep-focus, all deliciously employed. Terrific review in every sense!

  2. Thanks Sam. Though I think I went into hyperbole overdrive :)

  3. Jon

    Tony,

    Wow I think I would really like this film. I just might be the biggest melodrama fan out there so that doesn’t worry me a bit. I’m not normally a big Siodmak fan, but something about this one seems up my alley. Nice work here sir.

  4. My pleasure Jon. Absolutely nothing wrong with melodrama :)

  5. As a director of noir films I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you

  6. Thanks Thomas! Would love to hear about the films you have made. Tony

  7. Cigar Joe

    Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin are cast way against type in this sad and dark melodrama. Kelly plays a charming killer, while Durbin, plays a clueless woman who loves him even knowing he’s a murderer. Its bleak and at times creepy with the visuals against its Christmas backdrop, the Christmas decorations keep reminding you of the holiday in the barracks and even in the whorehouse, there is an extended Midnight Mass church service sequence that causes Durbin to breakdown, a concert sequence, and a few musical numbers that highlight Durbin.

    Cinematography by Elwood Bredell whose Noir credentials include The Killers, Lady on A Train, The Phantom Lady, and The Unsuspected.

    Worth watching for its entertainment value I’ll give it a 6.5-7/10 Seeing Kelly against type is a mind-bender, Durbin has a little bit of baby fat and a bit too innocent looking for what it is suggested that she’s doing for “work”. Too bad it couldn’t be remade straight forwardly without the Hayes Code ridiculousness.

  8. Cigar Joe

    PS Tony we made a new Noir homage in Hudson, NY check it out here:

    https://vimeo.com/45300209

  9. david mills

    It shouldn’t be forgotten that Gene Kelly began his (stage) career in the early 40s playing a heel in “Pal Joey.”

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