Blue Christmas: A Noirish Look at Christmas Holiday

1)  SAY, WHAT KIND OF CHRISTMAS MOVIE IS THIS, ANYWAY?

With a title like Christmas Holiday and with stars like Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, you might be forgiven for thinking that this 1944 Universal movie is a holiday musical. You might even picture what its big production number would look like—something quaint and simple, with snow and holly, and a huge, glittery Christmas tree in the middle of a Technicolor-lit stage with dozens of beautiful girls high-kicking in unison as Gene and a cast of thousands tap-dance up and down a hundred-foot-long staircase while way on top Deanna warbles “The Hallelujah Chorus” in three-quarters time backed by the full strength of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—you know, nothing elaborate. Just your usual plain, unfussy Hollywood holiday spectacular.

It Sure Doesn’t Look Noir: Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly pose for a ‘Christmas Holiday’ publicity still.

We could even start a contest—stage your own Christmas Holiday musical routine with Gene and Deanna and your choice of songs, dances, and supporting cast (how about Jimmy Durante pattering out “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on a grand piana? Ink-a-dinka-doo and a partridge, too). Your idea would be as good as ours, because, aside from a couple of songs, Christmas Holiday doesn’t have any musical routines, because the truth of the matter is:  Christmas Holiday … is not a musical.

In fact, Christmas Holiday is about as far away from a musical as you can get. CH is a film noir, and if there’s one movie genre that could be considered anti-matter to the musical, especially the holiday musical, it just might be the dark, fatalistic universe of noir—where men are schnooks and women are fatales, where venetian blinds cast striated shadows on the wall, and where any decking that goes on has nothing to do with arranging boughs of holly.

Blue Christmas: a poster for ‘Christmas Holiday,’ with a noir emphasis.

That CH is a film noir and not a Sonja Henie holiday-on-ice extravaganza set at the North Pole can be gleaned from its poster (above), highlighted in a most depressing shade of blue, as if it’s been doused with liquified cigarette smoke distilled from a dockside bar in the wee, small hours of the morning. And any hopes of witnessing happy scenes of Santa Claus confabbing with his elves would surely be dashed by the movie’s tagline: “Love…was her crime! Love…was her punishment!” That’s not a sentiment that connotes Christmas, unless you’re the type whose idea of a Christmas stocking is of the black-leather-and-fishnet variety.

The cigarettes-and-black-fishnet-stockings note is, however, very much CH‘s subject matter. Much of the film takes place in a smoke-filled, honky-tonk nightclub in New Orleans, whose ‘hostesses’ lounge around in undisguised boredom, unable to simulate even a half-hearted enthusiasm when caging drinks from customers, even at Christmastime. In the movie’s source, a 1939 novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham, the nightclub is a brothel, where the bored whores (dressed in harem pants and nothing else) also lounge around, for the delectation of upper-class tourists who’ve wandered in for some entertaining titillation. Obviously Hollywood’s Breen office, responsible for upholding Production code censorship, would not have allowed a whorehouse (nor would it have allowed topless whores), hence the change of location (and clothing); although the director, Robert Siodmak, and his scenarist, Herman Mankiewicz, subtly hint that the nightclub might be a front for more unsavory activities (in the background can be seen waiters carrying laden trays up a long staircase).

Debasement in a Dive: the nightclub “Maison LaFitte”; note how Siodmak stages the shot on several levels, with a lonely customer in the foreground, the orchestra and singer (Deanna Durbin) midground, and a long staircase in back; a waiter carries a tray upstairs.

Siodmak was one of the premier noir directors of the 1940s, directing such classics as The Killers, Phantom Lady, The Suspect, Criss-Cross, The File on Thelma Jordan, and The Spiral Staircase; he also directed the noirish horror film Son of Dracula (subject of our earlier post). In CH, he invests even an innocuously happy scene, a family sing-along at the parlor piano, with ominous undertones. Indeed, the film’s roiling subtext of perverse obsessions bleeds through most strongly in its family gatherings: Once Gale Sondergaard, as a middle-aged mother fixated on her psychopathic adult son, enters the story, you know you’re in noir territory and not a Bing Crosby Christmas special. Sondergaard, whose most famous part was as the Spider Woman in two Universal films, infused her roles with a silky menace; even when she played comedy (as she did in films with both Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope), she made it menacing comedy. In CH, Sondergaard is precise, measured, and meticulous; she never raises her voice, but lets you sense the controlling rage beneath her matronly veneer. Although dressed in dowdy frocks and sensible shoes (in real life she was a beautiful, glamorous woman), Sondergaard is the film’s most compelling figure, a smothering control freak who could only have produced a crazy son.

Family Sing-Along: Kelly and Durbin, foreground, and Gale Sondergaard in back. Note how cinematographer Woody Bredell places Kelly and Durbin in shadow, as if to forecast disaster.

2)  WHO ELSE DID YOU SAY WAS IN THIS FILM?

Siodmak’s film is about Charley (Dean Harens), a disillusioned soldier whose fiancée sent him a ‘Dear John’ telegram two days before their wedding. Stranded in New Orleans over the Christmas holiday, Charley becomes acquainted with Abigail, a nightclub singer who works under the name of Jackie. The bulk of the film has Charley listening to Abigail recount the sad, sordid history of her marriage to Robert, a charmingly psychopathic ne’er-do-well who casually murdered a bookie for money. In spite of such, shall we say, reprehensible behavior, she’s still madly in love with the fellow. What Charley eventually discovers about Abigail is her reason for working in the nightclub—believing that she is responsible for Robert’s crimes, she wishes to punish herself by working in a place where she will be despised. “I was just as much to blame as anybody,” she declares, “This [the nightclub] is my prison.”

In spite of its fatalistic aura, the film gives us a Cliff Notes version of Maugham’s novel, picking up on its major plot points but not delving into its character psychology, nor into its more harrowing descriptions of sexual obsession and self-abasement. In the novel, Charley is a naïve young Englishman in Paris for a Christmas vacation, and Abigail, called Lydia, is a Russian émigré working as a prostitute; she debases herself as a whore to atone, as she sees it, for her husband’s sins. Although drastically softening Maugham’s squalid, hard-nosed depictions of poverty and degradation, the film does preserve the central folie à trois between Robert, his overbearing mother, and the obsessed Abigail. It’s Abigail’s refusal to “let go” of Robert that forces her to live a life of humiliation, in which, as she later tells her husband, “you were in prison, alive; that’s why I had to live, to live like you, to suffer like you.”

Holiday Blues: Dean Harens (center) as a disillusioned soldier spending Christmas in a nightclub. Keeping him company are Richard Whorf (right) as a nosy reporter and Gladys George (left, back to camera) as the nightclub manager.

We could stage another contest here—which actors from the golden-age Hollywood era would you cast as an emotionally masochistic prostitute and as a mother-obsessed psychopathic killer? Whoever you might choose, we bet that first on your list would not be, respectively, Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

Not the Girl Next Door: Durbin’s more adult look in ‘Christmas Holiday.’

However, it was Durbin herself who chose CH; she had read the novel and had Universal purchase the rights (reportedly, Maugham was reluctant to sell). As we all know, Durbin was a major Hollywood-musical star; like Judy Garland, she grew up onscreen playing the girl-next-door in film after film for her many fans. It was an image she was sick of. According to Siodmak’s biographer, Durbin saw Maugham’s story as a way to move into more sophisticated adult roles and break away from the light, cheerful, musical-comedy parts in which she had been encased, like a fossil in stone. But Durbin, her producer, Felix Jackson (whom she would briefly marry), and Siodmak fought over how to play Abigail. Durbin wanted a glamorous look and hesitated in going along with Siodmak’s wish for a more tawdry interpretation; while Jackson was afraid of Durbin sullying her “clean” image and losing her audience. As it turned out, CH was Durbin’s biggest hit, and she considers it her best film.

Glamour Gal: Deanna Durbin in a glamorous pose and costume.

From our perspective when watching the film, we’re not sure which characterization won out, the glam or the tawd. While Durbin is heavily made up in the nightclub scenes, she’s also dressed quite stylishly in them, as would befit a star performer in a star vehicle. She also sings two songs, “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year,” written for the film, and a meltingly beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Durbin’s not bad in her role, but she never seems part of the noir surroundings. Even though she’s supposedly degrading herself by working in a grubby nitery, you can’t help but think that the real disgrace is not to her soul but to her talent; anyone with her voice who settles for singing in such a third-rate dive obviously needs a better agent.

Noir Nitery: Durbin singing “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year”: 

In the other case of casting, we kinda can see Gene Kelly as a psychopath. No, don’t reel with shock, but consider. Kelly may have sported his cheery ear-to-ear grin in most of his movies, but in most of his movies he’s also a heel. His breakthrough part in the title role of Pal Joey on Broadway had him playing an out-and-out cad (and by all accounts playing it exceedingly well); and that caddishness resurfaces in the charming rogues he played in such films as For Me and My Gal, Anchors Aweigh, The Pirate, Cover Girl, It’s Always Fair WeatherLes Girls, and Marjorie Morningstar. Even in his best-known part, as silent-screen star Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly comes across as a bit smarmy, comically reinventing his past (“Dignity, always dignity”) for an adoring public. In CH, he uses his face-splitting grin like a mask; when he lies to his wife, he’s like a little boy who knows he can get away with murder. Which he almost does.

Homme Fatal—Two Faces of Gene Kelly in ‘Christmas Holiday’: as a smiling charmer (above); and as an abashed mama’s boy (below, with Sondergaard).

3)  THAT’S NOT “SILENT NIGHT” THEY’RE PLAYING, IS IT?

As we noted earlier, CH doesn’t end with a big, splashy holiday production number, but it does end big, and how! with Durbin emoting like Garbo to the stirring strains of the Liebestod (“Love Death”) from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

Deanna Emotes: A tear-stained Durbin listens to the Liebestod.

We guess you can’t get bigger, musically speaking, than the Liebestod. One of the most famous opera arias ever written, its music has by now, unbelievably, become a cliché, its overpowering waves of sound serving as a conventional shorthand for Great Undying Doomed Love. It’s one thing to experience the Liebestod at the end of a lengthy opera, in which its dense harmonic textures serve to tie up all the unfinished chords and interrupted melodies that have been washing over us for the past five hours; it’s another for it to come blaring out of nowhere in the hour-and-a-half running time of a Hollywood movie. The problem with the Liebestod is that the music always seems larger, more overwhelming, than the hackneyed film plots it’s used to prop up. It’s rather like the molehill suddenly producing a mountain.

Undying Love: Durbin and Kelly pose as the doomed lovers (in the background there appears to be a Christmas tree).

Siodmak does try to set up the Liebestodian climax by having the music heard earlier in the film during a concert scene where the two protagonists first meet, thus linking their relationship to notions of Love Everlasting Beyond Death. The association doesn’t quite work. Robert, unfortunately, is no Tristan; and Abigail, at least in Durbin’s portrayal, never seems quite swept away by undying love. One of Durbin’s most endearing onscreen qualities was how she always came across as the most capable and sensible person in the movie, but that works against her performance in CH (the role might have worked better with the tremulously vulnerable Garland). Even in the scenes revolving around her tangled attachments to her husband and mother-in-law, she still seems the sanest person on the room.

CH‘s final scene is in the clip below, where the Liebestod’s reappearance symbolizes Abigail’s spiritual and emotional release. (For those who haven’t seen the film, the clip and following section contain spoilers.) Unlike the novel, Robert here has escaped from prison and has returned to New Orleans to confront Abigail:

If we were to hold another contest, we might ask, how would you stage the Liebestod? In our own fantasy, natch, we’d have Deanna herself singing the piece, rather than merely gazing for long moments in silent rapture at a point offscreen about ten inches above the cameraman’s head. Instead, Siodmak goes for the sentimental finalé, laying it on thick with the clouds parting and the stars twinkling in the nighttime sky, as if the heavens themselves are bestowing a benediction on the now-free Abigail. It’s an ending that trembles dangerously on the brink of kitsch.

Still, at this festive time of the year, the twinkling stars of CH may not be out of place; and we won’t begrudge a tug at the heartstrings and a start of the tear-dimmed eye. If we can’t finish with a razzle-dazzle production number, with Gene, Deanna, and Christmas trees all merry and bright, then why not close with an image in tune with the season of good will, peace on earth, and movies with sentimental endings?

Merry Christmas. 

Sources:

Lazaroff Alpi, Deborah, Robert Siodmak: A Biography, with Critical Analyses of his Films Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works, Jefferson, NC & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998

Maugham, W. Somerset, Christmas Holiday (1939), New York: Vintage Books International

Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds., Film Noir: An Encylcopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd Edition, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1979, 1992

Stephens, Michael L., Film Noir: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons,  Jefferson, NC & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998

BONUS AUDIO CLIP: Here’s Deanna Durbin singing “Always” – which is sure to make anyone’s spirits bright:

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