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Christmas Holiday (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
A sharp departure into salacious territory for sugar-and-spice star Deanna Durbin, Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday is an unexpected film noir that served as a major career detour for a lead actress known exclusively to that point for innocuous musical confections. Though relatively inoffensive by today’s standards, watching it with some knowledge of Durbin’s usual studio output still provides something of a shock. That Gene Kelly, most remembered today for his effervescent musicals, plays her sleazy playboy husband only increases the amount of cognitive dissonance that this oddball movie generates.
Scripted by Herman Mankiewicz, Christmas Holiday is also noteworthy as a respectable, pioneering entry in the subgenre of thrillers that are largely set to music (other notable entries would include Preston Stuges’ Unfaithfully Yours, Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me, and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley). Presumably configured as a partial musical to satisfy Durbin and Kelly’s fans, the movie relays large swaths of its story while its characters attend musical performances in sleazy nightclubs, stately concert halls, and ornate churches. The use of Wagner to underscore the central romance amplifies the thematic ambition of this melodrama. Opera justifies the film’s alarmist, broad-ranging perspective, which sees around it a corrupt world afflicted with rapidly decaying values.
As is entirely appropriate for a film noir, the movie has a dour attitude toward the possibilities of love and romance. The opening minutes of the film feature a lovelorn soldier who’s about to return to his girlfriend while on leave. As he is bragging about his intentions to propose to her, he receives a telegram, informing him that she has already wed another man. Shaken, but undeterred, he resolves to visit her anyway, but is waylaid by inclement weather, and directed to a seedy nightclub, which might also be a brothel. It’s there that the movie drops its first bomb: America’s sweetheart Durbin, looking a bit used up by the world, is singing a torch song in the nightclub, and sporting a revealing dress. Even if Durbin doesn’t look sexy enough to sell the effect wholesale, her presence in this context enhances the noir atmosphere, relaying a certain wrongness about the entire milieu. From this point, she begins to relay to the soldier how she became the fallen woman he sees before himself. Through a complex series of flashbacks, we see how she, and America, went wrong.
This is the stuff of classic film noir. The protagonist, returning from war, discovers that the country that he defended a place that might not have been worth saving. As Christmas Holiday continues, it goes further and further in suggesting that the moral fiber of the nation has been seriously disturbed. Alluding to more than it might actually show on screen, the film spares the audience from its most sordid details, but still manages to unsettle with intimations of incest and corruption. Even in its bowdlerized state (Durbin’s character was a prostitute in the source novel), Christmas Holiday manages to upend much of the idealization that comes to mind when considering the post-war era.