Starring Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Dean Harens, Gale Sondergaard, and Gladys George
My rating: ★★ stars
The hard-to-wrap-one’s-head-around story of Deanna Durbin as a prostitute-ish character married to a homicidal psychopath played by Gene Kelly.
Anyone casually familiar with classic movies would assume a movie titled Christmas Holiday starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly would be a fluffy, romantic musical with snappy dancing and operatic singing. They would be wrong. Very. Very. Wrong. They couldn’t be more wronger. So wrong the laws of grammar must be bent to express how wrong they would be.
Christmas Holiday is, instead, a melodrama about a prostitute married to psychotic murderer. Starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly as said couple. Which, in itself, is just wrong. The wrongest of wrongs. It’s almost worth watching for oddity’s sake. Almost.
The main problem with the film, which is based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name, is not, in fact, the casting. The reason the movie doesn’t work is that it is, at the same time, both too much and not enough like the source material.
The movie might have worked had it stuck close to the source novel, but such thoughtful, theme-heavy literary adaptations didn’t appear in film until the 1970s. The book functions as a literary allegory about Britain’s place in Europe between the wars. A young, upper class British man, Charley, on a trip to Paris sponsored by his father, meets a Russian prostitute, Lydia, who relates her tale of woe as they spend the Christmas holiday together (hence the title). Her family having been displaced by the Russian Revolution, Lydia found herself married to a charming Frenchman who turned out to be a murderer. Subsequently, she seeks to atone for his sins through self-destruction. This is not typical classic Hollywood fare. It’s too heavy, too adult, and too foreign.
The setting is moved to New Orleans, so any commentary on European politics is necessarily jettisoned. The female lead can’t explicitly be a prostitute in the Code era, so she becomes a bar hostess and singer—and, implicitly, a prostitute. The film might have worked as an excellent melodrama, of the kind director Robert Siodmak was a master, had it focused on a naïve young woman slowly coming to realize that her husband is a psychopath and ending up a jaded nightclub “entertainer,” so to speak. But that’s not how the film is structured. Inexplicably, the film kept the narrative of Charley (Dean Harens), except now he’s a GI stranded in New Orleans on leave. Without the political allegory, his character serves no purpose except as an audience for the woman’s story. We the viewers provide that audience, so Charley’s presence is pointless. Far too much time is spent on him, leaving little time for the meat of the story.
Durbin is fine as the naïve young wife, here called Abigail. She never convinces us, however, that she has been transformed into a jaded nightclub hostess. Such a move was likely beyond her range as an actress. Harens makes absolutely no impression. I could picture someone like Dennis Morgan in the part, but it is underwritten and should have been omitted entirely. The surprise of the picture is how well Gene Kelly works as the homicidal husband. He naturally emits the superficial charm of the psychopath. We understand why Abigail would be attracted to him and continue to have feelings for him even after his true nature is revealed. Gale Sondergaard, as Kelly’s mother, and Gladys George, as the nightclub manager, give good performances in roles that should have been larger. If the film had taken every minute that Harens is on the screen and meted them out to Kelly, Sondergaard, and George, the film might have been a winner, despite Durbin’s miscasting.
Kelly doesn’t dance in the film, but Durbin does sing. The film is from Universal, and Durbin (and her voice) was their biggest star. The studio would never have released a Durbin movie without singing, and the theater audiences would probably have demanded their money back. (Kelly was a relative unknown then, so his lack of dancing would have likely gone unnoticed.) Durbin offers a lovely interpretation of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” the melody of which is woven through the score. The original song “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” seems weak in contrast to the Berlin classic.
As outré as the idea of film with Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as her psychotic, murderous husband is, the movie fails to be interesting. With so much screen time and attention given to Charley, a character best left in the pages of the book, it doesn’t manage to exploit the melodramatic possibilities of what should have been the focal narrative.