Christmas Eve [aka: Sinner's Holiday] (1947)

As you can see above, this has had a couple different titles, depending on the country. The original US release was "Christmas Eve," while it was released in Britain under the less generic, "Sinner's Holiday." The British version sets a more accurate expectation for what you're getting. I'm not sure if the US version went with "Christmas Eve" to avoid confusion with a movie from 1930 called "Sinners' Holiday" or to appear more upbeat and festive in the hopes of attracting holiday audiences. If it was the latter, it didn't seem to work: the movie wasn't all that successful and didn't leave much of a cultural footprint, which is a little unfortunate. I had a lot of fun with this one.

There's part of me that wants to tell you to just stop reading and watch this movie. It's not so much that this is good - aspects are great, while others are lacking - as it is... well... bonkers. This movie is bonkers. And more than that, it's bonkers in ways you would not expect.

For lack of a better description, this is basically a "so bad it's good" scenario with the paradoxical bonus of actually being pretty good.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to describe a movie without negating that aspect. So if you want to see a black and white Christmas movie from the '40s that will surprise the hell out of you, maybe stop reading and track it down. If possible, watch it with someone who doesn't even know what I wrote about it.

So with that meandering spoiler warning out of the way, let's dig into the story. The movie begins by introducing us to Matilda Reed, an aging, eccentric wealthy woman who gives generously to charity. Her nephew, Phillip, oversees a fraction of her business and is trying to take control of her entire estate by having a judge declare her mentally unfit. She convinces the judge to agree to come to her house on Christmas Eve and meet her three adopted sons, who she assures him will vouch for her, though there's a complication: she doesn't actually know where they are.

It turns out Phillip knows where at least one is: Michael is in New York, attempting to solve his financial problems by marrying a rich heiress. However, his girlfriend has other plans and sabotages the arrangement. Phillip secretly goes to see Michael and reveals he purchased some substantial checks Michael bounced. He claims his motives were driven by a desire to protect Matilda from Michael's shame, but Michael sees right through this. Phillip has leverage over Michael and tries to force him to leave town.

The movie then sets this aside to catch up with Mario, who owns a legally dubious club in South America. An FBI agent comes to see him, and we learn that Mario is a fugitive from justice: if he returns to the US, hell be arrested. The agent, who lacks any jurisdiction outside of the US, tells him about his mother's predicament, and - despite the consequences - Mario plans to return.

But first he gets kidnapped by goons working for a Nazi criminal who has ties to the woman Mario loves, and if you're suddenly a little confused about what kind of movie you're watching, that's okay. See, it's around here - about halfway through - that we realized this was a stealth anthology. Due to the cast's schedules, this movie was constructed so the individual components could be separately filmed, and director Edwin L. Marin used the opportunity to shift tones and genres from one story to the next. The thing is, he really commits to this. Up until now, we've been watching a light comedy with hints of drama; for the next twenty minutes or so we're in a tense action thriller, complete with a fistfight in a burning engine room, a brutal kill with what appears to be a sharp pipe, and a shocking ending in which Mario kills the Nazi and his men but is unable to save the woman he loves. This is some of the better action I've seen from this era, too.

But enough about Mario: we need to catch up with the last son, Jonathan, a rodeo cowboy who returns to New York and meets up with a chauffeur sent by Matilda. On the way, he insists on stopping off for a drink and finds himself roped into helping a woman who tells him she's about to have a baby, despite clearly not being pregnant. She convinces him to bring her to a house, which turns out to be an orphanage. She needs him to pretend to be her husband, so they'll let her adopt.

Only the orphanage is illegal. But she's actually an undercover agent investigating the baby racket. She's found out and tied up in a closet, Jonathan is briefly knocked unconscious, and the criminals flee the scene. Jonathan comes to, collects the three babies, and leaves before the cops show up. He takes them to Matilda's house, with the woman and police behind. She comes in wanting Jonathan arrested, but within a few minutes has all but agreed to marry him.

Michael arrives next. Phillip tries to humiliate him, but it turns out Michael has the upper hand: he reveals that Phillip has been lying about the companies he runs for Matilda, namely by claiming they still exist. Matilda surprised everyone by revealing she was aware, and Phillip's shortcomings in business are the reason she didn't turn over control of her estate.

Mario arrives last, and the FBI agent shows up, as well, though he allows Mario to spend Christmas Eve with his mother and doesn't reveal the nature of their connection. He might as well have: Matilda knew this, too. She also knew that Phillip was actually responsible for (or at least equally involved in) the crime Mario is wanted for. Mario uses this to blackmail Phillip into leaving town.

The judge, learning only bits and pieces, is quick to dismiss any lingering concerns around Matilda's capabilities. Once he's gone, we see Matilda briefly break down and cry. She knows about all their lies and how far each has fallen. Still, she makes sure to celebrate the holiday with them as a family.

So, like I said, bonkers. The tonal shift into Mario's story is jarring, as is the shift back for Jonathan's almost farcical adventure. Structurally, the movie doesn't have much of a backbone. Sure, the stuff with Matilda functions as a frame story, but since this is only sort of an anthology, the lack of cohesion within the individual tales may be off-putting. I actually found the shifts exciting, as they kept me guessing where the hell this was all going.

And, again, the individual sequences really are quite good. In addition to Mario's sequence, I found Michael's romantic misadventures amusing (if it helps, his girlfriend has more control over the narrative than he does and winds up painted in a better light). Then Jonathan's sequence just kept escalating with each bizarre reveal - my synopsis does not do that justice. This thing is fun and quirky.

It's also worth noting that in spite of how some of the tropes might sound in summary, the movie does a good job with the female characters. They're clever and rational human beings, on several occasions opting to appear emotional or flighty in order to conceal their hand.

The movie does falter a bit in other areas. There are a couple references to American Indians that are in extremely bad taste. And of course some of the South American bits are questionable.

I can't imagine this would be quite as enjoyable on rewatch, or with the story spoiled for that matter (I did warn you), but I had blast discovering where this was going. I'm not sure whether that counts as a full recommendation or not. Unfortunately, it might hinge on whether you took my advice and stopped reading at the start.