Christmas Holiday (1944)

This noir film directed by Robert Siodmak stars Deanna Durbin, Dean Harens, and a relatively young Gene Kelly, which may be enough to pique some of your curiosity. Know the movie is extremely weird, with a plot that takes a while to establish what the story's going to be. That said, it's beautifully shot, with some impressive crane sequences, loads of shadows, and an appropriately dark story. This one's definitely not on the "feel good" end of the Christmas movie spectrum.

It's worth noting this was loosely based on a novel, though there were some significant changes made to update the characters for an American audience and to avoid running afoul of censors. So a Russian prostitute is now a singer from Vermont, and the British POV character is transformed into an American soldier.

The movie starts with the soldier, Charlie (Dean Harens), who's excited to be going on holiday, because he has plans to return to San Francisco and marry his fiancé. Only things don't go as planned - just as he's getting ready to leave, he receives a telegram from his fiancé informing him she just married someone else. She apologizes and asks for his forgiveness, but he's not in a very forgiving mood. His friend begs him to come with him to New York, but Charlie is determined to go home and confront the couple. The movie never specifies he's planning to kill them, but the implication is that it's a strong possibility.

However, his plane is diverted to New Orleans due to a storm, and he's stuck there for Christmas Eve and Day. A local reporter finds him the first night and - unaware of the reason why he's so fixated on getting to San Francisco - brings Charlie to a "club" in the hope the owner might be able to help him get out despite the raging storm. There's of course nothing the owner can do, but she asks the soldier to look after a singer there named Abigail (Deanna Durbin). Or at least Abigail's her real name - she's introduced as "Jackie" in an attempt to conceal her identity. The two attend a midnight mass together, and Abigail winds up crashing on the couch in Charlie's hotel room. They spend the next day together, and over that time she gradually opens up about her backstory.

Abigail is married to a man named Robert (Gene Kelly), who's in prison for murder. In pieces, we get the story of how they met and fell in love, how his overbearing and unstable mother contributed to Abigail's self-doubt, how she realized her husband killed a man, and how he was tried and convicted for the crime. And through it all, she never stopped loving him.

The more Charlie learns about Robert, the more he reflects on his own impulses and reactions. By the time the airport's open that evening, he's resolved to change his plans. But as he's getting ready to leave, he sees a newspaper headline that Robert's escaped prison. He heads to the club where Abigail works and winds up held at gunpoint alongside her and a few other significant characters. While she never stopped loving him, Robert is full of rage over perceived slights and a belief her actions reflect poorly on him. As he prepares to shoot her, the police close in and shoot him through a window.

The movie ends with him dying in her arms and her looking up at the sky. Parting clouds imply some hope she might move on, though there's more than a little doubt left over.

So, yeah, pretty dark stuff, but that comes with the genre.

Let's talk Christmas. Only the frame story is set over the holidays - the flashbacks constituting most of the runtime are set at other times of the year. That said, the frame story is relatively substantial, as well as being both tonally and thematically relevant. Tonally because this functions as an early example of Christmas movies leaning on the contrast between traditional holiday associations and a darker reality. In a sense, Christmas is the light that the defining shadows of the genre break apart. It frames the story in more ways than one.

Thematically, the holidays function as a moment where time seems to stop. This idea goes back at least to ancient Rome, when Saturnalia was quite literally a period between years, an idea that's endured through depictions of the Christmas holidays. The titular "holiday" is one in which Charlie is pulled out of his life and given time to reflect on his past and future, and in so doing changes his course. He sees aspects of himself in Robert - the rage, the fixation on how others' decisions make him look, and the obliviousness to the desires of others - and is suitably disgusted.

So, yes, this is in part a movie about toxic masculinity and the value in escaping its grasp. I actually wish they'd been a little more subtle about this - Charlie has a short speech in which he spells this out in a way that's a bit preachy and out of character. Still, there's no denying it's a damn good theme.

I found the setting kind of fascinating - placing this in New Orleans precluded the use of snow, despite the plot detail of a massive storm. Instead, we're treated to a Christmas storm defined by pounding rain and crashing thunder, which makes for an interesting twist. And speaking of interesting stuff....

Remember that club I mentioned earlier? When they first enter there's a brief shot in which a pair of women can be seen dancing together. It's very quick and the movie doesn't seem to be commenting on it or using it to comment on the club. Later we learn that Abagail views the place as a sort of purgatory in which she's trapped herself as punishment, but she's not exactly a reliable perspective. If anything, the location, along with the matron who runs it, is ultimately shown as benevolent and well-meaning, particularly when compared to Robert's cruel, morally self-righteous mother.

Regardless of how you want to interpret the moment, it makes for a surprising bit of representation given the era this was made. The movie as a whole is sprinkled with nice moments and interesting twists. Whether those are enough to justify watching is of course going to vary from viewer to viewer. In my case, I enjoyed the film but didn't love it. A stronger ending probably would have pushed it over the line for me, but the mildly ambiguous resolution felt a little like a copout. Still, Christmas Holiday made for a fascinating experience, flaws and all. It's not hard to see why this has attracted diehard fans, even if I can't quite count myself among their number.