Double Feature

Whirlpool March 23, 2021  

  

On Christmas Holiday and The Locket

or many, the Christmas season epitomizes not joy but loneliness. Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944) underscores this common but underrepresented-by-

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the-holiday-film reality bracingly. It’s one of the darkest Christmas movies I’ve seen. Straightforward, uncomplicated happiness doesn’t exist in the film; if it seems to appear in Christmas Holiday it’s an evolved form of self-delusion.

 

Compared to some of the things that will happen in the course of the movie, the unceremoniously bleak opening is a bastion of light. A young soldier, Charlie Mason (Dean Harens), is about to head home for the holidays. He’s stopped in his tracks, though, when he receives a telegram from his fiancée, Mona. It is not, to Charlie’s chagrin, a lovey-dovey missive in which Mona reinforces her excitement about his visit. The note is instead a nightmare you can hold in your hands. Mona has married someone else; he’d better not come home. “They’re not going to get away with this,” Charlie says.

Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin in 1944's Christmas Holiday.

 

Then he changes his mind. Why make a scene? Charlie throws away his ticket and lands at a bar in New Orleans. He’s pre-prepared for a thoroughly blue, thoroughly boozed Christmas Eve. But soon he is relieved of some of his loneliness. He finds company in the form of Abigail Mannette (Deanna Durbin), who works at the bar as a singer and more surreptitiously an escort. Like the freshly low-spirited Charlie, Abigail is clearly not in a good place. The first time we see her crooning in front of her backing band, her eyes give away someone unable to engage with her audience because she is too busy in conversation with the whispers in her head. She and Charlie decide to spend the night together (not like that). They go to a late-night mass together, then to a different bar. There, Abigail lifts something heavy off her chest. This woman who has been “alone for as long as I can remember” is the wife of murderer Robert Mannette (Gene Kelly). Their six-month marriage ended when he landed on death row for killing a bookie. “Actually, overnight everything changed,” Abigail remembers. 

 

Christmas Holiday largely takes place in the eddies of flashbacks. (Charlie’s place in the movie becomes more superficial — a personified storytelling device.) It chronicles the entirety of Abigail and Robert’s relationship, vexed by the latter’s gambling addiction and a too-close relationship to his domineering live-in mother (Gale Sondergaard). One could argue that the romance we see is too whirlwind, too impulsive — almost chemistry-less — to really engage. (“Convenience” comes to mind as an apt descriptor of it.) The murder trial also has an abruptness.

 

But in Christmas Holiday, this thinness isn't accidental. The movie is not aiming to enthrall us with a sweeping, emotionally involving romance that ends too soon nor maximize the thriller-like tension of courtroom battling. Christmas Holiday elaborates on the tragedy of realizing you don't know someone as well as you think you do, and that your burning-bright love for them could be for a person who may not have ever existed. When Abigail, who had never been in a relationship before she met Robert, tells Charlie early on in the movie that her and Robert’s first few months together were extraordinarily happy, we’ll later realize this bliss was one-sided. All we see, really, is a lack of conflict paired with a superficial-seeming happiness. Abigail’s immense love for her husband was not evenly reciprocated. She still wonders if she could have “saved” him. How much does he still think about her? 

 

Kelly doesn’t perform all that differently than he would in the happy-go-lucky musicals for which he is best known. The difference in Christmas Holiday is that his outwardly identical charms sprout from a rotten center: you notice how flimsy they are once you start scrutinizing them. This handsome man from a well-to-do family has the appeal of someone who has never been told he was wrong and doesn’t have any sense of self. (“It does something to you,” Robert says of carrying a prominent family name.) Christmas Holiday hosts one of Kelly’s best performances: he fiddles with his recognizable charisma just so that it goes cockeyed.

 

Like Kelly, Durbin was best known for musicals; she fares about as well in the movie. She’s convincing as a naïve young woman who considers her life ruined as quickly as it had begun. (When a policeman comes to her door for the first time to inquire about Robert’s potential involvement in his bookie’s killing, only is his silhouette seen; he suggests a being like Death, only instead this entity is collecting fates, not souls.) This is a relentlessly harsh movie, though its pile-on of bad luck is not melodramatically contrived. It’s a truer-to-life antithesis to the standard romantic-drama format of the time, which typically opted for photogenic conflict and the romantically ideal. Christmas Holiday’s fairly happy ending is its only false note. This is a movie that knows as well as we do that good things aren’t always so pristine.

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ho is Nancy? The answer is eagerly sought but never satisfactorily resolved in the course of the flashback-heavy melodrama The Locket (1946). (It pairs nicely as a double feature with the similarly memory-seeped

Christmas Holiday.) This whirlpool of a movie begins with a wedding. Nancy (Laraine Day), a woman in her mid-20s, is marrying John (Gene Raymond), the son of a well-to-do family. Just as guests begin congregating, a man named Harry (Brian Aherne) pulls John aside. Claiming to be a psychiatrist and Nancy's former husband (whom Nancy never claimed to have), Harry says his ex isn't merely not who she says she is but that she is also a kleptomaniac, compulsive liar, and probable murderess. Little of The Locket from there on takes place in the present. It dwells in the rocky days of Harry and Nancy’s marriage; Nancy’s tragic relationship with a troubled artist before that (Robert Mitchum); and finally a pivotal expanse of Nancy’s childhood. (We learn that after being accused of stealing a diamond-encrusted locket from her housekeeper mother’s employer when she was a kid, Nancy ostensibly developed compulsions to steal and lie.) 

These flashbacks all find their bases in what Nancy has apparently told the men in her life. Deciphering whether she embodies everything alleged or if she is actually a misunderstood object onto whom unempathetic old lovers project their insecurities is the movie's main conundrum. Is she truly a “twisted personality who ruined the lives of three men?” (She seems like another person through a different paramour’s gaze.) There’s a narcotic quality to the movie — watching it is like floating through a dreamworld where everything could be illusory. It is almost always raining or snowing; shadows seem to stretch and curl further than they should. Though I wished there were more space allotted to hear an explanation that is unequivocally Nancy’s, The Locket is still an effective, oppressive nightmare of a movie — it offers no solid ground to walk on. It conjures a place where those who claim to love you would rather reactionarily categorize and then discard you once you’ve fallen short of how you’ve been idealized. You won't soon forget it.

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