Saturday, December 21, 2019

Stubs - Holiday Affair

Holiday Affair (1949) Starring: Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, Wendell Corey. Directed by Don Hartman. Screenplay by Isobel Lennart. Based on the novelette The Man Who Played Santa Claus by John D. Weaver in McCall's (Dec 1948). Produced by Don Hartman Run Time: 87 minutes. Black and White USA Christmas, Romance

In 1948, after a string of hits for RKO studios, including Crossfire (1947) and Out of the Past (1947), Robert Mitchum was arrested in a sting operation for possession of Marijuana. While that might have spelled trouble for a lesser star, Mitchum’s films afterward, including Rachel and the Stranger (1948), The Red Pony (1949) and The Big Steal (1949) were box-office successes.

In a rush to capitalize on Mitchum’s recent successes, RKO put The Man Who Played Santa Claus into production. So popular was Mitchum that just before filming started, RKO paid $400,000 to acquire sole ownership of Mitchum's contract from independent producer David O. Selznick, who had shared the contract with RKO. The film, the title later changed to Holiday Affair, went into production on July 11, 1949.

The film opens in a New York Department store, Crowley’s, at Christmas time. Connie Evans (Janet Leigh) buys an expensive electric train set. Sales clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) is suspicious, since she never asked a question about the set.

Steve (Robert Mitchum) meets Connie (Janet Leigh) at
Crowley's department store during the Christmas rush.

Turns out, his suspicions are justified, when it turns out Connie works as a professional “comparison shopper” for one of the department store’s competitors.

Exhausted after a day of shopping, Connie takes the train set home with her. Her six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) sneaks a peek and naturally thinks the train set is for him. But Connie informs him otherwise.

Connie has an admirer, Carl Davis (Wendell Corey).

Connie, a war widow, has an admirer in lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), who proposes to her. Uncertain how she really feels about him, Connie declines to answer right away. She then discusses the proposal with Timmy, who resists the idea.

The next day, when Connie tries to return the train at Crowley's, Steve threatens to report her to the store detective. But when she explains her situation, Steve takes pity and instead refunds her the money, a gesture which costs him his job. Steve asks Connie to lunch, and impresses her over lunch in Central Park, about his plans to build sailboats with a friend in Balboa, California.

Over lunch in Central Park, Steve tells Connie about his future plans.

Steve helps Connie with her comparison shopping but they get separated in a crowd. Steve, however, shows up later at Connie's apartment and discovers Carl there. Although he acts politely, Carl is clearly disturbed by Steve's presence and end up fighting with Timmy, who is still upset about the train.

Steve helps Connie with her comparative shopping.

After a frustrated Carl leaves, Steve angers Connie by suggesting that she stop trying to make Timmy into the image of his dead father. Steve then learns about the train from Timmy and advises him to always "aim higher than the mark."

Steve gives Timmy advice on life.

Before he leaves, Steve impulsively gives Connie a passionate kiss, prompting her to accept Carl's proposal that night.

Steve is about to kiss Connie.

On Christmas morning, Timmy discovers the train set outside the apartment door and assumes that it is from his mother. When he reveals that he earlier told Steve about seeing the train, Connie deduces where it came from and leaves to go confront Steve.

She finds the almost broke Steve in Central Park, and although she offers to reimburse him for the train, he refuses her money, saying that he wants to encourage Timmy's optimism.

After Connie gives him the loud tie she had bought for Carl, Steve happily offers his old tie to a passing bum in the park.

Connie then reveals she is marrying Carl on New Year's Day, sparking another lecture from Steve about letting go of the past and facing the future without fear. Annoyed by Steve's words, Connie leaves the park in a huff.

At home, Timmy, Carl and her former in-laws Mr. Ennis (Griff Barnett) and Mrs. Ennis (Esther Dale) are waiting for her to celebrate Christmas. However, it is not long before Connie is summoned to the police station to vouch for Steve. He’s been arrested after the police found him with a pair of stolen salt and pepper shakers, which the park bum had given to him as a gift.

Police Lieutenant (Harry Morgan) listens to Connie's explanation and then lets him go.

With Carl and Timmy by her side, Connie explains about Steve and the bum to a bemused police lieutenant (Henry ["Harry"] Morgan), who eventually releases Steve. Timmy then insists that Steve come home to eat Christmas dinner with them.

At Connie's, the two rivals for her affections maintain a polite fa├žade, that is until Steve finally announces that he is in love with Connie and wants to marry her. Connie tells Steve to leave, and Steve, who is planning to move to California as soon as he has earned enough money for a train ticket, says a final goodbye.

Steve's pronouncement takes Connie and Carl by surprise.

The next day, Timmy takes his train set back to Crowley's and tearfully asks Mr. Crowley (Henry O'Neill) for a refund so that Steve will not be penniless. Later, Timmy returns home and presents a worried Connie with his refund money. She takes it and Carl drives her to Steve's hotel. When they get there, Connie refuses to see Steve.

Carl deduces that her reluctance is a sign that she is genuinely in love with Steve and graciously "divorces" her.

Connie then delivers the money to Steve, but he refuses to propose again until she has proven to him that she is through grieving for her husband.

Connie and Timmy discuss his future and it helps her decide hers is with Steve.
Once again, Connie storms off in anger, but later, on a lonely New Year's Eve, while talking with Timmy she realizes her future is with Steve. As Steve celebrates the New Year on a west-bound train, he receives a telegram informing him that Connie and Timmy are joining him and rushes happily to embrace them between cars.

Filming lasted until September 2, 1949, and the film was released on November 23, 1949. Unlike Mitchum’s other recent films, Holiday Affair would lose $300,000. This may be due in part with what seems like casting against type. Light romances didn’t seem to be what audiences were expecting from Mitchum. Even the poster for the film didn’t help set expectations as it looks more like a film noir than a Christmas-themed romance.

Reviews of the time were not very good either. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, writing the day after the film’s release, referred to the film as “Light-weight in story and treatment, it is one of those tinsel-trimmed affairs which will likely depend for popularity upon the glamour potential of its stars” and as “a strictly holiday item”. Not really meant as high praise. Maybe he was expecting something else after looking at the poster.

The film might be light-weight holiday fare, but not really sure if it would work if the film was any darker. In fact, the film has a certain charm, part of which is directly related to Mitchum’s performance. While it is casting against type, part of Steve’s charm is the rough edges of his character. His wanderlust seems to be in Mitchum’s wheelhouse as is his somewhat rough treatment of Connie.

While oftentimes first kisses in Hollywood films has the man stealing one from the woman, Mitchum steals his with a vengeance, almost as if Leigh wasn’t even expecting it. In fact, she wasn’t. The story goes that when she and Mitchum shared their first kiss, he really kissed her, rather than a “Hollywood kiss” as a way of getting the right reaction from her for the scene. Her surprise is therefore genuine.

Mitchum's real kiss got the desired reaction from Janet Leigh.
Connie had to be a familiar character to a lot of people in a post-World War II America. War widows had to be commonplace and her struggles with making ends meet, with a child to feed, must have been familiar to them. I’m sort of surprised that it didn’t resonate more, given the film’s poor performance at the box office. Janet Leigh, who was all of 22 at the time, does well in a part that might have been meant for someone slightly older.

Discovered at the age of eighteen, Leigh had started in films appearing for the first time in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947). By 1949, her star was rising. She would appear in seven films that year, including a remake of Little Women opposite Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Astor, Peter Lawford, and Margaret O’Brien. The innocence she portrays here is the exact opposite of the character she might be most famous for, Marion Crane, embezzler and murder victim in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

If you were looking for a milquetoast love rival for Mitchum, then you need not look further than Wendell Corey. His Carl is almost the exact opposite of Steve. Stable, caring and loving, he might seem to be a better choice for a young mother with a small child. However, he doesn’t offer the excitement and unpredictability Steve does. Love doesn’t always make sense and the heart wants what it wants.

A versatile actor, Corey would appear in a variety of roles throughout his career. His feature film debut came as a gangster in producer Hal Wallis' Desert Fury (1947) starring Burt Lancaster, John Hodiak, Lizabeth Scott, and Mary Astor. For Wallis, he supported Lancaster again in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), playing a doctor who treats Barbara Stanwyck. He was a cop in The Accused (1949). One of his better-known roles was also in a Hitchcock film, Rear Window (1954), playing opposite James Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Over time, Holiday Affair has become a minor Christmas classic, due in part to seasonal airings on TCM. While it is light-weight as Crowther stated, it certainly seems to have its heart in the right place. If you’re looking for a warm holiday film, then Holiday Affair should be on your list.

For other Christmas films, check out our Review Hub: Christmas Films.

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