A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.

25 Responses to “A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…”

  1. aww.. “Jonathan look! There is an ugly picture of you online!”

    P.S.: there is nothing wrong with my TV! Who else can enjoy the Simpsons in purple?

  2. She’s really good. So impressed by her in the present-tense scenes: still a good person, but unable to care very much about anything. That line when Harens says it’s a shame Richard Whorf is drinking himself to death: “Do you think so? I don’t.” Of course she has plenty of reason to dislike Whorf’s character. And yet the sleazy journalist (a Manki self-portrait) turns out to be a pretty stand-up guy deep down. And the brothel-keeper is completely sympathetic too. Siodmak often spins surprising complexity and humanism out of tough genre material.

  3. Kris, you should video Jonathan and see what colour he turns!

  4. I’m confused as to any dollar-book Freud in ”Christmas Holiday”. The film doesn’t offer any explanations nor does it give much to explain anyway vis-a-vis Gene Kelly who remains confused and enigmatic. In any case I’ve always believed people who automatically see any eccentric mother-son relationship as “pathological” as being dollar-book Freudians.

    Maugham’s ”Christmas Holiday” is set during ww1 and takes place in Central to Eastern Europe. Or so I am told. This film just updates the action smartly. It has the same title as the original. In any case, ”Christmas Holiday” was a surprising box-office hit in it’s time much to MGM’s fury since they didn’t like their name being associated with a film like that. I guess people responded to a film that reflected their fear and angst outside of the usual adventure stuff and the like.

  5. I noticed that too about Siodmak in that his film avoids easy black-and-white. Like ”Criss Cross”, Yvonne DeCarlo(far away her best performance) in a by-the-numbers knock-off would be the bad girl or dame but here she’s a sympathetic tragic figure and her final scene with Lancaster before Dan Duryea comes in is among the harshest and bleakest moments in Hollywood.

    Siodmak was in the 40’s a fairly respected guy. James Mason admired him very much. Today people talk of him as a B-Movie director or something but his work seems to be pretty A-List stuff. Top actors and the like. ”The Killers” even got nominated for Oscars.

  6. Yes, Siodmak worked in As and Bs, and usually in the thriller genre. He nearly got to direct On the Waterfront, but Spiegel and Schulberg inexplicably decided to prefer Elia Kazan. This would have been in line with the move to realism first shown in People on Sunday and rediscovered a little in Cry of the City. But it was not to be. Die Ratten, if we could see it somehow, would be Siodmak’s answer to this in Germany.

    Yes, Yvonne DeCarlo gets a fair bit of sympathy as the girl who loses because she didn’t trust Lancaster, who really loved her. Although her actions precipitate tragedy, and things are seen more from Lancaster’s POV, it’s impossible not to pity her.

    When Siodmak paraded around with a sign saying “It’s See-odd-mack!” people said he shouldn’t, because it was undiginified. He said, “I don’t care about dignity, I just want to make good pictures.” A totally admirable figure.

  7. As to dollar-book Freud, the only obvious touch is that line about “the psychoanalysts said their relationship was pathological” which puts it in quotes and means that Mank and Siod aren’t necessarily endorsing that reading. Gene Kelly’s character is a perfect rendition of a psychopath, but that’s a form of personality disorder that’s more useful as a descriptor than as an explanation. And no attempt is made to “explain” Deanna’s devotion to him, which isn’t simply to do with his glib charm, obviously. So yes, the film embraces mysteries in its characters.

    Christmas Holiday was a Universal picture. Its success no doubt did upset MGM, though, since the film dares to portray Gene Kelly as other than pristine.

    Siodmak’s big film at MGM was The Great Sinner, which is a lot of fun and quite a different animal.

  8. Actually she does really love Lancaster but he doesn’t understand her at all. He’s this romantic naive guy while she deals with harsh reality being in an abusive relationship with a gangster(who also loves her…for whatever it’s worth), and then being treated like dirt by Lancaster’s working-class family, and then when she finds out that her man has led the people she’s hiding from straight to her she has to leave but she can’t take him along(he’s too injured and ill) and has to leave behind and get killed. And we really understand her, the fact that she’s suffered through all that only to be done in by the stupidity of the man she loves. Almost Fassbinderesque really.

    ———————————
    He nearly got to direct On the Waterfront, but Spiegel and Schulberg inexplicably decided to prefer Elia Kazan.
    ———————————-

    Actually from what I hear, Siodmak was originally slated to do the early version done by Arthur Miller and that version would have been in the studio. The film had no interest at all from Hollywood since it was about non-WASPs, about working-class Americans as they were and about problems in the Union relating to them being mob controlled(the mob being financed by the big business people to keep the union under their thumb). Schulberg knew the Waterfront area well as well as the real life priest who inspired the same character in the film. Kazan had real clout and pitched the film to Zanuck who turned it down because he didn’t want to do a film about losers and the like(this is the same guy who greenlit ”The Grapes of Wrath” and allowed Ford to shoot it straight and sober) and so Kazan did it independently and it was he who felt it would be right to shoot on location and even(I’m not sure about this) managed to get Leonard Bernstein to do the score.

  9. A lot of American psychoanalysts in the 40’s and 50’s were little above quacks anyway. Especially the ones employed by courts and the like. Simon Oakland’s rendition in ”Psycho” of shrink as door-to-door salesman doing a pitch is a documentary of these PseudoFreudians. Many of these for instance were tasked with “curing” homosexuality and the like which Freud himself said was impossible since it was natural and the like.

  10. One of the only convincing and good shrink and certainly no dollar-book-Freudian in American cinema at that time was Monty Clift’s rendition in ”Suddenly, Last Summer!”. Though that’s slightly ambiguous since he’s a specialist in doing lobotomies who only stops when he sees someone as gorgeous as Liz Taylor being sent under the knife.

    ”Lilith” is another convincing well-done film about shrinks and mental illness that’s not too hysterical nor too dry and sober.

    ”Freud : The Secret Passion” by John Huston, screenplay by(uncredited) Jean-Paul Sartre is also very interesting.

  11. Yes, I wonder if the over-simplification of shrinks in Hollywood was in a part a reflection of the oversimplification of psychiatry as practiced. It’s not necessarily all that much better now.

    Siodmak’s removal from On the Waterfront was the occasion for a lawsuit, since he had collaborated on the screenplay with Schulberg (not Miller), entitled “A Stone in the River Hudson” at the time. And he won! $100,000. But I don’t think his credit has ever been restored.

    The film would have been made by Siodmak except for HUAC, who blacklisted Schulberg, causing Universal to back off.

  12. I love the stuff about Simone Simon and the psychiatrist in “The Cat People.” Perhaps her response to Tom Conway is a patient’s *proper* response?

  13. A sidelight on Yvonne DeCarlo in Criss Cross. Sharp-eyed viewers will note an early appearance by Tony Curtis in a dance hall scene. Curtis (Bernie Schwartz to his mother) started out in New York and on returning to town after this sojourn he was in a cab and noticed actor pal Walter Matthau standing on a streetcorner. Curtis ordered the cabbie to pull up alongside, then he rolled down the window and yelled to Matthau ‘I FUCKED YVONNE DE CARLO!” Then he rolled up the window and had the cabbie drive away.

  14. Yes, Tony always had class.

    My friend Lawrie worked on some movie she made in the UK. “We were all very exclited as we’d heard she was the most beautiful woman in the world, so we came in early to see her. A huge car pulled up [at Pinewood] and this mousy little thing, swamped in a huge fur coat, got out. We were so disappointed. But, by God, after four hours in makeup, she WAS the most beautiful woman in the world!”

    I saw a clip of her entertaining the troops. “Well, those are the only songs I know, and I can’t think what else I could possibly do to entertain you!”

    Yes, one does kind of cheer Simone on when she mauls Conway.

  15. It could be that Tony was boasting I suppose. Burt Lancaster by the way did have an affair with her during shooting. Part of that chemistry shows in the film though.

    Yvonne DeCarlo’s other performances are a let down after this film. Maybe it was the direction that brought out such strong work. Her other interesting film is ”Band of Angels” by Raoul Walsh. Then she appeared in ”The Ten Commandments”. Oh well, at least people will see one of her movies.

  16. Don’t forget The Munsters!

    Doesn’t show at her very best, but it probably introduces her work to most people. And she’s pretty good in it.

  17. cute kitteh ! muscling into cuteoverload territory there. Cute animals and film theory…

  18. He has a winning personality too. He can play me in the film of my life.

  19. Looks fascinating. I never knew that Gene Kelly had taken on darker roles. It’s such a shame that the film of the (Kelly-inspired) Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes didn’t star him as was originally intended. Apparently Bradbury’s choices for the Mr Dark role were Christopher Lee and Peter O’Toole.

  20. Don’t forget Yvonne in such sublime camp-fests as Salome Where She Danced and Flame of the Islands.

    Gene Kelly made his name playing dark roles. Pal Joey made him a star.

  21. Couldn’t find the clip but “Put away your Penguin Freud, Diana” is my favorite line from Darling.

  22. Kelly’s twinkly-eyed steeliness would have worked beautifully in Something Wicked.

    But Fiona and I love Jonathan Pryce in the role. His nervousness! As if he’s afraid of something even more terrifying than himself! His best film work.

  23. This is for me a haunting film, I recall when I first saw it a few years ago I was so happy that it was as good as it was. Kelly’s face at times looks truly eerie. Deanna’s melancholy is so convincing, both in her performance and her singing. And I’m sure some out there will think I’m nuts or perverse, but there’s something about Sondergaard that I actually find rather sexy. The same applies to Geraldine Fitzgerald in Uncle Harry, where toward the end of the film she’s wandering about in that lacy nightgown making Sanders sweat with thoughts of incest. Kelly made another dark film without singing or dancing, The Black Hand, about the Mafia in New York City in the early 1900s. Marc Lawrence is wonderfully sinister in this film, with his pockmarked mustached face. And this film prefigures The Godfather, where instead of going to Italy to avenge the death of his father as DeNiro did, Kelly goes from Italy to America to attend to the same thing. Not a great film, but pretty damn good.

  24. Well, Geraldine Fitz is DEFINITELY sexy. And she’s so slinky in Uncle Harry.

    I probably prefer Sondergaard’s dragon lady in The Letter, when it comes to sex appeal, to her work in Xmas Hol.

    I saw The Black Hand years and years ago and quite enjoyed it, but I can’t remember very much about it, including Mr Lawrence, alas.

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