It’s that time of year when our fiscal and familial thoughts start to focus on a few hours in the last week of December and we have to steel ourselves against the commercial promotions and the perpetration of schmaltzy sentiment introduced by Dickens and given a shot in the arm by Hollywood. This is why I spend most of the year trying to find classic films with a Christmas theme but which avoid striding wilfully into a treacly swamp.
Well perhaps Holiday Affair (1949) succeeds in this by showing life after WWII when people – especially those who had lost family – cared deeply about each other and (more importantly) when kids understood not only that they were not going to get everything they wanted but realised how much things cost!
Although it was not a fabulous hit on its initial release, this film set in the Christmas season has since become a minor holiday classic. Modest but engaging – at times moving – it tells a simple story of boy meets girl. Sometimes amusing but with a serious undercurrent, it never strays into treacle and also features excellent performances from Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, a solid performances from child actor Gordon Gebert and a cameo from Harry Morgan (who made more than 100 films and you may recognise as Colonel Potter from M.A.S.H. in 1970s TV).
There are some amusing moments created in the rivalry (right) between Mitchum and Wendell Corey (1914-68), whose role as the dependable but boring suitor of Janet Leigh fitted well with his persona in many films. In the 1940s Corey played opposite such stars as Barabara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster and Joan Crawford but he is perhaps best remember today as Lt. Doyle, playing opposite James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Well respected in the industry, Corey became president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1961 to 1963), served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild and after going into politics, was elected to Santa Monica City Council in 1965. All of which background knowledge adds to understanding his character as a foil to Mitchum in Holiday Affair.
For really this is Robert Mitchum’s film – and one that shows his range. Here he plays a salesman in the toy department of a department store – quite a switch from the hoods and drifters he had been cast as earlier, though that persona is not far beneath the surface. Since appearing as a passer-by in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), Mitchum (1917-97) had appeared in 38 films before this one – mostly B movies that we now call ‘film noir’. But in September 1948 he was arrested with actress Lila Leeds for possession of marijuarna and, after a week at the county jail (“Like Palm Springs,” he said, “but without the riff-raff”), Mitchum served 43 days at the beginning of 1949 on a prison farm (with Life photographers snapping him constantly). Even though the conviction was later overturned and recognised as a set up, the whole scandal might have been thought to damage his career irreparably. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining his more wholesome character in Holiday Affair as a means of rehabilitating him. Whatever the case, despite, or perhaps because of all this (bad?) publicity, many of the films released after his arrest – this one among them – were moderate box-office successes. And the 1950s would see him at the top of his game.
Connie, the character played by Janet Leigh (1927-2004) is a working single mom in this film and as such provides a comparison with present times. Her dilemma is one that still has resonance and there must surely have been many in her position in 1949. Her situation is not really resolved but must have been very familiar … perhaps even the reason many women went to see this film for there is an argument that says women went to the cinema at this time just to see their situation represented not necessarily to find an answer.Nevertheless, that idea did not have any impact on the marketing of the film. Many posters bore a speech bubble from Mitchum carrying her in his arms, that objectified her by saying, “Baby, you’re just what I want for Christmas.” See below.
Janet Leigh had been born Jeanette Helen Morrison and was a relative new-comer, having appeared in only 9 films since 1947. She debuted in the big budget Romance of Rosy Ridge as Van Johnson’s romantic interest, and had stayed in the public eye more recently by playing Meg in Little Women (1949).
The 1950s would see her star rise, playing opposite the likes of Stewart Granger (Scaramouche, 1952), James Stewart and Robert Ryan (The Naked Spur, 1953), Orson Welles and Charlton Heston (A Touch of Evil, 1958). Not to mention Tony Curtis (The Vikings, 1958) and of course her encounter with a deadly shower in Psycho (1960).
A made-for-television remake of Holiday Affair was produced in 1996.