The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
During the busy Christmas season, happy-go-lucky Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) finds himself working in the toy department of Crowley’s, an imposing department store in New York City. One of his customers during his shift is a woman named Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), who buys an electric train set Steve is demonstrating to a gathering of children in the store. It’s a most unusual purchase in that Connie doesn’t ask too many questions about the train, the way a regular customer would—she doesn’t even want it gift-wrapped for the holiday, or delivered to an address. What gives?
It doesn’t take too long before it’s revealed that Connie is working for Crowley’s competition as a “comparison shopper;” after a long day visiting various stores, she returns to her apartment with both the train and a gift of a new suit for her young son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Sneaking a peek at “the big package,” Timmy discovers the train set and is positively giddy at the thought of receiving such a toy since the finances are fairly tight in the Ennis household (Connie is a single mother whose husband was killed during the war). Timmy soon experiences a letdown of epic proportions when Connie explains that “the big package” is going back to Crowley’s in the morning (she’s unaware that the little scamp took a peek).
Back at Crowley’s to return the gift, Steve reveals to Connie that he knows what she does for a living, and as store policy, her picture will be taken and distributed to the various departments to prevent her from making any further purchases. (“Hazard of the profession,” Steve explains to Connie. “If you’re gonna be a spy, you gotta expect a firing squad.”) Since this will resort in Connie’s dismissal from the department store where she works, Steve falls on the grenade instead and okays the return of the train; soon, he’s back on the street, pounding the pavements. But this is not necessarily a terrible thing, for it sets in motion events that lead to a Holiday Affair (1949).
Like its Yuletide compatriot It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Holiday Affair did not impress many ticket purchasers when it was first released on Christmas Eve in 1949 (after a New York premiere in November), but thanks to the frequency of its being shown on television, Affair has become a traditional Christmas favorite among classic movie fans.
I first saw the movie in 2008, when my ClassicFlix colleague Rick Brooks suggested I take a look at it—if only for a scene in which the Steve Mason character is brought up before a police lieutenant on charges of theft. The gendarme is played by none other than Harry Morgan, whose attempts to understand the “triangle” between Steve, Connie, and Connie’s fiance Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) has him channeling the same reservoir of sardonic Morgan later displayed as neighbor Pete Porter on the TV sitcom December Bride. (After Bride ended its five-year-run in 1959, the Pete character landed a spin-off in the slightly-less-successful Pete and Gladys.)
Holiday Affair has the prerequisite amount of Yuletide heart and a happy ending, but what I’ve always enjoyed about the movie is that it also addresses how the Christmas holiday can be uncomfortable for some folks. Sure, we get together and we’re with family during the season…but almost everyone has that one relative (usually an aunt or grandmother) who demands to know why we’re still single (and when we’re going to find the right person with which to settle down) or the in-law who insists on picking a fight because his or her politics are of a different stripe.
Affair has several scenes capturing the sense of awkwardness beautifully. Connie doesn’t mention the encounter with Steve to fiancé Carl (thinking it’s not all that important), but when Steve shows up at her doorstep with a fistful of presents (he was helping her “comparison shop”) the two men are forced to interact with one another while she ducks out into the kitchen to whip up cocktails. The tension between Carl and Steve—Carl seethes with jealousy at his new rival, and is unable to hide it—is hysterically palpable as the two discuss mundane subjects like the weather (they both agree a white Christmas is best…not like last year, when it rained the entire time).
The discomfort continues at the police station, where even though Carl steps up and volunteers to represent Steve (Carl is an attorney by profession) he’s still bewildered as to why Connie is going out of her way to help a complete stranger. Later, when Steve is invited to spend Christmas dinner with Connie, Carl, Timmy, and her in-laws (played by Esther Dale and Griff Barnett, whom old-time radio fans might recognize as the voice of the “Rexall family druggist” on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show), he follows Carl’s sincere toast (he’s asked Connie to marry him on New Year’s Eve) with one of his own: he tells Connie she should marry him instead of Carl. (Who wants more egg nog?)
Carl is a decent, button-down sort of fellow who, at the risk of spoiling the film’s ending, will not end up with Connie because he’s played by one of moviedom’s most pathetic losers, Wendell Corey. You can’t help but feel sorry for Corey since his competition is Robert Mitchum, who seems a little out of his element here at first (he’s usually associated with vehicles like Crossfire and Out of the Past) but demonstrates a wonderfully playful sense of humor (previously on display in 1949’s The Big Steal) and despite his later track record in films like The Night of the Hunter (1955), a nice rapport with children. (There’s a laugh-out-loud moment where Big Bad Bob notices a little girl is tooling around Central Park on roller skates despite the snow on the ground. “Shouldn’t those be ice skates?” Mitchum asks her. “I didn’t get any ice skates” is her matter-of-fact reply.)
Purportedly, co-star Janet Leigh was wary of working with Mitchum because of the star’s “what-me-worry?” approach to acting, but she soon learned it was mostly a front, and Mitchum was more dedicated to his craft than people believed.
I think both Leigh and Mitchum display a lovely chemistry in Holiday Affair, one that is a bit more mature than most “meet-cute” movie situations (Bob offers his opinion to Janet that she does her son no favors by trying to make him over into a junior version of his dead father). The supporting cast also rises to the occasion, and juvenile performer Gordon Gebert skillfully avoids most of the maudlin pitfalls that often beset actors of his age (you might remember him as the kid in The Narrow Margin).
Director Don Hartman’s career in the chair was a brief one (his resume includes Every Girl Should Be Married and It’s a Big Country), but his experience in writing lighter fare for the screen (he penned many a Bob Hope vehicle, including Never Say Die and My Favorite Blonde) gives Holiday Affair an extra punch, and does screenwriter Isobel Lennart’s adaptation of John D. Weaver’s Christmas Gift a real service. (Hartman even executes a Hitchcock-like cameo in one scene as the man leaving a phone booth.) Sit down with your traditional Christmas viewing favorites this year, but be sure to make room for this delightful romp as well.