May 27, 2010
Deanna Durbin & CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944)
I became interested in classic film early in my teens. Able to stay up late during summer vacations I passed the time with American Movie Classics. (TCM was still more than a decade away.) Despite being weaned in a house where films such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Rebecca, and Laura were part of the vernacular, I didn’t truly begin to love old movies until those black and white summers of the early eighties. I vividly remember seeing Freddie Mac play the horn to Carol Lombard in Swing High, Swing Low and being astonished by Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives. It was back then that I first discovered and fell in love with Deanna Durbin, who from the mid thirties to the mid forties was, as TCM host Robert Osbourne recently described her, “The absolute queen of Universal Studios.” Durbin accomplished something that few touched by Hollywood success have ever done: she walked away at (practically) the height of her stardom and never looked back. Unlike Judy Garland, to whom her career is forever linked, she neither aged, faded away, nor fell victim to any of the cruel perils of fame — instead she became a different sort of legend.
In spite of the success of All Quiet on the Western Front, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 1930, Universal didn’t have much going for it at the outset of the depression beyond its burgeoning success in the horror genre. Carl Laemmle’s sprawling Universal City allowed the studio to bang out high quality fright pictures using the same sets and seasoned production teams. Audiences embraced Universal’s brand of gothic escapism, and the revenues generated by the horror unit were substantial enough to keep Laemmle’s head above water during the lean years of the depression. Yet these profits paled in comparison to those over at MGM, where Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer were setting the standard for box office returns through their star vehicles and prestige productions. Unlike the big studios, Laemmle never invested in theaters or distribution and consequently Universal was forced to rely on box office hits in order to remain solvent. The lack of a theater chain meant that all of Universal’s films had to have predictable box office potential in order to gain wide distribution. MGM, Paramount, and Warners could block-book their weaker features by packaging them with sure-fire hits and star vehicles — obliging their theaters to exhibit them and thus guaranteeing profits.
The desire to compete with and gain market share on the other majors led Laemmle to take another shot at the first-run picture market, but the studio simply didn’t have the cash reserves or the financial backstops to sustain more than one or two failures. Laemmle borrowed heavily in order to finance Frankenstein director James Whale’s 1935 big-budget production of the musical Show Boat, but Whale was out of his bailiwick and couldn’t deliver the finished film in time for boss Carl to cover the loan — so Laemmle lost his shirt. Ironically, Show Boat went on to be a big moneymaker — just not in time to save Laemmle. The studio went into receivership and was taken over by Wall Street creditors in 1936. They quickly ousted Carl and Junior Laemmle and put a new team in charge, who all but eliminated prestige production.
Enter producer Joe Pasternak and Deanna Durbin. Pasternak was a European émigré stationed in Berlin, producing German-language musicals for Universal’s European outfit. When the situation in Europe caused the subsidiary to shut down Pasternak returned to the States hoping to reestablish himself in Hollywood. At the time of his arrival Durbin was being groomed by MGM, but was dropped when Mayer decided to back Judy Garland instead. The circumstances surrounding Mayer’s decision are as murky as they are legendary, but no matter how the edict came down MGM dropped Deanna and Universal snagged her, giving Pasternak what he needed to reproduce his European successes. Working with a modest budget he assembled a team that would become known at Universal as The “Durbin Unit,” featuring himself, director Henry Koster, and cameraman Joe Valentine. Their first project was Three Smart Girls, which proved to be a runaway hit, earning Durbin a special Oscar and making the fourteen-year-old Universal’s biggest star. Pasternak understood formula filmmaking very well, and soon the Durbin unit was reliably churning out the hits, all based on the squeaky-clean formula established in Three Smart Girls. While many have suggested that Durbin single-handedly saved Universal from bankruptcy, it may be more accurate to say that in the years following the Laemmle debacle Durbin’s success insured that of the struggling studio.
By the beginning of the forties Deanna Durbin was a household name and bona fide Hollywood superstar. She was never comfortable with her success or the way in which her screen image was crafted, so as she matured she sought more dramatic projects that called for less and less singing. It’s important to remember that the Hollywood studio system was built around the idea of the star-genre combination, of which Deanna is a prime example: Deanna Durbin + musical comedy = audience appeal and studio profit. To put it simply, audiences went to Durbin pictures for laughs and songs, and as much as Deanna may have wanted to give them something else, they just weren’t inclined to see her that way. Nevertheless by the time the war started Deanna wanted to try more dramatic parts and had the clout at Universal City to make demands. After a few lukewarmly received dramatic pictures during those years, such as Christmas Holiday, a frustrated Deanna walked away from the film industry in 1948. She married and retired to France, where she lives today.
Christmas Holiday hit theaters at the height of the war in 1944, and its mood is as fittingly dark and unsettling as the time’s. The story opens with baby-faced West Point grad Lt. Mason (Dean Harens) rushing home to San Francisco in lieu of a Dear John letter. He wants to have it out with his girl before he ships out, but weather diverts his flight into New Orleans, where he’s forced to take a cheap room. In the hotel bar he meets sleazy newsman (Richard Whorf) who hustles him to a nightclub / brothel where he meets “hostess” Jackie Lamont (Durbin). It turns out that not only was Jackie previously married, but her real name is actually Abigail Manette — her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) was famously convicted of killing a bookie and sent to Angola for life. She works at the club to punish herself for not seeing the truth about Robert or helping him when she had the chance. Based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham, Christmas Holiday is one of the most oddly titled films of the forties. There’s little to do with Christmas beyond a midnight mass at which Deanna breaks down and is motivated to share her story and real name with Lt. Mason, and any other evidence of the holiday season is conspicuously absent. Told primarily through flashback, the story details the strange course of the Manettes’ life together, from their meeting until Robert’s imprisonment and climactic confrontation between them in the wake of his breakout.
Durbin’s performance is memorable. She delivers as an actress in a few key moments, the first of which occurs in the Christmas Eve mass scene where Jackie / Abigail’s life overwhelms her and she confesses her past. The mise-en-scene is so spectacularly baroque that Deanna is able to give herself away to the moment without risk of going over the top. She moves from quiet weeping to openly sobbing on hands and knees — yet the scene remains affecting and believable. Later in the film a flashback details her first meeting with husband-to-be Robert. Ironically, they (Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly of all people) meet at a concert and get to know one another thanks to a shared passion for music. Durbin again deftly shows her ability to interpret the moment, as she handles the excitement of a first date by simply closing her eyes and being swept away in the music of the concert. As the story unfolds her performance takes on a progressively more world-weary and melancholic mood. By the denouement she’s frayed and exhausted. It’s reasonable to think that much of the credit for her work is due Robert Siodmak, but her performance begs one to consider how far she might have gone as a dramatic actress.
The film benefits greatly from iconic noir director Siodmak (Criss Cross, The Killers) and cinematographer Woody Bredell. Amongst fans of film noir Bredell doesn’t share his cohort’s level of name recognition, even though he filmed Christmas Holiday just after completing the highly stylized Phantom Lady with Siodmak and Ella Raines, and would work with the director again on The Killers. Bredell was also quite familiar with Deanna Durbin, having photographed her in seven films, including the forgotten Can’t Help Singing. Can’t Help Singing, Deanna’s follow up to Christmas Holiday, and surprisingly her only Technicolor picture, provides an interesting counterpoint to her two film noirs (the other being Lady on a Train). A musical western produced by Universal in an effort to cash in on the success of Broadway’s Oklahoma!, Can’t Help Singing offers a completely different look at Durbin and argues strongly that her star would have only risen has she stayed in her wheelhouse as a performer and continued to make romantic musicals. Can’t Help Singing was nominated for two Academy Awards and is a surprisingly good showcase for the 22-year-old star. (Also worth noting that Hans Salter received a score nomination for Christmas Holiday — Hollywood paid attention to Durbin films.)
Deanna Durbin’s place in history so unique that commentary about Christmas Holiday tends to focus solely on this movie’s role in her career path. What gets overlooked is the strength of the film’s noir statement. The film is mildly unorthodox in that its universe is more thematically than visually noirish, and even more so because its protagonist is a woman. Christmas Holiday is concerned with corrupt and perverse relationships and the absurd obligations that accompany marriage. The film is noirish not in the sense that these relationships exist, but instead in that Abigail, the protagonist, fails to see them — and consequently pays a terrible price. Her failure is characterized by melancholy, isolation, a severe sense of regret and alienation from the functional world that churns away outside the doors of her palatial antebellum home. When Abigail enters the sphere of Robert and his mother (the amazing Gale Sondergaard) she fails to grasp that the ticket is one way, despite Mrs. Manette’s weak attempts to warn her off. It’s in this determined failure to see what’s right in front of her that Abigail takes her place alongside all the other suckers and fools that populate film noir, whatever their gender. Yet it’s important to recognize the importance of gender reversal in Christmas Holiday. Turning the tables on traditional noir structure, Robert functions as a homme fatale. In an attempt to overcome the corruption of his own soul — gambling, sloth, and violence, possibly even incest — he reaches for Abigail. However instead of lifting him up she is drug down into his personal quagmire. Like the femme fatales of more well-known pictures Robert can’t help himself — he simply is what he is and can’t overcome his demons, no matter how much he hopes otherwise. In thinking Abigail can save him he damns her, and in failing to recognize Robert for what he is Abigail consummates her doom.
How ironic to realize that one of the fundamental inhabitants of the plastic world of film noir is the femme fatale, while with gender reversal comes a somewhat more familiar representation of life in the real world.
Lady on a Train Christmas Holiday
Christmas Holiday (1944)
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Cinematography by Elwood “Woody” Bredell
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham
Produced by Felix Jackson
Starring Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, and Gale Sondergaard
Released by Universal Pictures
Running time: 93 minutes.