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The Bootleg Files: Christmas Holiday

BOOTLEG FILES 618: “Christmas Holiday” (1944 noir drama starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is unclear what happened.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It’s possible.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Deanna Durbin was the reigning teen queen of Universal Pictures’ musicals – which made her something of a big fish in a small pond, considering musicals were not really that studio’s forte. Nonetheless, audiences loved the pretty Canadian-born star with the peerless soprano singing voice, and Universal loved that audiences loved her. But the love did not extend to Durbin herself, who bristled at the saccharine persona created by her employers. She derided her screen image as “Little Miss Fixit who bursts into song,” claiming that films like “One Hundred Men and Girl” and “Mad About Music” created a corny image that “represented the ideal daughter that millions of fathers and daughters wished they had.”

By 1944, the 23-year-old Durbin was too eager to break out of the confines of her musical comedy sphere and take on a more daring and adult role. Her choice of vehicles for the shift in style and substance was fairly unexpected: W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “Christmas Holiday,” a rather heavy story of a Russian prostitute in Paris who attracts the attention of an Englishman by pretending to be an aristocrat. The material was considered uncommercial due to the heavy-handed censorship control exercised by the Hays Office – independent producer Walter Wanger sought to film the book in 1939, but was prevented because the Hays Office deemed Maugham’s story was ripe with “gross sexual irregularities.” To appease Durbin, Universal acquired the property and sandblasted Maugham’s text to meet the Hays Office restrictions. Oddly, Universal also obtained MGM song-and-dance star Gene Kelly as her leading man, thus giving the false impression that the dark “Christmas Holiday” was a cheery Yuletide musical.

The resulting “Christmas Holiday” is a weird hodgepodge, with some remarkable visual flourishes via director Robert Siodmak and Universal’s ace team of noir-focused technicians. Yet the screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Orson Welles’ collaborator on the “Citizen Kane” script) was clumsily constructed and relied too heavily on hackneyed plot twists, while Durbin and Kelly were utterly ill-suited for their roles.

Lt. Charles Mason (theater actor Dean Harens in his screen debut) is ready to leave his Army base in North Carolina on a Christmas furlough, with plans of flying to San Francisco and proposing to his longtime sweetheart Mona. But Mona sends him a telegram announcing she married another man. The lieutenant nonetheless decides to fly to San Francisco, but a storm forces his airplane to land in New Orleans. Lt. Mason and the other passengers are put up in a hotel for the night, and a loudmouth reporter named Simon Fenimore spies the soldier in the hotel bar and convinces him to go out for a night at the Maison Lafitte, which is supposedly a nightclub in a private mansion – never mind that the manager is an older woman dressed like a stereotypical bordello madam and the hostesses serve little purpose but to entertain the all-male clients.

One of the hostesses is Jackie (Deanna Durbin), who sings the Frank Loesser pop ditty “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” while wearing a low-cut black gown. The lieutenant is fascinated with her, but she wants to attend Midnight Mass at the local cathedral. During service, Jackie breaks into tears, creating an embarrassing scene. Later, Lt. Mason and Jackie are at a diner and she tells him her life story. Her real name is Abigail Manette and she is the wife of Robert Manette, who murdered a bookie and went to prison after a sensational trial.

At this point, about 25 minutes into the film, “Christmas Holiday” switches to flashbacks where Abigail recalls how she began to suspect that her wastrel husband (Gene Kelly) was up to no good after he came home late one night with blood on his pants. Her suspicion is affirmed by the equally odd behavior of his overly protective mother (Gale Sondergaard), who burned the blood-stained pants and, after Robert’s arrest, unsuccessfully tried to frame Abigail for Robert’s crime.

When the flashbacks run their course, Jackie/Abigail returns to her job and sings Irving Berlin’s “Always.” She then discovers Robert has broken out of prison and is at her place of employment. During their confrontation, Jackie/Abigail goes into a convoluted monologue about how she has been as much of a prisoner in her life as Robert has been in his penal period. Needless to say, the cops show up in the nick of time and, in this pre-Miranda Rights era, shoot Robert first without bothering to ask questions of the dangerous convict.

Universal channeled generous funding into “Christmas Holiday,” with on-location segments filmed at Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and at Philharmonic Theatre. A great deal of care went into the production design, which was enhanced by Woody Bredell’s moody black-and-white cinematography. Durbin was given the full-glam treatment, with chic costuming and hair styling to elevate her into femme fatale territory. And while Durbin’s singing was limited, her songs were written by the best in the business; Hans J. Salter received an Academy Award nomination for his music score on this production.

But “Christmas Holiday” failed because Durbin and Kelly were miserably miscast. Durbin may have been a happy distraction in family-focused musicals, but she was completely out of her element in noir. She sleepwalks through the film, failing to produce any genuine emotion and often staring at her surrounding with a vacant blankness. Likewise, Kelly could not generate the psychological menace and emotional anxiety that his character required – the role required a volatile Dan Duryea rather than a happy-go-lucky MGM hoofer. Their performances were so lacking that Gale Sondergaard’s incredibly mild villainous acting and Richard Whoft gregarious reporter come across as painfully overblown in comparison to their dreary co-stars.

Nonetheless, audiences were not that picky – for them, Durbin could read that proverbial telephone book and they’d pay to hear it. “Christmas Holiday” was a big box office hit and Durbin would later claim it was her favorite film performance – she would later marry producer Felix Jackson, but that union was short-lived.

Durbin’s star would not shine for much longer – five years after “Christmas Holiday” was released, Durbin’s unhappiness with Hollywood and her choice of roles was so intense that she quit movies. Durbin rebuffed several offers to return to the screen and moved to Paris, where she maintained a private life until her death in 2013.

“Christmas Holiday” has yet to receive a U.S. home entertainment release, although it has been made available on British DVD. It is unclear why the U.S. market is missing this title – one online source theorized that the rights to the Maugham source material lapsed and require renewal, and another source cited music clearance rights to the Loesser and Berlin tunes, but that doesn’t explain why it can be found on British DVD. In any event, those issues could have easily been addressed by now.

Anyone interested in “Christmas Holiday” can find a pristine print on YouTube. And while it is hardly representative of Durbin’s films or the holiday season, there is some amusing curio value to be found in its shortcomings.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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