Friday, December 18, 2020

Leigh and Mitchum Conduct a Charming Holiday Affair

                An appealing RKO seasonal romantic comedy from 1949 that has proved enduring through numerous telecasts (both from TCM and, years before, late-night showings on cable stations) and several releases on home video and DVD, Holiday Affair adds some nice twists to its central plot concerning a love triangle, and allows a chance for each of its principals (Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey) to shine. Director Don Hartman, who had much success as a writer (including two Oscar nominations) prior to his brief directional career, capably unfolds the storyline and captures the feel of NYC at Christmastime circa 1949 very well. Although some scenes fall into the stereotypical or overly-cute (Mitchum and Corey’s awkward banter after their first meeting, a contrived scene with the star trio and Henry Morgan as an alternately perplexed and sarcastic judge) Isobel Lennart’s engrossing screenplay, with its fine detail to each character and rare onscreen depiction of the problems faced by a post-war single-mother, draws viewers in quickly and allows them to understand and care about the principals’ motives, and what fate holds for each of them.

As Connie Ennis, a young widow attempting to raise her son Timmy (played with a good deal of charm by Gordon Gebert, and less guile than normally seen in child performers of the era) Janet Leigh gets one of her best early-career roles and runs with it. Discovered by Norma Shearer in early 1946 after the famed star caught a glimpse of young Jeanette Helen Morrison in a photo Leigh’s father proudly displayed at Lake Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl ski resort where Shearer was visiting, the untried ingénue showed a remarkable intuitiveness for screen acting from her first film role in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge. After future success, including great work in a now-classic Noir, Act of Violence and a fine, somewhat undervalued performance as Meg in her other 1949 holiday-themed film, Little Women, Leigh continued to thrive with her excellent delineation of Connie in Affair. The complex character includes a lot of emotional baggage, such as dealing with an ongoing attachment to the husband she lost in the war, trying to survive via a fairly thankless job as a comparison shopper, facing conflict brought on by her attempts to deny her attraction to Steve Mason (Mitchum) due to her lawyer fiancée, Carl Davis (Corey), and also encountering challenges rearing the strong-minded Timmy. Leigh manages to aptly demonstrate the constantly-shifting emotions Connie possesses with a rare skill, naturalness and spontaneity. Watching her impressive work in Affair makes one happy to know Leigh would go on to star in several classic films (and possibly the most famous movie scene of all time) that would ensure her reputation and substantial place in Hollywood history. 

              Mitchum puts his laconic, “Baby I don’t care” demeanor to good use as the guy who upsets Connie’s world after they meet and immediately connect, offering an early sign Mitchum could score in a traditional leading man role different than the Noirish anti-heroes which helped establish him in the late 1940’s. Mitchum also shares Leigh’s gift for instinctive screen acting, and the two play together in simpatico fashion, aptly conveying the fact Connie and Steve are made for each other, even while Connie fights against this notion throughout the film. Mitchum’s low-key, unforced style greatly aids in making Steve, who spends a lot of time analyzing Connie’s mindset and telling her exactly what he thinks of her and her decisions, a still-likable regular Joe who the audience can see building a future with Connie. Although the fairly straightforward character doesn’t give Mitchum the shadings to play found in his best work, as usual he finds a way to comfortably fit into the picture and, with a minimum of fuss, uses his strong masculine presence to the benefit of the film. 

The also-sometimes Noirish Wendell Corey gives a subtle, endearing performance as Carl Davis, the patient lawyer in eager to marry Connie. Carl is an intriguing character as, in contrast to most love triangle scenarios, as the clear odd-man-out of the trio he isn’t made unattractive and/or a flat-out jerk and/or an idiot. It’s clear Carl has worked to become a supportive, sympathetic figure in Connie’s life, and loves her enough to continue to wait for her forego her attachment to her lost husband and move on with him, and Corey and Lennart invest Carl with a calm, understanding nature, even as Steve enters the picture and complications become evident. Corey’s best scene finds Carl intelligently discussing with Connie the intricacies involved in their feelings for each other and her interest in Steve, which illustrates Carl fully understands the “it’s complicated” nature of relationships, and what the healthiest decision for him and everyone else will be. It’s rare to find a situation in a movie wherein both suitors seem to be equally-valuable catches for a female lead, but Connie has her hands full in this Affair, with Corey making Carl a winning, stable companion entirely worthy of Connie’s (or someone’s) affections.

             Outside of the triangle, young Gebert admirably handles his large role as Timmy (the movie’s really more of a quartet when forgoing its romantic elements to consider all the main characters involved in the plot), largely side-stepping opportunities to play things coyly and cute, and coming across as a normal boy trying to adapt to the idea of having a new father figure. Gebert’s interplay with Leigh in particular is unforced and rings true, cementing the story’s core mother-son relationship with a genuineness that proves to be one of the most valuable and memorable components of the movie. Gebert went on to make a few other noteworthy films, including 1950’s great Burt Lancaster action-adventure The Flame and the Arrow, before adulthood granted him a second estimable career in architecture. Rounding out the cast, Esther Dale and Griff Barnett do nice work as Connie’s visiting in-laws; although Mrs. Ennis’ askance look upon hearing Carl named as Connie’s intended is curious (as if the character can’t really like the lawyer because Steve/Mitchum is the better catch/bigger star, even though Mrs. Ennis hasn’t even met Steve yet) Dale brings the moment off, while Barnett has one of the movie’s most charming moments delivering a holiday dinner speech to his Mrs. and company. 

           Although not a box-office success upon its initial Christmastime release, Holiday Affair’s strengths have allowed it to build a nice following, abet via prints that haven’t always looked terrific on t.v. or even DVD, a situation that appears to be rectified, judging by the early reviews, with Warner Archives new release of the film on Blu-ray. Within the confines of its central romantic plotline, the movie manages to creatively address relationship issues and mother/son dynamics with a freshness and sensitivity that garners an audience’s interest and allows the movie to resonate with modern viewers over seventy years after its debut. The enduring charms of its talented cast, headed by a fully-committed Janet Leigh, aided fine work by Hartman and Lennart behind the camera, also are key factors in ensuring viewers enjoy a worthwhile Holiday Affair, whether it be December or any other season. 


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