Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Monday: Holiday Affair

Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, Wendell Corey, and Gordon Gebert in Holiday Affair!
Every year around our house, we tend to watch nothing but Christmas movies from Thanksgiving through New Year's. We have a small contingent that we rotate through (Scrooged, Elf, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Bad Santa, White Christmas) but I was interested in finding some new ones to add to the mix, so we gave this one a try:
Initially, it was the presence of Robert Mitchum in his prime that intrigued me the most. Sleepy-eyed tough guy Robert Mitchum in a Christmas movie? How would that even work?

Well, short answer: it kinda doesn't. After meeting our main character, single mom Connie (Janet Leigh) and her screechingly annoying son Timmy (Gordon Gebert), we discover Mitchum as Steve, a guy who...runs the toy counter in a department store:
The idea of someone who looks and acts like Robert Mitchum working with children I thought so preposterous that I wondered where in his career did this movie arrive--maybe it was before his tough guy screen persona had been minted? More on that in a moment.

Anyway, this movie is basically a love triangle. Connie is a widow, but she has a gentleman suitor named Carl, played by the normally reliable Wendell Corey:
This is a thankless role for Corey, since Carl is dull, dull, dull. Not that Corey was a particularly electrifying performer, but when used effectively (see: Rear Window, The Killer is Loose) he was a solid supporting player. But as an erstwhile leading man? Not so much.

Carl loves Connie, and seems to like Timmy well enough. Connie seems to love Carl, and hate the laconic, smart-ass Steve, but of course we all know what's going to happen. The film looks and feels like a TV drama of the time, except for a couple of visual flairs that director Don Hartman chose to employ, mostly I'm guessing just to keep the audience awake.

Case in point: after Steve gets a new tie from Connie for Xmas, he gives his old one to a seemingly homeless man in the park, which leads to a series of miscommunications ending with a police detective showing up to arrest Steve. This sequence is shot a bit like film noir, with the camera tracking the mysterious fedora-d guy from behind as he interrupts the holiday festivities:

Following this is my favorite scene, which features the late, great Harry Morgan as the Police Lieutenant who wants to get to the bottom of how Steve ended up with a set of salt and pepper shakers:
Morgan is lively and fun, playing off against Mitchum's in-your-face attitude, something he seemed constitutionally incapable of not doing when dealing with authority figures.

It all gets solved in the end, and of course Steve, Connie, and Timmy end up as a family, on a scene in a train that involves yet another neat little bit of special effects: the camera pans out of the train car featuring the actors, and in one unbroken shot pans out to a toy train set that kicked off the whole story in the first place:
...The End!

As I mentioned earlier, I was curious why anyone would cast Mitchum in such an atypical role. It turns out this was his first film after his highly-publicized marijuana bust, so the studio was determined to soften his image a bit. They jammed him into this piece of romantic fluff, hoping people would forget the bad press.

Yet they still wanted to hedge their bets: here's one of the posters for the film, which looks just like the kind of film noirs that he was so famous for:
(Speaking of posters, check out Leigh's sexy short shorts at the poster up top. She wears nothing so revealing in the movie--after all, this is Winter in New York!)

Watching Holiday Affair, it reminded me why Robert Mitchum was such a Hollywood legend. He is by far the best thing in the movie, giving his character a quirky specificity. Mitchum's line readings seem to be mocking all that's going on around, while fully being part of it at the same time. If this film had starred someone more bland, I think Holiday Affair would be forgotten entirely.

But at a crisp, inoffensive 87 minutes, Holiday Affair goes down easy, and is probably the perfect holiday movie to put on while you're baking cookies, wrapping presents, or putting up holiday decorations.

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