MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET Lite. That may be a convenient way to sum up HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949) with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, a Christmas-themed Hollywood movie that was obviously inspired by the success of the earlier film. It has a New York department store setting (at least part of the time) and a lawyer in love with a beautiful widow who has a precocious young child. There’s even a kindly old man (the department store head in an unlikely turn of behavior) who functions as a Santa Claus figure and a scowling floorwalker at the store who functions as a villain in the way some of the department store personnel in the earlier film did. However, the real hero is not the lawyer, but a newly-unemployed drifter who rather boldly enters the life of the widow and child and diverts their affections from the lawyer. While the adorable little tyke (a boy here, not a girl as in MIRACLE) plays a huge part in the action, the film is really about the interplay between the mother, Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), and the two grown men who basically jockey for her affections, lawyer Carl Davis and the drifter, Steve Mason. Mason is played by Robert Mitchum and Davis is played by Wendell Corey, so it’s an unfair competition right from the start, only because Mitchum had so much more natural charm than Corey. But the movie doesn’t try to stack the deck in Mitchum’s favor. Quite the contrary. The character of Carl Davis is a nice guy and he’s genuinely gentle, tender and affectionate with Connie. He clearly loves her and would make a good husband, arguably more so than the dashing but impetuous Mason.
What made the film stand out enough for me to want to devote a blog entry to it is the simple fact that it’s an “adult film” in the best sense of the word. I don’t mean that it’s made for adults—it’s certainly suitable for all ages—but that it’s about people who behave like real adults and aren’t infantilized by the movie industry’s compulsion to manipulate audience emotions and give the designated hero an obvious edge. So many romantic comedies from the classics to the run-of-the-boxoffice romcoms that seem to dominate the multiplexes at holiday times feel the need to demonize one side of a romantic triangle and make the end coupling so inevitable that it’s a foregone conclusion. One can argue that it’s pretty obvious in HOLIDAY AFFAIR that Leigh and Mitchum are going to end up together, but the film makes a pretty good case for Corey’s character and I had an uneasy feeling at the end that maybe Leigh hadn’t made the right choice. Besides, the lead characters remind me of my parents at that exact stage in their life the exact same year! (More on that near the end of this piece.)
Granted, Mitchum sometimes comes off as way too smooth a talker and far more initiated in the emotional currents of young widows and their fatherless sons than a man his age (approximately 31) would be, especially when stacked up against a successful divorce lawyer who’s handled dozens of cases of broken marriages, as Davis has. Mason, a California-born war veteran who wants to build boats for a living, is one of those Hollywood romantic leads who’s a little too confident and unflappable to be completely believable, yet Mitchum, emerging as a romantic leading man after a marijuana bust and prison term, which wound up only making him more popular, manages to make the character work as only Mitchum could. He clearly takes great interest in Leigh and her son and is at ease around a variety of characters in the course of the action, a quality Mitchum pretty much brought to every setting and group of characters the star found himself in during his roughly 55-year career on screen. There’s an easy chemistry between him and Leigh and between him and Gordon Gebert, who plays Timmy. His character is also painstakingly honest. Mason makes no secret of what he is—a man with a tendency to wander and one with a dream that may or may not pan out and someone who’s obviously considerably more high maintenance than Davis. Connie knows what she’s getting into and is clearly smart enough for most of the movie to resist the notion of leaving Davis for Mason. Davis promises safety and security to a woman who’s had neither. But maybe she wants a little more than that and maybe Mason might offer it. She’s taking a chance and it may turn out differently than what she’s hoping for.
Connie is still very much attached to the ideal provided by her late husband, Guy Ennis, who died in the war before Timmy, their son, was born. She keeps his pictures in prominent places and has remained close to his parents, who visit for Christmas in one key scene. The notion that Timmy looks like his father is trumpeted by several of the characters, not least of whom is Connie. When Mason enters the scene, he takes note of all this and makes a point of immediately telling Timmy that he looks like his mother, part of a calculated campaign on his part to shake things up in the Ennis household. Significantly, the Ennis grandparents don’t particularly endorse Carl as a husband for Connie, but take to Mason quite easily. (Is he more like their son?) Mason rather bluntly tells Connie to move on with her life—with him, of course—and get over her late husband, while Davis understands and accepts her emotional ties to Guy. Given that the movie was made four years after the end of the war, I’m wondering what message is being sent to the audience here. Put the war behind you and move on? Certainly, that would fit in with the general trend of postwar socio-cultural currents.
When Connie and Mason first meet-cute, it’s in the toy department of the department store (Crowley’s) where Mason is employed as a sales clerk. Connie’s a comparison shopper for a rival store and buys an expensive train set in much too business-like a manner, prompting the keen-eyed Mason to identify her as such. She pleads with him not to report her, as he’s obligated to do, citing her status as a war widow. The vigilant floorwalker (James Griffith) has Mason fired for not making the report, so Mason tags along with Connie and winds up giving her tips on how to behave like a real customer and avoid being so easily spotted. He winds up back at her place, after having carried several of her comparison purchases, only to find Davis there trimming the Christmas tree with Timmy, and things quickly take an awkward turn, leading to a flurry of words between Connie and Davis and Davis storming out. Mason makes his play right then and there and declares “I’m not coming back. I might fall in love with you,” and walks out, but not before bidding Timmy goodbye, alone in his room (would such a scene be at all thinkable today?) and grabbing a pretty passionate kiss from a compliant Connie in the kitchen before heading out. (More on that in a postscript below.)
From then on, it’s back and forth between the various parties, building up to a Christmas dinner scene where Mason abruptly tells Connie, “I think you ought to marry me,” in front of Carl, Timmy and the in-laws. She responds, “I think you’d better get your hat and coat,” and he leaves. But it’s not over yet. Eventually, when Connie and Carl track Mason down in his rented room to return the money he used to buy Timmy a train set for Christmas (as a result of Timmy seeing the train set Connie bought and thinking it was for him), Carl is smart enough to understand Connie’s behavior as a sign that she’s really in love with Steve. It’s actually a sad scene, because even though he keeps his emotions in check (as a skillful lawyer would), we feel for him.
One can argue, as Robert Osborne did before TCM’s cablecast of the film on Dec. 20, that the film was RKO’s way of rehabilitating its top star’s image after his marijuana bust in 1948 and subsequent prison term. This was, after all, a romantic drama with comic elements and not a western or tough guy urban melodrama like OUT OF THE PAST or any of the other Mitchum films that would later come to be known as film noir. Still, Mason is frequently coded as bohemian, although in very subtle ways. He wants to build boats. He did some traveling after the war and worked in a foreign country doing some kind of mining work. When he moves in the course of the film, it’s to an address on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, back when it was America’s bohemian capital. In his room there, he’s got an artist’s work table for his sketches of boats. He also likes to eat in Central Park (in scenes recreated quite well in the studio) and feed the squirrels. He even takes Connie there on a lunch date and they share hot dogs and peanuts. On Christmas Day, he gives his tie to a hobo in the park (an act that has some legal recriminations later on when the bum later gives him some stolen goods in return, leading to the police picking up Mason and calling Connie and Carl down to the station house).
The film doesn’t have the highs and lows of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET but definitely feels more believable on a basic behavioral level, with more down-to-earth glimpses of how working people lived in New York in the postwar era. Leigh’s Connie has a high-strung quality, like that of a self-confident but frustrated woman who feels she’s not quite being given credit for her intelligence by either of the men in her life. She may, in fact, be the most layered character in the film and it’s easy to overlook her performance amidst the interplay between Mitchum and Corey.
Sure, the film has its flights of fancy, as when Timmy pleads for a refund on his train set by going directly to the head of the store, Mr. Crowley (Henry O’Neill) himself, and finding him to be an Edmund Gwenn-like Santa figure. And Timmy sometimes seems way too precocious for his own good, although the seven-year-old Gebert (who played Burt Lancaster’s son in THE FLAME AND THE ARROW the following year) does pull it off quite admirably. I never once found the kid annoying, which I can’t say about too many “adorable tykes” found in movies of that era.
What makes this film even more resonant with me is the fact that my parents were very close in age to the two lead actors here. Mitchum, born on my birthday, was just a few weeks older than my father and Leigh was less than a year younger than my mother. Additionally, my parents did in fact come to New York City in 1949, where they got married and settled in Greenwich Village not long after (before a move to the Bronx six years later, where I’ve been ever since). They’d first met in college in San Francisco and at some point had both left school—Mom to spend a term as an exchange student in Peru, Dad to travel to Alaska for some long-forgotten purpose only to wind up riding the rails down south–and somehow kept in touch during those months, eventually making plans to meet in New York in mid-1949. The initial goal was just to meet; nothing was settled beyond that. Mom wound up getting to New York two days early and immediately ran into an old boyfriend of hers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and that same night they went to see “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway (but not with Brando in the cast). And she ran into another California man she knew the following day. So she clearly had options other than my father. Like Mason, my father was a dreamer and was very high-maintenance. I don’t know what these other guys my mother knew were like, but my life might have been very different had I been spawned by another father in other circumstances. I’m quite sure my siblings have, like me, often pondered what this would have meant for us. (Coincidentally, Steve Mason was also the name of the Fuller Brush salesman who used to service our building in the Bronx when I was growing up.)
I should point out that the film’s director, Don Hartman, was primarily known as a screenwriter of comedies, with credits on Danny Kaye films and several of Bob Hope’s best comedies. To his credit here, he and his screenwriter, Isobel Lennart (working from a story, “Christmas Gift,” by John D. Weaver), avoid the kinds of contrivances that would have milked the action for obvious laughs. There are chuckles evoked here and there, such as when Timmy takes the heavy train set on his own back to Crowley’s and works his way past various layers of interference to get to Mr. Crowley himself, or when Harry Morgan as the bemused Desk Sergeant at the police station has to process the peculiar events related to him by Connie and Mason that accounted for Mason’s possession of the stolen salt shakers bestowed on him by the bum in the park. In each case, the script explores how these events would play out rather than trying to build laughs. When Timmy struggles with that train set, we see it all from a six-year-old’s point-of-view and follow him every step of the way as he has to use his wits and natural adorability to gain the kind of access that few customers would be allowed. It’s a bit of a stretch for him to finally get access to Crowley the way he does and for Crowley to resolve the matter so thoroughly in the boy’s favor, but the process of getting there is handled in such a way as to be generally believable.
I wonder what a remake of this script would look like today, with maybe Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson in the role of the widow and Matthew McConnaughey as Steve Mason and Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson as the lawyer. I don’t doubt that these actors could bring their own unique charms to the roles, it’s just that I fear the assigned director, whoever he or she might be, and the inevitable army of screenwriters recruited for the project would pump the action up for laughs and stunts and moments of sensation that would leech the whole thing of its basic human appeal. Or, worse, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell would get hold of it.
P.S. In his biography, Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care,” Lee Server devotes four pages to the film, relying chiefly on an interview with Janet Leigh. She describes how the director told her not to stop acting any time the child actor (who was seven at the time) lost his concentration but to stay in character and improvise. Here’s her account of how that advice affected a subsequent scene with Mitchum:
“It was a great lesson. I never stopped a scene again. But, oh, then Mitch took advantage of it. I was in the kitchen and he’s supposed to come up and turn me around and give me a little kiss and I’m supposed to be a little surprised. Instead, he comes up, turns me around, and kisses me in a way that you would never do on a first date! And I knew he did it just to catch me off balance, and he did. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak. And Don Hartman liked my reaction so much they kept it in the film.”
Boys will be boys.