Holiday Affair (1949)
Holiday Affair (1949) isn’t as famous as White Christmas (1954) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but its status as a Christmas film has grown quite a bit since it was released. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Holiday Affair was not a hit when it first came out, and actually lost money, but thanks to TV broadcasts over the years, it’s become a holiday standard.
Holiday Affair stars Janet Leigh, Wendell Corey, and Robert Mitchum, but they were the last in a long line of actors assigned or rumored to be assigned to the picture. First, Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, his wife at the time, were announced for the starring roles in November 1948, but by January 1949 they had been replaced by James Stewart, Teresa Wright, and Montgomery Clift. Then Faith Domergue and Jane Russell, both favorites of RKO head Howard Hughes, were rumored to be in the running for the leading role.
Finally, RKO borrowed Janet Leigh from MGM and Wendell Corey from producer Hal Wallis, and cast their own star, Robert Mitchum, as the third lead.
Although this was Janet Leigh’s tenth movie, she was actually pretty new to Hollywood. In fact, Holiday Affair was her sixth film released in 1949 alone, including Little Women and The Red Danube. She made two films each in 1947 and 1948, but things really got going in 1949. Holiday Affair was one of her first films where she was the star and didn’t share screen time with another big actress.
You might be surprised to see Robert Mitchum in this light comedy-romance; after all, he’d found great success in westerns, war films, and then film noir in the mid-to-late 1940s with classics such as Undercurrent (1946), Crossfire (1947), and Out of the Past (1947). But on August 31, 1948, he was arrested with some friends for marijuana possession, and he was convicted in January 1949 of “criminal conspiracy” to possess the drug. He was sentenced to 50 days at a prison farm in Castaic, CA in 1949, but after two years probation, the conviction was wiped from his record.
As you can imagine, Mitchum’s arrest and conviction were big news, and 1948-1949 was an interesting time in his career. The scandal made him a bigger name (no publicity is bad publicity!) but also threatened his popularity in some quarters. (Some claim that he was assigned the role in Holiday Affair to help clean up his image.)
Fortunately for Mitchum, Howard Hughes, was a big fan and kept him under contract despite the scandal. Hughes was so keen on the star that in July 1949, RKO became the sole owner of Mitchum’s contract by paying David O’Selznick $400,000 for his share. It was a good move, since the movies released after Mitchum’s arrest were hits. The scandal didn’t derail him after all; in fact, RKO reportedly rushed Rachel and the Stranger into theaters in September 1948 to take advantage of all the publicity. This movie was hurried into theaters for the same reason.
Warning: this post feels more like a blow-by-blow report than usual, which is saying something as I always go into more detail than is necessary. I think it’s because this movie is basically a series of conversations with very little action or visual interest, so it’s a lot of “he said this and then she said that.” In fact, it feels a little like a play. But don’t be turned off from the movie by my essay; it’s actually an enjoyable film with good performances and more depth than you might expect. And no Dexter-esque cellophane wrapped people, no matter what this ad promises!
To the film! It’s a clever opening: a train chugs down a mountain behind the titles and pulls into a snowy station. But something is slightly off. Just when you think that the production cheaped out by filming a miniature train instead of a real one, the camera pulls back to reveal a bunch of kids staring at the electric train in the middle of the toy department. You can watch it here.
A salesman named Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) is the conductor of this corner of Crowley’s Department Store. He’s good at selling “Crowley’s Red Rocket Express,” but he’s still surprised when Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) asks to buy the train without asking a single question or listening to his sales pitch. She even has the correct amount of cash, including the tax, ready to go.
This is odd, especially since the train is $79.50 (about $800 in today’s money), and most people would ponder a purchase that large. We soon find out why she pulled the trigger so quickly, though. She’s a comparison shopper at a rival department store, and her assignment was to buy the train so her store can take a look.
The premise of a “comparison shopper” seems strange today, since you can compare prices online in a matter of moments, but back then actual people were hired to “spy” on rival shops.
Connie calls her boss to report on the day’s findings: besides the train, she visited the stocking sections at Crowley’s, Gimbel’s and Macy’s and discovered that they are all selling stockings in the exact same colors for the same price as her store. This is good news, apparently.
Later that evening, Connie arrives home with a few boxes, including the train set. Unsurprisingly, her rascally six-year-old son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert), sneaks a look at the train and assumes it’s for him. He is thrilled but then devastated when Connie says it’s for the store and she has to take it back tomorrow. Poor kiddo–he was so excited!
But if I were Timmy, I’d forget about the train and ask for more personalized shirts! Also, Janet Leigh was only 22 when she made this movie, and she looks closer to 18, but she does a great job as Tim’s mom. In fact, the scenes with Gebert are the highlights of the movie. He’s super cute and their mother-son dynamic is very believable.
Fun fact: Gebert turned eight right after production wrapped on this film. It was his first movie, but he would go on to make eight more before 1955, with a final film coming in 1970. He also appeared on TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s before becoming an architect and professor.
This first evening at home with the Ennis’s provides some key information. We learn that Connie’s husband, Guy, was killed in WWII, and she is raising Timmy by herself. It’s been about five years since Guy died, but she struggles to move on.
She obsessively compares Timmy to his father, she calls him “her fella,” “the man of the house,” and “Mr. Ennis,” she praises Timmy for how much he looks and behaves like his dad, and she keeps pictures of Guy all around the apartment. Everyone grieves in different ways, of course, but Connie seems stuck. And it isn’t super healthy for Timmy, either.
Carl (Wendell Corey), Connie’s boyfriend of two years, arrives as usual that evening. He is ready to take the next step and proposes frequently, but Connie keeps asking for more time. Carl is very understanding, but he is getting impatient. You can watch their conversation here.
The next day, her store gives the train a once-over and then Connie returns it to Crowley’s for a refund. Steve remembers her and accuses her of being a comparison shopper. (But I’m surprised that she hasn’t been caught before this! It was incredibly obvious that she wasn’t actually interested in the train and was just checking something off a list.) Steve threatens to push a hidden button that summons the store detective. If he does, Connie will be photographed and banned from Crowley’s and the other big stores. Which means she would be fired.
Apparently comparison shopping is a big no-no. Steve calls it “corporate espionage,” and obviously stores didn’t love it when comparison shoppers snuck around and undercut their prices or copied their goods for their rivals. Never mind the hassle of returns and re-stocking. So although comparison shopping wasn’t a shameful nor illegal practice, it also wasn’t really “allowed,” and if you got caught you could be in trouble. As this article from 1947 explains, the best comparison shoppers are inconspicuous and change their hairstyles and hats to confuse salespeople, and they have great memories because they can’t walk around taking notes on inventory.
Despite their slightly unsavory reputation and skill at sneaking around, some ads in the 1940s touted the services of comparison shoppers claiming consumers can trust a store when it says it has the best quality/price/selection because its corps of comparison shoppers have checked its rivals:
Back to the film! Connie tells Steve she needs this job because she’s a war widow raising a son alone, so he lets her go. But then he gets fired when the manager finds out what happened.
He finds her before she leaves Crowley’s and they get lunch together in Central Park where the seals live. You can watch the scene here. Steve and Connie’s chemistry is immediate and delightful, and a little surprising when one is used to seeing Mitchum in dramatic, darker roles.
But in this movie he’s not a jaded, seen-it-all killer or a morally ambiguous loner. He’s a little cynical, as one expects after going through the War, but mostly he’s adorable: all he wants to do is build boats at a friend’s company in California, so he takes random jobs in New York and sends his earnings in $100 chunks to the boatyard to purchase his share of the business.
After lunch, Steve joins Connie as she comparison shops. It’s much more convincing to shop as a couple, plus, he helps carry all the parcels. But they get separated in the Christmas crush at the bus stop so Connie makes her way home alone. But Steve shows up at her apartment as she and Carl decorate the Christmas tree.
Gotta get that tinsel ready! It was the accessory of choice for 1930s-1960s Christmas trees.
Connie is flustered to see Steve because she didn’t tell Carl about him, and it’s clear they have something bubbling below the surface. But Carl isn’t terribly concerned about a rival. And Steve isn’t worried about Carl, either; he knows the only real threat is Connie’s memory of Guy. You can watch their awkward tête-à-tête here.
But things get sticky when Timmy and Steve bond immediately, and then Timmy acts out and refuses to listen to Connie or Carl. When Carl grabs Timmy’s arm to take him to his room, Connie shouts “Take your hands off my boy!” She apologizes a moment later, but Carl leaves. It’s a painful moment.
So now Steve and Connie are alone with their cocktails. And her incredibly pointy boobs. Leigh was one of the famous “bullet bra” wearers and sports the cone-shaped bras in many of her movies.
They were popular at the time, but they look odd today…Below is an ad for one of the bras next to a review of the movie (and an ad for a fake hand?):
As they sip their drinks, Steve analyzes Connie and her situation–after all, he has known her for a few hours! He proclaims that she is scared of change since her husband died, so she tries to keep everything the same. That’s why she can’t accept Carl’s proposal, or let him be more of a father figure to Timmy. Steve also points out that she constantly arranges her son’s hair to look more like Guy’s, and she didn’t like it when Steve said Timmy looks like her, not his father.
Although this movie is mostly a light comedy, it does deal with some complicated, sophisticated issues: we’ve got grief, a blended family, the difficulty of keeping the memory of a loved one alive without letting it overwhelm or stifle you, and the effect of WWII on society. Steve tries to help Connie navigate all of this by criticizing her choices and her parenting. Then he kisses her. Finally, he tells her that he needs to leave because he will probably fall in love with her and he’s not sure she’s ready for that. It’s an unorthodox method.
Fun fact: Mitchum liked to play practical jokes on his fellow actors, and he enjoyed messing with Leigh when they made this movie. So when he kissed her, he really, really kissed her, and her surprised reaction was perfect for the scene.
Back to the film! Before Steve leaves, he has a cute chat with Timmy about big wishes and keeping your hopes up. He’s afraid that Connie’s inertia and caution has spread to Timmy. Again, if you’re used to Mitchum in film noirs, it’s weird to see him be so warm and sweet with a kid.
A few days pass: Connie agrees to marry Carl and they plan a New Year’s Day ceremony. Then Christmas morning comes, and the Red Rocket train somehow ends up under the tree. Tim is delirious, but Connie is concerned because she knows that Steve bought it and he can’t afford a gift like that, especially now that he lost his job.
You can watch the scene here:
After a quick breakfast (Corn Flakes in their adorable kitchen!)–
–Connie leaves her six-year-old alone (on Christmas morning, no less!) to find Steve. It was a different time…
She tracks Steve to his favorite spot in the park and tries to pay him back for the train, but naturally he won’t take her money. Instead, they fall back into their pattern of easy repartee, undeniable chemistry, and a healthy dose of criticism directed at Connie. For example, she says she plays it safe because she “can’t afford suprises” anymore. “Every surprise isn’t a telegram from the War Department” he tells her, gently. But then he pushes too far and she gets annoyed, as usual. They part once again, and she assumes it’s for the last time because he is going to California as soon as he has enough money for the train ticket.
Back at home, Guy’s parents (Griff Barnett and Esther Dale) and Carl join Timmy and Connie for Christmas dinner, but their festivities are interrupted by a policeman. Steve was arrested in the park for mugging an old man, and he needs Connie to come down to the station.
A series of comic, even screwball, misunderstandings follows: Steve is innocent, but the set of coincidences linking him to the crime are so outlandish the police don’t believe him at first. Eventually, the police lieutenant accepts the somewhat unbelievable truth presented by Connie and Steve and lets them go. Recognize the lieutenant? It’s Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame as well as over 100 films and many TV series.
Everyone returns to Connie’s apartment for dinner, and it all goes well until Steve decides to give a toast.
He proposes to Connie in front of everyone even though she is supposed to marry Carl in a week. It’s awkward. Bold move, Steve.
Fun fact: as I mentioned, Mitchum enjoyed practical jokes. During this scene, he and Corey each placed a hand on Leigh’s knees under the table, and she started fidgeting. It worked out great for the scene.
Connie asks Steve to leave, and she assumes that she’ll never see him again. But Timmy has a different idea. The next day, he boxes up his beloved train and takes it back to Crowley’s to get a refund. He wants to give Steve his money back because he feels bad about keeping such an expensive gift. It’s a funny and tender scene: Timmy tries to navigate the huge department store and eventually makes his way to Mr. Crowley’s office. Mr. Crowley takes pity on Timmy even though one of the train cars broke in the elevator.
Meanwhile, Carl and Connie are freaking out because they can’t find Timmy. But he finally comes home with the cash, and Connie and Carl take it to Steve.
But first, Carl breaks off their engagement. After watching Connie and Steve over the last week, Carl knows that Connie doesn’t love him. And he realizes that he deserves a woman who’s crazy about him. It’s a nice development for Carl. He really is a great guy, and I’m glad the movie didn’t just throw him away because he’s not right for Connie. Too often the “wrong guy” becomes a “bad guy” and that’s too simplistic. For a fairly routine movie, Holiday Affair continually surprises me with its depth.
Anyway, Carl sends Connie in to see Steve alone, and he expects she will return an engaged woman. But instead she and Steve fight about the same old stuff. He wants her to “live in the present and not be afraid of the future” but she’s not ready, and he’s not going to hang around and wait. This conversation is getting annoying by this point. Also, Mitchum is the definition of “barrel chested,” right?
Newly single Connie returns to her old life with Timmy. As she and Timmy chat as she gets ready for a New Year’s Eve party, she realizes that her old life just won’t do anymore. Fortunately, a telegram arrives that gives her one more shot with Steve. (I’m going to read into her new hairstyle as a symbol for her willingness and desire for other changes, too.)
Connie and Timmy hurry to catch Steve on the Midnight Special to California. She sends a telegram alerting Steve to their presence, and he adorably jumps up and begins running through the train to find her. Fortunately, he runs in the right direction and they eventually meet in the middle.
The clever opening of the film is echoed when the real train turns into a toy train for the end credits. Cute! And kind of cool because it undoes the “reality” of the movie, and reminds you that the film world is as false and constructed as a toy train set. But no less fun!
Holiday Affair was filmed from July 11-September 2, 1949 under the working titles The Man Who Played Santa Claus and Christmas Gift. But it was Holiday Affair that premiered shortly thereafter on November 23 in New York with a wider release on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t a hit.
But reviews weren’t all scathing. One write-up in Modern Screen called the movie “unusually charming” and noted that the film’s “characters are nice, its dialogue is extra-good, its acting is warm and real.”
Showmen’s Trade Review thought it was an “amusing romantic comedy that is certain to delightfully and thoroughly entertain everyone.” The magazine praised all the performers, but especially Gordon Gebert, who “steals the picture” and “acts like a veteran player.” Still, the review ends on a cautious note: “Name draw, though strong, isn’t sufficient to bring in justifiable returns, but the general excellence of the picture will create word-of-mouth that should push it into the money-making class.”
Variety was mostly positive, too. It described the movie as “a warm Christmas offering” that “concerns itself charmingly with the antics of humans during the Yuletide, developing a lot of rich comedy-drama in doing so.” The review praises Gebert especially, as well as director/producer Don Hartman, whose “production guidance is as strong as his direction, supplying the picture with the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and smartly supporting the warm heartiness of the comedy and drama.”
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times was far more critical. He called it a “tinsel-trimmed trifle” that is “Light-weight in story and treatment” and depends too much on star power. He gets harsher as the review goes on:
No doubt, a great many people will find this sugar to their taste. This corner finds it much too saccharine for either credibility or delight. Mr. Mitchum is quite as mechanical with his charm as is that swank electric train and Miss Leigh covers up with pouts and dimples a peculiarly shallow, selfish dame. As for young Master Gebert, he is simply not our idea of a genuine and winning youngster. However, no harm is done, either by Master Gebert, Mr. Hartman or ‘Holiday Affair.’
Ouch. Apparently, audiences agreed and the movie lost $300,000 upon release. Fun fact: according to TCM, after this film’s lackluster performance at the box office, RKO created this movie poster to capitalize on Robert Mitchum’s success in film noir and convince people to go see Holiday Affair. I bet the audience was very confused if they thought they bought a ticket for a film noir!
With its less than stellar box office and critical response, Holiday Affair might have been forgotten had television stations not picked it up as a cheap movie for the holiday season. Fortunately, it’s easy to find nowadays and I think it’s worth a watch!
Fun fact: about a year after this film was released, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version starring Mitchum and Gebert in their original roles with Laraine Day and Scott Brady filling in for Leigh and Corey.
And on December 22, 1955, Lux Video Theatre aired a TV version starring Scott Brady and Phyllis Thaxter.
And there’s more: I found this amazing, ridiculous article in Modern Screen that mentions Janet Leigh’s two marriages (at ages 15 and 18 that ended in annulment and divorce, respectively, with the divorce granted just after this movie wrapped on September 7, 1949), as well as several other starlets. Celebrity gossip has been around forever.