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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 7: «Holiday Affair» (1949)


Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair (1949) centers on Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), a young war widow deeply devoted to her six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) and the memory of her deceased husband, Guy. She works as a comparison shopper, meaning that she has to go from store to store purchasing certain items to secretly analyze competitors' prices and product quality. One day just before Christmas, after buying and returning an expensive toy train, Connie's cover is blown by a handsome store clerk named Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Steve threatens to report her to the store detective, which would lead to her firing, but takes pity on her once he learns of her financially precarious situation. Since he fails to turn Connie in, Steve ends up losing his own job.

Steve and Connie quickly become friends and he finds himself attracted to her, though he lectures her for trying to turn Timmy into the image of his dead father. During a walk on Central Park on Christmas morning, Connie tells Steve that she is marrying her longtime admirer, lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), on New Year's Eve. Later, Connie is summoned to the police station to vouch for Steve, who has been accused of stealing a pair of sterling silver salt and pepper shakers. Steve is eventually released and Timmy invites him to have Christmas dinner with them. At the end of meal, Steve announces that he is in love with Connie and wants to marry her, but she tells him to leave.
 
You were married to a man you were in love with once. You oughta know it's impossible to be safe and secure when you're in love. What are you trying to do? Crawl into a cave and hide from everything that's gonna stir you up? (Steve Mason)
The next morning, Timmy goes to a store to return a toy train Steve has given him, so that he can get the money back for Steve, whom he believes to be penniless. After Timmy returns home, Connie and Carl drive to Steve's hotel to give him the money. When Connie asks Carl to see Steve by herself, the lawyer realizes he has no chance and gives her up. Connie delivers the money to Steve, but he refuses to propose again until she has proven to him that she is through grieving for her husband. Connie leaves in anger, but soon she realizes that her future is with Steve. As Steve celebrates the New Year on a California-bound train, he receives a telegram informing him that Connie and Timmy are joining him and rushes happily to embrace them between cars. 
 
 
In late 1948, RKO purchased the screen rights to a novelette called Christmas Gift, envisioning it as a possible vehicle for Cary Grant and his then wife Betsy Drake. Written by John D. Weaver, a prominent figure in the Los Angeles literary scene, the short novel told the story of a war widow with an adorable young son and her amusing entanglement with a free-spirited veteran and «drifter-through-life.» Isobel Lennart, who had penned the MGM hits Anchors Aweigh (1945) and It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), was hired to adapt the story, retitled Holiday Affair.
 
Robert Mitchum, Gordon Gebert, Janet Leigh and Wendell Corey
 
In January 1949, it was announced that Grant and Drake had been replaced by Montgomery Clift and Teresa Wright, with James Stewart also added to the cast. By the time Holiday Affair began filming in July 11, 1949, however, Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh and Wendell Corey had been assigned to the lead roles. Producing and directing was Don Hartman, a longtime Paramount screenwriter who had worked on some of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope successful «Road» comedies. Holiday Affair was Hartman's second and last picture for RKO.

Known for his roles in a series of film noirs produced by RKO, notably Crossfire (1947) and Out of the Past (1947), Mitchum may have seemed an odd choice for a sweet family comedy with a Christmastime setting. At the time of his casting, the tabloids were still abuzz with his arrest and consequent prison sentence for possession of marijuana in September 1948. Whether despite or because of his problems with the law, Mitchum's popularity grew after his 43-day term at a prison farm in Castaic, California. Looking to cash in on Mitchum's recent fame, RKO's owner, aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, paid $400,000 to acquire sole ownership of the actor's contract from independent producer David O. Selznick, who had shared the contract with the studio.
 
Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum in a publicity still for Holiday Affair
 
 
Hughes's protégées Faith Domergue and Jane Russell were considered for the role of Connie Ennis, but they eventually decided to cast Janet Leigh instead. The young actress was under a long-term contract with MGM and was loaned to RKO on a three-picture deal just before making Holiday Affair. The prospect of working with Hughes left Leigh rather nervous. Although she had not been in Hollywood for long, she had already had an unpleasant history with RKO's eccentric owner. Metro's publicity build-up of the «fresh-faced bubbling beauty» had caught Hughes's eyes and soon she was being pressured into going on extravagant dates with the millionaire, whom she found «presumptuous and generally a weirdie

While Leigh made it clear that she was not the least bit interested in him, Hughes persisted with his unwanted attentions, going as far as following her to restaurants and around town. Hughes continued to harass her during her lengthy stay at RKO, which made Leigh angry and frightened. One day towards the end of filming on Holiday Affair, Hughes summoned Leigh for a private meeting in his office, where he presented her with a detective's report on her daily activities, claiming that her current boyfriend, Arthur Loew Jr., the son of MGM's former president, had ordered the investigation out of jealously. Leigh, however, quickly understood that that was just a trick, as all of the people she was linked to in the report were members of the Loew family, meaning that Hughes had ordered the investigation himself. After this, she informed the tycoon that their future meetings would have to be strictly business if she was to continue working for RKO.
 
Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum
 
 
Although Leigh was not thrilled about having to do Holiday Affair, she would later recall the making of the film as a happy and fun-filled experience. The avuncular and relaxed Don Hartman immediately put her at ease and she enjoyed working with both Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey, who was borrowed from Paramount Pictures to appear as Carl Davis in what was only his eight feature film. «It was really a very happy set and we did good work. Bob and Wendell played off each other so well. I thought it was a charming, wonderful picture,» she recalled. 

By her own account, Leigh was excited to be working with Mitchum, whom she greatly admired. «I found him to be just the most delicious person in the world,» she later said. «An extremely good actor [...] but he was so easy and cool, he never looked like he was acting. He was actually very intense and focused on what he was doing, but you were never aware of it. And working with him, he brought out that quality in you, which was great

Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh
 
Mitchum loved playing practical jokes on his young co-star, but they always had a purpose. In the scene where Leigh and Mitchum shared their first kiss, which was supposed to leave her character a little surprised, he kissed her «in a way that you would never do on a first date.» Leigh was caught completely off balance and she was «so shocked [she] couldn't speak.» Luckily, that was just the kind of reaction Hartman wanted for that particular scene — he liked it so much that he kept it in. Later on, during the Christmas dinner sequence, Mitchum and Wendell each reached under the table and put a hand on her leg. She became rather unnerved and fidgety in response to their impertinence, which turned out to be exactly what that scene called for. Years later, Mitchum described Leigh as «an honest woman with great dignity and no artifice at all
 
The role of Timmy Ennis was given to eight-year-old Gordon Gebert, who had began his acting career in a 1947 Pasadena Playhouse production of the hit Broadway play Life With Father. Although Holiday Affair led to a solid career as a child actor, Gebert failed to found success in adult roles and eventually left Hollywood to become an architect and a teacher.
 
Janet Leigh and Gordon Gebert
 
Leigh admitted having learned a lot from the young actor playing her son, especially during a breakfast scene where Gebert started playing with his cereal. Since the activity was not in the script, Leigh stopped delivering her lines. Hartman immediately told her that it was a mistake because Gebert was behaving naturally. «You missed a great opportunity,» Hartman said. «When something like that happens, you improvise. You should have stayed in character as his mother, told him to listen or told him to stop playing with his cornflakes, as you would have done in life.» After that, Leigh never stopped a take again.

Although Hartman was allowed complete freedom to shoot Holiday Affair as he pleased, Hughes still had the final saying regarding Leigh's hair, make-up and wardrobe (he had her wear a shoulder-length wavy fall and in one scene a sweater so tight that «it made her breasts stand out like traffic cones»). Hughes also supervised the ad campaign, promising the potential audience more than the film intended to deliver. An image of Mitchum starring at Leigh wrapped up in cellophane and commenting «Baby, you're just what I want for Christmas» seemed better suited to a sex comedy than a whimsical family film. A second campaign changed the line to «When Mitchum kisses 'em, they hear bells... wedding bells!»
 
One of the ad campaigns for Holiday Affair
 
Holiday Affair was completed on September 2, 1949 and had its premiere at the Loew's State Theatre in New York on November 23, before receiving a general release on Christmas Eve. The film was a commercial failure, losing $300,000 at the box-office, and critical reviews were generally indifferent. The notoriously stuffy Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, «Light-weight in story and treatment, [the film] is the one of those tinsel-trimmed affairs which will likely depend for popularity upon the glamour potential of its stars.» When Holiday Affair did not perform well at the box-office, RKO attempted an alternate campaign reminiscent of Robert Mitchum's earlier noir successes. This time, the tagline read, «It happens in December... but it's hotter than July.» Despite the initial poor reception, the film has become a minor Christmas classic over the years through repeated television airings.

_________________________________________
SOURCES:
Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013)
Robert Mitchum: «Baby, I Don't Care» by Lee Server (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001)
TCM's articles on Holiday Affair
TCM's notes on Holiday Affair
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther

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