Sunday, 20 December 2015

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

Original release poster
Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair (1948) 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 become friends over the next few days 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 then Timmy insists that he 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. 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.

Steve Mason: 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?

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." Screenwriter 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. 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, in his 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 a piece of odd casting at the time for a sweet family comedy with a Christmastime setting. The tabloids were still abuzz with his September 1948 arrest and consequent prison sentence for possession of marijuana. Whether despite or because of his problems with the law, Mitchum's popularity grew after his 43-day term at a Castaic, California prison farm; naturally, RKO's owner, aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, refused to drop the 32-year-old actor from contract. In fact, just before production began on Holiday Affair, Hughes paid $400,000 to acquire sole ownership of Mitchum's contract from independent producer David O. Selznick, who had shared the contract with RKO. Although he would not be beaten, pull a gun or ride into the sunset, the character of Steve Mason was still a recognizable Mitchum archetype: "footloose, antiestablishment, an outsider."

Janet Leigh and Gordon Gebert
Before Leigh was cast in Holiday Affair, Hughes's protegées Faith Domergue and Jane Russell were considered for the role of Connie Ennis. Under long-term contract with MGM, the 22-year-old actress was being loaned to RKO on a three-picture deal, a situation that left her feeling rather nervous. Although she had not been in Hollywood long, Leigh 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, following her to restaurants when she went on dates with other men or on evenings out with her parents. Hughes continued to harass her during her lenghty 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.

Leigh and Mitchum in a publicity still
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," Leigh said.

I was a fan of Bob's from seeing him in the movies, and I was excited to be working with him. I was pretty naïve and green then, and the fact that he had been to jail and the had actually smoked marijuana, wow, this sounded really exciting and dangerous [...] When we did start to work together I found him to be just the most delicious person in the world. 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. I learned a lot from him. But he was such a tease. And I was so gullible and such an easy target!
(Janet Leigh)

Mitchum loved to play practical jokes on his young co-star, but they always had a purpose. In the scene when 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 the film. 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, taking about Leigh, Mitchum described her as "an honest woman with great dignity and no artifice at all."

Mitchum, Gebert, Leigh and Corey
Replacing Johnny Wright as the cute Timmy Ennis was eight-year-old Gordon Gebert, who had began acting career performing 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. Leigh admitted having learned a lot from the young actor playing her son, especially during a breakfast scene when 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 oportunity," 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 celophane 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!"

Holiday Affair was completed on September 2 and had its premiere at the Loew's State Theatre in New York on November 23, before receiving a general release on Christmas Eve 1949. 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, Holiday Affair has become a minor Christmas classic through repeated television airing.

Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2013) | Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care" by Lee Server (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

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