The Best Holiday Films Mischievously Undermine the Values They Superficially Promote
These holiday movies are more about messing up one’s life and finding second chances than they are about expressing joy to the world.
Let's Take Those Second Chances
For my part, the impulse that began in Stanwyck completism eventually got a little out of hand. After all, I like Robert Mitchum almost as much as Stanwyck. How could I resist delving a little deeper and watching a few more movies?
I’m not sure these films will become an annual tradition with me, now. I’ll happily watch Remember the Night again, as well as Stanwyck’s other holiday-themed feature, Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Although the two Stanwyck movies were made only five or so years apart, they’re separated by important milestones. The end of the Depression and the war years are the two historic markers, and there were a couple of personal ones, as well.
Stanwyck made what turned out to be her two most important movies in the intervening years: as mentioned before, she played the female scofflaw of The Lady Eve, and the most fatale femme of all in Double Indemnity. While her chilling portrayal of a murderous SoCal housewife only bolstered her career in the long run, when she wrapped Double Indemnityshe must have worried for a moment or two about the possibility of alienating viewers who might confuse the actress with the cold-blooded character she played.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Choosing to do a Christmas-themed comedy, then, seemed like it would be a smart next step for an image-conscious star. The only problem with Christmas in Connecticut (which came out in July 1945, by the way) is that the protagonist, Elizabeth Lane, is just as self-centered and unprincipled (if not as violent or crazy) as Phyllis Dietrichson.
Lane’s career as a magazine columnist is based on lies. She authors Martha-Stewart-style articles about the joys of family life on a Connecticut farm life without (unlike Martha) ever getting married, having a child, or setting foot outside Manhattan. When her publisher asks her to invite a wounded sailor to her rural home for Christmas, she stages an elaborate charade in the country house of her sometime boyfriend. In return for his complicity, she promises to marry him, although throughout the film she does nothing but try to wriggle out of her end of the deal. In fact, one of the few times in the entire movie she’s honest is when she informs him that she doesn’t love him. Nevertheless, she gets everything she wants by the time the final credits roll.
This unblemished success seems to violate the standards of the Hays Production Code, which dictated that virtue be rewarded and that deceit never pays. If the audience is able to wink at the Lane character’s bad behavior, it’s only because the men she lies to (her boyfriend played by Reginald Gardiner and her publisher played by Sydney Greenstreet) are just as dishonest as she is—and a lot less attractive, to boot.
Holiday Affair (1949)
While I might guess that Stanwyck wanted a light comedy after the darkness of Double Indemnity, it seems undeniable that Mitchum’s casting in Holiday Affair was an explicit attempt on the part of RKO to rehabilitate his image after his prison stint for marijuana possession. The trailer unsubtly declares: “You’ll like him in a new type of role.”
Indeed, I’m sure I would: but Holiday Affair isn’t it. The plot centers on a not-very-merry widow (and single mom) and her disruptive passion for a war veteran (Mitchum) with a dream to build boats but to not hold down a full-time sensible job. While the Hays Code forbids “lustful embraces”, it seems that sex is explicitly on every character’s mind (with the possible exception of the Leigh character’s young son). The original ad campaign featured an image of Mitchum seemingly undressing Janet Leigh with his eyes accompanied by the thought bubble, “Baby you’re just what I want for Christmas.” (According to Leigh biographer Michelangelo Capua, Howard Hughes decided to scrap that advertisement and go with the more Code-friendly, “When Mitchum kisses ‘em, they hear bells… wedding bells.”)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Long-term compatibility is also an issue with Bette Davis and Richard Travis in The Man Who Came to Dinner, another worthwhile holiday viewing choice. The film’s plot hinges on Davis’ decision to marry a small-town reporter she meets while her wittily venomous boss (Monty Woolley) recovers from an injury sustained during a Midwestern speaking tour. Davis’ scenes with Woolley are so rollicking and her ones with Travis are so… not. One is hard-pressed to imagine that she’ll be happy turning her back on New York City in favor of a quiet, sarcasm-free rural life. Part of the fun of watching Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Affair, and The Man Who Came to Dinner is the way they mischievously undermine the values they superficially purport to promote.
I'll Be Seeing You (1944)
Still, the pleasures of holiday films aren’t always cynical. In I’ll Be Seeing You, directed by William Dieterle, small town life isn’t mocked, nor is it regarded as oppressive or confining. If anything, it recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that “place is nothing”.
In the essay “Self-Reliance” Emerson notes that “the sad self” cannot be escaped by fleeing one place for another, and this is true of both the shell-shocked soldier (Joseph Cotten) and the survivor of sexual violence (Ginger Rogers) who has been serving time in prison for killing her would-be rapist in self-defense. If a movie about the blossoming romance between these two damaged souls sounds contrived or sentimental to a fault, the way the film unfolds is sensitive and believable.
Director Dieterle was a veteran of Germany’s liberated and progressive Weimar-era film industry (even directing and starring in a pioneering gay-themed movie, a silent called Sex in Chains, 1928). Dieterle left for Hollywood before Hitler came to power and turned German filmmaking into a propaganda machine. I’ll Be Seeing You was made in 1944, when it looked as if Dieterle might never be able to return to Europe. (In fact he did, in the late '50s.) The film implies that it is quite possible—and not simply an outlandish fear—that one might lose everything: home, friends, family, and freedom.
There’s no snow in this Christmas movie; it takes place in Texas. There's a dog, but it’s no faithful hearthside companion. Terrifyingly, it attacks at random with a seeming intent to kill.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
These holiday “classics” are far from perfect (and that’s not just because two of them, Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn are, ugh, musicals.) They are products of a not always enlightened time. Cringeworthy moments and offensive and dated racial and gender attitudes abound (except perhaps for Christmas in Connecticut—in addition to it’s unfeminine careerist heroine, it has an African-American character who waits tables but whose dialogue suggests that he has a college degree). The films set in New York City show a very white-bread version of the place. (It’s a Wonderful Life makes small-town upstate New York look like a richly diverse ethnic enclave by comparison.) And of course, the villains in Miracle on 34th Street are the Macy's and Gimbel's stores (which should have been understood by audiences to be Jewish-owned businesses).
Over the course of the film, the motives of the suits running these department stores need to be “converted” from capitalisim to some non-materialistic form of Christianity that has never to my knowledge actually existed in the United States outside of a handful of religious communities and communes. These shortcomings, which I do not intend to minimize, just serve as a reminder that these films (like all art) are a reflection of time in which they were made, for good or for ill.
Years ago, my mother, upon hearing that some guy had asked me to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with him, let out a little groan of sympathy. Decades later, I will never have to explain to her that I’ve developed respect (if not actual admiration) for Capra’s film. She had a fatal heart attack three days before Christmas six years ago, an anniversary which makes the holiday season particularly painful. With my parents long gone and my brothers far away, I’ll be spending this holiday season with my husband in my dilapidated Brooklyn apartment. I don’t even have my beloved cat this year, since she died right before Thanksgiving.
I think I’ll be perfectly happy to catch some of these holiday classics on TCM during the month of December. (I’ll have to choose carefully, though, since the man I ended up marrying can’t— thank goodness—tolerate too much “Capra-corn”.) I’m glad I waited to watch most of them until I was old enough to understand their context, and to judge them with an open mind. They were made during one of the darkest periods of American history, and even the lighter, funnier ones manage to remind us that not everyone gets his or her heart’s desire on Christmas.
If anything, most of these characters (Elizabeth Lane, perhaps, notwithstanding) find themselves struggling to figure out how to manage when Christmas is disappointing and prospects for the New Year look bleak. The best of these movies aren’t about happiness so much as they are about resilience, or at least maintaining one’s sense of humor, when the going gets tough. That’s something I don’t mind celebrating.
Rachel Paige King is a recovering journalist who currently works as the Media Librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn.