Thursday, July 15, 2010

Christmas in July: Holiday Affair (1949)

Although you can see just about all of its plot developments coming from the first few frames, the low-key romantic comedy Holiday Affair is mostly charming in its efforts, thanks to a winning lead performance from Janet Leigh and a resistance to overselling the romantic rivalry between an idealistic department-store clerk (Robert Mitchum) and a practical but dull lawyer (Wendell Corey). The two compete for the affections of Leigh's war widow, and there's never any question that she's going to end up with the hopeless romantic rather than the sensible bore. But that bore is never portrayed as a bad guy or subject to comic derision, and rather than condescend to her constantly as so many rom-com heroes of classical Hollywood do, Mitchum's Steve treats Leigh's Connie with respect and honesty, and they start out as friends, not as comical opposites.

That means the movie is less about wacky misunderstandings and more about the challenges of romance for a single mother of a 6-year-old boy, and it deals frankly with the difficulty of moving on when a spouse is killed suddenly. Steve says plainly that his romantic rival is not so much Corey's Carl as it is Connie's dead husband, whom she clings to and is reminded of constantly via her son. The grandparents who come to Connie's home for Christmas are not her own parents, but rather the parents of her late husband. It's a rather heavy subject for a movie that's mostly about two people who meet cute and predictably fall in love.

Anyway, it's also Christmas, although the season is mostly just a plot device to get Connie (an undercover comparison shopper) and Steve in the same place under heightened stress (holiday shopping), and to give Steve a reason to bond with Connie's alternately endearing and annoying son. But like its take on romance, the movie's approach to the holidays is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental: Connie's son doesn't even bother to believe in Santa Claus, but he understands and appreciates the love and care that goes into all the presents he gets from his mom (and her two suitors). There's togetherness, and Christmas dinner, but director Don Hartman plays it as just everyday stuff, and that tone carries the movie. There are still plenty of corny moments, and the story still wraps up exactly as you imagine it will; it just does so a little more gracefully than expected.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's a time for reflection and hope.

No comments: