Friday, December 11, 2020

"Holiday Affair" (1949)

I've watched Holiday Affair (1949) at least four times in the last four years.  And I'm still not sure why I like it so much.  It's wildly improbable and often defies logic... but it makes emotional sense, even if it doesn't make logical sense, and so I like it anyway.

Also, the first time I watched this movie, it surprised me over and over.  I like stories that surprise me.  Not when they do stupid or awful things, but when they take turns I don't expect or have characters who make choices that aren't obvious or conventional.

If you like unconventional characters, you are gonna love Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum).  When we meet him, he's working at a big NYC department store, selling toy trains.  He takes his job very seriously, and his clientele too.  He answers questions from every little boy and girl, demonstrates the different capabilities of the train set, and is generally the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.  Steve Mason is the main reason I like this movie so much, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

There's something very watchable about Robert Mitchum, isn't there?  He seems to take everything in stride, even scary or horrible things.  I know he's played his share of baddies too, and he's definitely watchable then too, but I prefer him when he's a straight arrow (which, let's face it, is true of basically every actor I like, heh).  I'm not sure I've ever seen him play a nicer guy than Steve Mason, and this might just be my favorite role of his.

Now, Steve doesn't want to sell toy trains all his life.  He wants to design and build boats.  Not fancy yachts, just serviceable little sailboats that people can enjoy themselves on.  He's got a friend out in California who owns a shipyard and says any time Steve wants, he can hop a train out there and start working for him.  Steve's been saving up money for a few years so he can do just that, but you don't seem to make a lot of money selling toy trains.

Enter our conventional character, Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh).  Well, she's got quirks too, but she doesn't like to admit it.  Especially not to herself.  She works as a professional comparison shopper, because I guess that was a thing?  She's on a mission to buy a train from the store where Steve works, and she doesn't waste any time doing so.  She's coldly polite and too practiced, and Steve quickly figures out what she's up to, but he sells her the train anyway.  

I am not a big Janet Leigh fan.  I don't dislike her, I just never find her very interesting.  She's perfectly fine in this, but you could replace her with any number of other actresses and the story would work just as well.  But if you replaced Mitchum, well, the whole thing would probably fall apart.

Anyway, Connie goes home to her son Timmy (Gordon Gebert).  And here's where we find out Connie's more interesting and unusual than we'd expected.  She calls her son Mr. Ennis and he calls her Mrs. Ennis, and they greet each other formally and pretend that he's the man of the house.  It's obviously a cute little game that they play, but it's just off-kilter enough that we get the idea that Connie has some issues going on behind her perfect hair and perfect outfit and perfect professionalism.

Gordon Gebert is a gem, by the way.  It's no wonder he got to act opposite big names like John Wayne (in The Flying Leathernecks, 1951), Joel McCrea (Saddle Tramp, 1950), and Burt Lancaster (The Flame and the Arrow, 1950).  He even played the young Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back (1955).  He is just awesome in this -- never precious or cutesy, but a sturdy little boy in the mode of a young Ron Howard.  

Connie takes the toy train home instead of taking it to work the next day, and Timmy finds it.  He's positive it's for him, and his mom is just teasing when she says she has to return it because she only got it for her job.  He's been yearning for a train like it, and he is over the moon with suppressed joy.

So, Connie's a widow.  Her husband died in the war, and she's been mourning him ever since.  She keeps his picture all over the house, and she tells everyone how much Timmy looks like his father.  Basically, she's tried to fill the gap in her life that her husband left by pushing her son to be as much like his dad as possible.  But lately, she's started to move on, and has been dating a lawyer named Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) for almost a year.  They have an easy rapport, and he's nice to Timmy, though Timmy thinks he's very boring.

Timmy is not wrong.  Carl is nice and kind and gentlemanly and boring.  But it just happens that his boringness makes Connie feel very secure and sheltered, and she's convinced herself that this is what she wants out of life.

Connie returns the train the next day and asks for a refund.  Steve tells her he's tagged her as a comparison shopper.  He's not supposed to let her return the train, he's supposed to signal the floor walker to take her out of the store and write up a report about her so the rest of the clerks know she's not welcome to buy things there anymore because she's not a real customer.  She pleads with him not to do that because she needs her job so she can support her little boy.  He gets really snarky because he thinks she's lying about having a son, and he asks how come her husband can't chip in.  But when he finds out her husband died in the war, his whole tone changes.  He's apologetic, sincere, kind... and he issues a refund for the train.

Steve then gets fired for not turning Connie in.  Nice guy finishes last when it comes to retail at Christmas, I guess.  Because yes, Steve is also a nice, kind, gentlemanly guy.  This is not a case of fall-for-the-bad-boy nonsense.  Both Steve and Carl are Good Guys.

Steve, being freshly out of anything to do, helps Connie with her comparison shopping for the rest of the afternoon, cluing her in on how not to get spotted by salespeople.  He and Connie have lunch in Central Park, talking to the squirrels and the seals and each other.  But after another round of shopping, they get separated by a crowd, and Steve gets left with all Connie's packages she's supposed to take to her job.

Connie goes home to her picture of her dead husband, her son, and the prospect of one day marrying predictable Carl.  Timmy is not a fan of this idea.  He reminds Connie that if she marries Carl, she won't be Mrs. Ennis anymore.   Connie is stricken by this thought.  Not be Mrs. Ennis?  Maybe marrying Carl won't be the safe non-change she thinks it will be.

Naturally, Steve just happens to know Connie's address because of the return slip for the toy train.  So he shows up at her apartment with all her packages.  Connie had not told Carl about spending all day with Steve.  Naturally, Carl is suspicious when Steve shows up.  Much tension ensues.

Steve ends up having a chat with Timmy after Timmy acts out and yells at Carl, and Carl yells at Timmy, and so on.  Steve takes Timmy very seriously, and Timmy appreciates that (as do all kids).  He confides in Steve about the train that he thought was for him, but wasn't, and says his mom says he shouldn't wish for big presents like that because when he doesn't get them, he'll just be disappointed.  Steve disagrees.  He thinks hoping and wishing are important, even if you don't get what you hoped for.  You have to aim high, he says, even with wishes.  He's not just talking to Timmy about trains by that point, we can tell.

At which point, Steve goes out to the kitchen and gives Connie a Christmas present.  He walks up behind her, taps her on the shoulder, and kisses her when she turns around.  It's a bit of a surprise kiss, but not a forcible one.  I know this wouldn't fly today, in a world where a person must ask permission before kissing another person because, it seems, kisses are extremely important and dangerous and must not be given to anyone unawares, or unexpectedly, or unpredictably.  This movie was made back when a kiss was just a kiss... and also, I sincerely doubt that Steve would have kissed Connie if they hadn't spent a whole long afternoon getting mighty friendly first.  

This kiss is a turning point.  Connie has slowly been realizing that she's barricaded herself into a tiny, safe, stale life where nothing can actually touch her.  Where she can control how she feels, what she feels, when she feels.  But Steve Mason has gradually elicited annoyance, surprise, anger, and amusement from her, and those smaller emotions have begun to crack open her walls, leaving her ready to feel bigger things like attraction, gratitude, and maybe even the glimmerings of love.

Steve does something wonderful and generous:  he buys that toy train for Timmy and leaves it outside their apartment door on Christmas morning.  Timmy is ecstatic -- his new friend Steve told him to wish and hope and dream big, and sure enough, sometimes you DO get what you thought you could never have!  Timmy convinces his mom to give Steve a gift too, so she finds him in Central Park and gives him a necktie she'd bought for Carl.

Carl would never have worn this necktie -- it's too loud.  But it suits Steve just fine.  Steve gives his old necktie to a passing bum, and the bum later gives Steve a gift in return.

Connie also drops the bomb that she's going to marry Carl.  All the joy leaves Steve's whole face when he hears this, but he wishes her well and says he hopes she'll be happy in the safe little world she's built for herself.  Which Connie doesn't appreciate, obviously.

Connie's dead husband's parents come over to spend Christmas Day with Connie and Timmy.  They congratulate her on her impending marriage and say they can't wait to meet the new love of her life, Steve.  Connie is upset.  She's marrying Carl!  Why would they think she's marrying Steve?  Well, only because Timmy won't shut up about how nice Steve is and how wonderful his new train from Steve is and how much he likes Steve.

And that's when the police stop by.  Did I mention this movie turns in unexpected directions?  Steve has been arrested for stealing something, which actually was given to him by that bum in the park.  But Steve has no job (because Connie got him fired), no money in his wallet (because he spent it all on that train for Timmy), and no address (because he left his rooms when he lost his job).  So he's basically a vagrant.

Happily, remember Carl?  He might be a little boring, but he's a good lawyer.  He convinces the police (personified by Henry "Harry" Morgan) that there's no evidence against Steve, and they let Steve go.

Steve ends up back at Connie's apartment for Christmas dinner.  Connie's in-laws make heartfelt toasts to each other that make me cry a little because they have so much love and affection for each other.  Carl toasts Connie and their impending marriage.  Everyone says Steve ought to give a toast too.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!  Honestly, just skip from here to after the frame that says "THE END" if you have decided you want to see this movie and don't want all the big surprises spoiled.

Instead of making a toast to health and happiness and so on, Steve asks Connie to marry him, not Carl.

Do you have whiplash yet?  Cuz wow, that just smacks me upside the head every time.  Wow.  Steve has just proposed marriage to another guy's fiancee.  I never saw this coming the first time.

As you can gather from the picture above, this does not go over well with Connie.  Steve accepts her refusal gracefully and makes his goodbyes.

Timmy is distraught at the thought of his friend Steve having spent the last of his money on this toy train set, when he should have spent it on a train ticket to California to get that job that's waiting for him.  So Timmy takes it upon himself to return the train to the store and get the money back for it so he can give the money to Steve and make Steve happy like Steve made him happy.

Do you want to hug Timmy?  Cuz I sure do.

Timmy gets the money and convinces Connie to give it to Steve.  Carl and Connie break up.  Connie gives the money to Steve and tells him she's broken things off with Carl.  She thinks this means that Steve will propose again, but it's time for another hairpin turn in the plot!  

Steve's not having it.  He doesn't want her to offer herself to him out of some kind of weird gratitude, and he doesn't want to get married to a woman who still mentally belongs to her dead husband.  Thanks, but no thanks, Connie.  Have a nice life.  Enjoy being Mrs. Ennis.

Here comes New Year's Eve, and Connie's getting ready to go out with some friends.  No date.  Just friends.  Timmy comes in, and they have a very serious conversation, and, well... 

...the two of them end up on a train to California, where they find Steve just at the stroke of midnight, and the three of them enjoy a big group hug, the end.

Like I said, don't stare at the plot too hard or it won't make much sense, but at the same time, it's completely awesome and I think I need to admit that I don't just like it, I love it.  I do.

Is this movie family friendly?  Yup, it is.

This has been my contribution to the Second Happy Holidays Blogathon hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.  I've been meaning to review this movie for a couple of years, so I'm glad this blogathon gave me the nudge to review it that I've been needing!


  1. I hadn't heard of this one, but it does sound delightful + I need more Christmas movies on my list, so I'll definitely have to check it out sometime. :)

    1. Heidi, it is oddly wonderful, and I hope that you like it when you do see it ;-)

  2. Ooh, this movie looks really good. I haven't seen it, but it sounds like something I'd like.

    1. McKayla, happily, it's not hard to find!

    2. There are a lot of truths in Isobel Lennert's screenplay that draws us to Holiday Affair.

    3. Caftan Woman, right on! This movie really points out a lot of things like the importance to not hiding from reality. Love it.

  3. It's been a few years since I've seen this film, but your fab review made it seem fresh again. Like you said, it's a film that isn't entirely logical, but it's so marvellous you don't care. And, as you pointed out, Robert Mitchum is a big part of that. If he wasn't there, the film would definitely fall apart.

    1. Silver Screenings, glad you enjoyed this! Yes, Mitchum's unruffled, virile aplomb really makes the whole thing work instead of turning into a series of ludicrous happenings.

  4. I love an unconventional character.

    1. Skye, me too :-) As long as they're unconventional in the right way, not just flouting convention just to be cool or something.

  5. I just watched this one again this weekend. It is quickly moving up my list of favorite Christmas movies. I think your analysis is spot on!

    1. Brittaney, I'm so excited to find another person who has seen this! I agree, it just climbs higher with every rewatch. Glad you agree with my take on it!

  6. I really enjoyed your look at this movie, Rachel, especially as I just rewatched it. It really is full of surprises!

    Best wishes,

    1. Laura, I'm glad you enjoyed it :-) Such a charming little movie!


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