Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Holiday (Robert Siodmak, 1944); Deanna Durbin: 1921 - 2013

In all matters Durbin I bow to the far more knowledgeable Siren.

Might add that the Siren in her tribute has me pegged correctly; my interest in Deanna stems mainly from one film, the appreciation of which I repost here, slightly expanded (warning--plot  developments and ending discussed in close detail):

Christmas Holiday has Robert Siodmak (Cobra Woman) directing an adaptation by Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) of a Somerset Maugham novel, where Durbin plays vocalist/housewife Jackie Lamont/Abigail Manette, and Gene Kelly plays her husband, convicted psychopath Robert Manette (I know--Kelly as a psychopath? Would love to have listened in on the meetings that led to that bit of casting). 

The novel is reportedly sordid enough, the story of a young Englishman in Paris who befriends a prostitute. Mankiewicz had to toss out the Englishman in favor of an American soldier on furlough, switch the setting from Paris to New Orleans (actually an improvement in terms of sordid atmosphere, I'd say), and tactfully call Durbin's Jackie a "lounge singer;" Kelly's Robert is "mother-fixated" which critic David Ehrenstein tells us is Hollywood code for "homosexual" (can't help but think of Alfred Hitchcock upon hearing the term nodding in recognition).

The film seems disturbing in a not very good way at first, being too leisurely, too waywardly structured to be classic noir (it begins in an army camp, with a Lt. Charlie Mason (Dean Harens) being jilted in a letter by his fiance); favoring a gliding camera more appropriate to Max Ophuls over the low-angled shots of Fritz Lang; lingering on architectural details like New Orleans' ornately trellised-and-vined iron railings, its many-saucered water fountains, rather than noir's more conventional barred windows and concrete towers. More, we're told again and again that Robert is not right in the head, that his relationship with his mother (the icily magnificent Gale Sondergaard) is "pathological," but we don't get much onscreen evidence from the actor himself--don't get much of the actor onscreen altogether. Could Siodmak be protecting his film, keeping Kelly largely out of the way because the man--for all his singing and dancing talent--isn't very menacing?

Then Robert breaks out of jail and instead of Maugham's more muted conclusion (the youth parts with his hooker, his outlook on life subtly but irrevocably changed)
Siodmak and Mankiewicz concoct a confrontation between the ostensibly unfaithful Abigail (you can't possibly believe she spent all those years in that lounge, singing?) and her husband. The Robert Manette wrapped in darkness and wielding a pistol--that is the Kelly of dance musicals, all athleticism and speed (only instead of a straw hat and cane in hand he has a gun). That is Kelly's famed exuberance shoved up a notch, to the point of being abrasive, even frightening (reportedly Debbie Reynolds suffered a dose of that abrasiveness while filming Singin' in the Rain). 

  Durbin's Abigail plays suffering victim for most of the picture, the tears streaming heroically down her cheeks. But there are nuances to her suffering--when she's in the club her defenses are raised, her face sullen and closed; when she's with Robert she's pensive,  tormented by hints of Robert's growing instability. Most poignant are the too-rare moments when she's simply enjoying herself with Robert--then she (I imagine) is the radiant innocent of many a Universal musical.

Facing Robert in the finale we see in Abigail's face an expression not seen before, of a woman who's happy despite the danger. When Robert threatens her she's wide-eyed desperate, not because her life's at stake (you feel), but because he doubts her love, and this weighs on her heavily. She'll do anything to prove herself, say anything to convince him of her (largely notional) fidelity...and considering what a nervy bundle of dynamite Robert is, fidelity might not be the wisest topic of discussion to take up with him at that particular moment...

In the final five minutes Robert, cradled lovingly in Abigail's arms, looks up and (not unkindly) whispers: "you can let go now, Abigail." Lt. Mason repeats the sentiment, only it isn't Durbin who lets go (she looks past caring), it's the film.

Siodmak drops all pretense and dialogue, revealing the film for what it really is: a grand opera on one woman's suffering. Durbin--lit as if she were the Holy Madonna herself--looks up, tears streaming down her cheek; the clouds part to reveal the heavens, the vast distances a measure of the size of her grief, the glitter of stars rhyming with the glitter on her face. Lars Von Trier should sit down and take notes, or hang his head in shame; for all his not inconsiderable skill and arthouse pretensions, he couldn't even begin to touch the intensity of this film's finale.


1 comment:

patrick lordoew said...

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