‘Tis the Season, of Failed Formulaic Christmas Classics: Disappointment in HOLIDAY AFFAIR
25 December 2013
Don Hartman’s Holiday Affair was billed as a romantic comedy for the 1949 holiday season. Originally released on Christmas Eve, Holiday Affair captures a life-altering holiday season for Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) and her young son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). A few years prior, Connie’s husband was killed during World War II, and she works as a comparison shopper to make ends meet. She is engaged to a close friend, Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), although Timmy does not feel close to his father-to-be. While comparison shopping for Christmas deals, Connie meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), who is working in the toy department of her targeted department store. Connie “buys” an electric train from him, but then returns it. Knowing she is a comparison shopper, yet feeling bad for such a hard-working, single mother at Christmas, Steve takes the train back, but loses his job for doing so. Feeling terrible, Connie seeks Steve out apologetically. Soon he meets Timmy and Carl as well. Steve immediately takes a liking to Connie and her son, and believes he is a better fit for the Ennis family than Carl. Steve declares his love to Connie again and again, but Connie dismisses his advances. Steve, convinced Connie is still in love with her dead husband, decides to move on and pursue his life dream of boat building in California. Of course, this is exactly when Connie realizes she, too, loves Steve. As Carl steps aside, Connie races to Steve on New Year’s Eve and the audience sees the two ring in the new year with a kiss.
Holiday Affair seems to have all the ingredients necessary for an American cinematic hit: a romantic comedy, set during the holidays, featuring an absolutely adorable child. However, upon its initial release, and still today, Holiday Affair continues to disappoint audiences. How is it possible that this seemingly charming film fails to satisfy?
First, take Timmy, the film’s adorable little boy. Charismatic, lovable child actors are great entertainment in a film, particularly a children’s film. However, Holiday Affair is not a children’s film; therefore, Timmy is a secondary character and should be used accordingly. Unfortunately, Timmy is overused in Holiday Affair. Initially, Timmy’s youthful, innocent personality is a joy to watch, but, eventually, his charm devolves into annoyance. By the time Christmas morning rolls around, Timmy’s bellowing “Christmas gift” and telling his mother “Gee, if I were a dog, my tail would be waggin,’” may have the audience wondering if the film will ever pay as much attention to its adult characters as it does to this desperate to be earnest, but more so irritating child.
Erroneously, there is never as much attention on the adult characters, making it very difficult to buy the abrupt love story between Connie and Steve. Perhaps this is because in 1949 Robert Mitchum was a popular star (thanks to his part in film noir’s movement in the 1940s), and thus Holiday Affair tries riding on Mitchum’s coattails. The burgeoning romance the audience is asked to believe in between Connie and Steve occurs days after their first meeting, and only after a few hours of time spent together. Not to mention, Connie is engaged to another man, Carl, who is consistently portrayed in a positive, reputable light, making it difficult to follow how Steve could so easily distract her from her devoted, stable fiancé. Moreover, Steve himself is an extremely forward and outspoken individual. Every time Connie and Steve are together, Steve accuses Connie of still beginning love with her dead husband, a heavy accusation to make to a person he barely knows and about a relationship he never knew. Connie typically storms away from Steve every time he makes this accusation, regularly ending their meetings on a poor note. Their undeveloped relationship, partially due to too much screen time spent on Timmy, makes it difficult for the audience to understand and connect with the romance in this romantic comedy.
And, not only is the romance in Holiday Affair a miss, but the comedy lacks as well. Yes, the film tries to use Timmy to keep the mood light, and it does end on a positive note, but there is nothing funny in Holiday Affair. First, Carl, Connie’s fiancé, is a respectable man. He, however, gets completely jilted in this film. On Christmas, he loses his fiancé and future step-son abruptly, all just one week before his wedding. Surely Carl’s storyline has no humor in it. And, is it not a bad joke on the part of the film to title the picture Holiday Affair? Steve and Connie kiss and Steve openly talks about his love for Connie on Christmas while she is still engaged to Carl. The puny title of the film seems in poor taste.
Moreover, Connie and Steve constantly remind the audience that Connie is still a grieving widow who struggles as a working mother to provide for her son. Placing the film in its 1949 historical context, Connie represents a number of women who became widows during WWII. Her story was the very real experience of so many, and that, too, is not funny, or even light.
Lastly, Steve is rather down on his luck, and seems to always have been. He has dreams of building boats, and, in the end, goes to California to try making his dream happen; yet, the facts are Steve has no job, no money, and no residence; he is a drifter and does not seem a stable, reliable person. His financial circumstance is terrible, so terrible Timmy returns his Christmas gift to support Steve, a generous and kind, but entirely tragic act. The audience is left knowing that Connie and Timmy will, likely, move with Steve to California, where they will continue to struggle. This big move could be supported by an audience if viewers believed in the love story, but that is as weak as their plans for California.
Holiday films get away with a lot. The holidays are the season of believing, so an audience will suspend extra disbelief when it comes to the yuletide cinema. Yet, Holiday Affair cannot meet its audience half way. Without question, Holiday Affair is trying to be a formulaic film, but it does not follow the formula. Perhaps RKO should have extended the film, which only runs 87 minutes, to better develop the love story: had Carl had a flaw which explained Connie’s ease in parting ways with him; maybe if Timmy played a smaller role, just comic relief; or, if Steve had a concrete job offer in California that established some financial stability. Some combination of these things could have provided Holiday Affair a functioning formula. However, alas, Holiday Affair disappointed audiences upon its release, and will undeniably continue to disappoint as time continues.