Holiday Affair (1949): How TV Has Made an Initial Commercial Flop, Starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, Into Iconic Christmas Movie

Holiday Affair, the Christmas family movie, directed and produced by Don Hartman, was mostly known at the time for its lead actor, Robert Mitchum. But Television (especially TCM) has changed the fate of this RKO ultra-modest production.

Set during the Christmas season, Holiday Affair was actually a commercial flop when initially released, and it did not do much for the nascent career of rising star Janet Leigh.

This modest picture serves as an example of how movies, once released, assume a life of their own, and there is no way to predict how history (and future generations of viewers) would relate to an older movie, made decades.  Repeated showing of Holiday Affair during the Christmas season might not have elevated its artistic stature, but certainly have increased its popularity and visibility among younger spectators.

Mitchum is cast against type, playing different kind of roles from his macho roles in the genres that have made him a popular star and iconic figure, film noir (Out of the Past) and action-adventures.

At the time, Mitchum was contracted to RKO, and rumor has it that studio head Howard Hughes pressured the star to take the part in order to repair his public image after his arrest for marijuana possession.

Based on the story Christmas Gift by John D. Weaver, it’s a dramedy that’s brought to life every Christmas season by the estimable Turner Classic Movies (TCM), where I saw it several years ago.

Mitchum plays Steve Mason, a vet drifter suffering from low-esteem, employed as a clerk during the Christmas season at Crowley’s, a New York department store.

He suspects his customer Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh, brown-haired, before she became a star) of being a comparative shopper for a rival store, when she buys an expensive toy train set.

Meanwhile, her cute son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) becomes excited, thinking that it is his present, only to be disappointed by the truth.

When the guilty Connie returns the train the next day, Steve tells her of his suspicions, intending to report the incident.  But after she reveals that she is a war widow and single mom, Steve refunds her the money, which costs him his job.

Steve becomes acquainted with Connie and her longtime boyfriend and wannabe fiance, lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey, for a change in a romantic part).

On Christmas morning, Timmy discovers the train set laying outside the door.

Knowing the identity of the real donor, she gives Steve a tie that she had bought for Carl. and offers to reimburse him for the expensive train, but he refuses.

Later on, Steve is arrested on suspicion of theft of a pair of stolen sterling silver salt and pepper shakers, given to him by a bum (Frank Mills) in Central Park.

Carl tries to secure his client’s freedom, supported by Connie’s explanation. Upon release, Steve is invited Steve to Christmas dinner with Connie’s former in-laws (Esther Dalr and Griff Barnett). Connie’s two rivals compete for her attention, motivating Steve to declare his love for Connie and explain why she should marry him.

The above is the film’s central scene, in which basic American values are made by Steve, in front of all present.  Steve insists of telling the truth and that Timmy hears that: Two men are in love with his mother.  He also states that instead of sneaking around, he decided to express his feelings openly, in front of his rival.

Timmy, believing Steve is poor and destitute, takes his train set back to Crowley’s to get the money back. But one of the cars has gotten broken and his request is refused. He tearfully tells his story to the store owner, Mr. Crowley (Henry O’Neill), who then takes the boy home himself.  Meanwhile, Carl has called the police, reporting Timmy’s him missing.

Connie reveals she is marrying Carl on New Year’s Day; Steve lets her know he thinks her decision is a mistake. Annoyed, Connie goes home.

Connie and Carl drive to Steve’s hotel to give him the money. When Connie asks Carl to see Steve by himself, the lawyer realizes he has no chance and gives up.

Connie then sees Steve, but when he insists that she stop grieving for her dead husband, she leaves.

Later, as she prepares to attend a New Year’s Eve party, Timmy expresses his concern that she is going alone, and that when he gets married and moves away she will be all alone. She finally stops denying that all along she has been in love with Steve.

In a farewell telegram, Steve lets Connie know that he is leaving that night for California. Connie then takes Timmy to the station, boards Steve’s train, and a new union is created.

Considering its modest budget, the production values are good, especially cinematography by Milton Krasner, one of Minnelli’s favorite lensers.

Though predictable in narrative and sentimental in tone (just watch the reaction shots of the boy, the cute Gordon Gebert with his big sad eyes), Holiday Affair is a suitable fare for all members of the family, and a capsule of what American value system in the 1940s.

Cast

Robert Mitchum as Steve Mason

Janet Leigh as Connie Ennis

Wendell Corey as Carl Davis

Gordon Gebert as Timmy Ennis

Griff Barnett as Mr. Ennis

Esther Dale as Mrs. Ennis

Henry O’Neill as Mr. Crowley

Harry Morgan as Police Lieutenant

Credits:

Running time: 87 minutes

Release date: November 23, 1949

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