Holly and the Ivy, The (1952): British Family Melodrama, Starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, and Margaret Leighton (Christmas Movie)

Produced by Anatole de Grunwald and co-scripted by Wynyard Browne and de Grunwald, based on Browne’s play of the same name, The Holy and the Ivy is a well-acted British family melodrama set over Christmas.

The Holly and the Ivy

The movie’s ensemble is flawless, starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, and Margaret Leighton, while Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delany reprise their stage roles.

The tale concerns about an English clergyman who seems to neglect his grown-up offsprings, in his zeal to tend to his parishioners.

Well constructed, the narrative unfolds as a series of intimate encounters, in which initially tensions and secrets prevail, inevitably leading to revelations, confessions, and ultimately reconciliations.

It’s been a tradition for the widespread members of the Gregory family to return home for Christmas in the remote village of Wyndenham in Norfolk. The film opens with introductions of each family member, save for the younger daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton).

The plot centers on Jenny (Celia Johnson), the elder daughter who looks after her aged parent Martin (Ralph Richardson), who seems to care more about his parishioners than about his family. Jenny wishes to marry engineer David (John Gregson), who is bound for South America, but she cannot leave her father unless her sister or her aunts would assume her duties and look after Martin.

Martin’s son Michael (Denholm Elliott), a national serviceman in the Army, has developed resentment towards his father and religion.

When Margaret arrives, she makes it clear that she has no intention of giving up her life as a magazine writer in London.  It turns out that Margaret is an alcoholic, and an unmarried mother whose young son has recently died of meningitis.

All three siblings lack good communication with their father. They cannot approach him for anything unconventional, perceiving him as a religious maniac who will not understand their problems.

Margaret and Michael, who do not want to be with him or their aunts on Christmas Eve, go out, ostensibly to the cinema.  Instead, they go to a pub and end up drunk.

On Christmas morning, Margaret announces that she is leaving, and Michael argues with Martin about the existence of God.

It turns out that Martin is not a tyrannical parent or religious fanatic, but quite understanding of their problems because he has helped people with similar issues; in fact, he is disappointed with their perception of him.

Martin and Margaret have an intimate talk before the Christmas morning service. Michael relents and says he will go to university, as Martin wishes, when he completes his national service. Margaret agrees to turn her back on the London life she secretly hates and will live with Martin so that Jenny can marry David and go to South America.

In the end, the entire family is in harmony at church as the service begins.

Ralph Richardson as Reverend Martin Gregory
Celia Johnson as Jenny Gregory
Margaret Leighton as Margaret Gregory
Denholm Elliott as Michael Gregory
Hugh Williams as Richard Wyndham
John Gregson as David Paterson
Margaret Halstan as Aunt Lydia
Maureen Delany as Aunt Bridget

Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Edited by Bert Bates
Production company: London Films
Distributed by: British Lion Films
Release date: December 22, 1952 (UK);  February 4, 1954 (U.S.)
Running time: 83 minutes


I am grateful to TCM for showing this film on December 8, 2019.