Thursday, November 25, 2021

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944)


 

The holidays can be a depressing time, so it’s somewhat ironic that more film noirs haven’t been set during the silly season. The manufactured cheerfulness of Christmas—with the lights, incessant music and forced religious observance, not to mention the legitimate celebrations of faith and family—make for a rich contrast to the subversive world of noir. Capra employed some noir touches in MEET JOHN DOE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, both of which are centered around long, dark nights of the soul. Allen Baron utilized New York’s Christmas celebrations in BLAST OF SILENCE, using the decorations and cheer as a backdrop for his ode to existential nothingness.

Perhaps the clearest example of a “Christmas noir” is Robert Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, it tells the story of a young solider, Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens) who is dumped by his fiancée (via telegram!) on Christmas Eve. He jumps on a plane to San Francisco to confront her, but when the plane hits a storm, the flight is rerouted to New Orleans. Mason is drinking his problems away in a bar until he can get another flight when he’s approached by a drunk reporter (Richard Whorf). The reporter takes pity on Mason and drags him to a nightclub (a thinly veiled brothel). There Mason meets a beautiful-but-sad young singer named Jackie (Deanna Durbin). They spend the night talking, with Jackie telling Mason the story of her life. Turns out her real name is Abigail Martin and her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) is in prison serving a life sentence for murder.

At this point, the film switches gears and tells the story of Abigail and Robert’s doomed romance. After the back story is filled in, we come back to Abigail and Mason just in time to find out that Robert has escaped from prison and is making his way to his wife. He’s not pleased that she has changed her name and taken a job in a whorehouse.

What an odd film this is. It takes a curiously long time to get to the story of Abigail and Robert, and Mason never comes into focus as a real character with real problems of his own (the film forgets about his two-timing fiancée pretty quick). Yet the story of Abigail and Robert also feels undercooked. Theirs is an extremely dysfunctional relationship, with Abigail assuming the responsibility for Robert’s gambling and murder, and Robert letting her feel that she’s to blame. The film never confronts this imbalance of power in the relationship, and then at the end segues into a hasty bit of self-empowerment.

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY came at an interesting point the careers of its stars. After MGM dumped her in favor of Judy Garland in the mid-1930s, Deanna Durbin had gone over to Universal and become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. By 1949, she would be done with films, living happily secluded in France, refusing film roles and interviews. When she made this film in 1944, she was attempting to show that she had a range beyond light comedy and musicals, and she does a perfectly fine job as the conflicted Abigail. The same can’t be said for Gene Kelly, only a couple of years into his movie career and still finding himself onscreen. Could anyone be more out of place in a story like this? Kelly was a man with a spring in his step and music in his bones, a performer born for light musical comedy. The final moments of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY fail to work in large part because Kelly, at least as an actor, has no dark depths to plumb.

It’s too bad, too, because CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY has its virtues. Don’t let the title and the cast fool you; this is a full-fledged film noir. Set almost entirely at night—and photographed by the superb Woody Bredell—it’s a gorgeous-looking film with a good supporting cast. There are nice character parts for Gale Sondergaard as Kelly’s creepily devoted mother (the film should have made room for a showdown between Sondergaard and Durbin), and Gladys George as the proprietor of the “nightclub” where Durbin works. If anyone was born to play a Madam in a whorehouse, it was Gladys George.

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is ultimately a failure of a film, but it is a fascinating example of how noir worked. Here’s a film starring two naturally ebullient singers, set during Christmas time, but through the handling of the material it paints a pretty bleak picture. In this film, love is some-thing to be overcome, something that always gives way to heartbreak and pain.

Happy Holidays from the city of perpetual night.   

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Commentary Track for WOMAN IN THE DARK

Well, here's some fun news. I had the opportunity a few months ago to record my first commentary track, for Flicker Alley's Blu-Ray release of the Dashiell Hammett adaptation WOMAN IN THE DARK. The film is included in a box set called IN THE SHADOW OF HOLLYWOOD: HIGHLIGHTS FROM POVERTY ROW

It was interesting to try something new, to work in a entirely new medium. I've been teaching film studies for a couple of years now, and I've been writing about film for much longer, but recording audio commentary is a whole other animal. Trying to juggle historical context and shot-by-shot analysis while also trying not to jumble my words or repeat myself was a fun challenge. I can tell you one thing: it certainly gave me an even greater appreciation for guys like Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode who make this shit look effortless. It is tricky, damn tricky.

Go check out the box set and support Flicker Alley, which is doing excellent work cleaning up and releasing works that fall through the Criterion cracks.    


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Back at the Movies in Chicago


 Obviously we're not out of the pandemic yet (and won't be anytime soon, I fear), but lately things have returned to a peculiar kind of normal. Case in point: the movies.

It's not as if we can just stroll into a theater like it's 2019, of course. There are safety protocols--masks, proof of vax, ect--that must be observed. But after the dismal cultural wasteland that was 2020, I am happy to report that, in Chicago at least, moviegoing has regained a least a little of its former glory.

The Music Box Theater (the jewel in Chicago's cinema crown) is back up and running, programming new indie films and classic oldies, as well as midnight showings for the night owls, weekend matinees (first up, a series of Marlene Dietrich movies!), and silent films for the hardcore cinephiles (which kicked off with a glorious showing of GREED a few weeks back).

The Siskel Film Center is also back, with, among other things, a Fellini series (a nice way to celebrate the pure joy of cinema). The Chicago Film Society is back with a truncated (though characteristically eclectic) season, which will culminate with a showing of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS in December. And after the longest hiatus of them all, Doc Films is back with a shortened weekly schedule (only Thursdays to Sundays). The Park Ridge movies series is back at the Pickwick Theater, the Chicago Silent Film Society is booking showings, and Facets is still going strong. 

In addition to all of that, the multiplexes have reopened with the superhero/franchise/blockbuster stuff.

All of this makes me exceedingly happy, and I hope it all reinforces the need for in-person cinematic experiences. I am grateful for all the technology that made it possible to watch movies, stream concerts and other "live" performances during the pandemic, but let's pause for a moment to appreciate just how nice it is to go out, grab dinner, and go to the movies.  


Friday, August 27, 2021

French Summer: LA PISCINE and MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY


 

As we stagger out of August into an uncertain September, I'd like to report on the unintentional gift I gave myself this summer. I watched LA PISCINE (1969) a few weeks ago at the Music Box Theater, and it was the perfect mid-summer movie--sunny, sexy, and languorous. The film has just been released in a restored print, and it was a surprise hit this summer in New York, inspiring repeat viewings from enraptured audiences and a predicable high brow backlash from the NEW YORKER. Why a 52 year old French film should suddenly be thrust back into public consciousness and discourse is up for debate, though most people seem to agree that the carnal beauty of stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, both of whom are worshipped by director Jacques Deray's camera, is reason enough.

But back to me for a moment. The gift I gave myself wasn't just LA PISCINE at mid-summer, it was also a viewing of MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY (1953) a couple of nights ago. Jacques Tati's film is a gentle comedy about a group of people vacationing at a seaside resort. It was Tati's first film featuring his greatest creation, Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati himself) a well-meaning bumbler who makes quiet comic havoc of everything he touches. The film, like all the Hulot films that followed this one, is nearly dialogue free. The comedy comes from smartly observed details and tiny gestures (the repeated creak of a door, the way an elderly couple go for a stroll as if on promenade) rather than big set pieces (though there is a fireworks display at the end). At the end, everyone says their farewells, packs up and goes home.

I didn't plan this French bookend to the summer, with Deray's sexy, sweaty thriller on one end and Tati's sweetly humanist comedy on the other, but the combination turns out to be perfect.

Try it next year.  

     

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Friday, June 4, 2021

DRY COUNTY at Southern Literary Review



There's a nice piece by Thomas O'Grady up over at Southern Literary Review that looks at my novel DRY COUNTY alongside Chris Offutt's COUNTRY DARK, contextualizing them both within the genre of "country noir." It's a smart look at both novels, so go check it out here.    

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

At the Movies In 2021


 

An ongoing list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:

1. Jaws (1975)- ChiTown Drive-In

2. Night of Kings (2021)- Music Box Theater

3. The Human Voice (2021)- Music Box

4. Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)- Music Box

5. Heat (1995)- Music Box

6. Ocean's 11 (2001)- Music Box

7. Rififi (1955)- Music Box

8. The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967)- Music Box

9. The Navigator (1924)-Pickwick Theater

10. The Lucky Dog (1921)- Pickwick

11. Shoulder Arms (1919)- Pickwick

12. Playtime (1967)- Music Box

13. The Amusement Park (1973)- Music Box

14. Jerry Maguire (1996)- Regal City North

15. A Quiet Place Part II (2021)- Regal

16. Summer of 85 (2021)- Music Box

17. Mama Weed (2021)- Music Box

18. Stillwater (2021)- AMC River East

19. The Return of Boston Blackie (1927)- City News Cafe

20. Black Widow (2021)- Logan Theater

21. The Green Knight (2021)-Music Box

22. The Suicide Squad (2021)-Logan Theater

23. La Piscine (1969)- Music Box

24. The Third Man (1949)- Music Box

25. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)- Music Box

26. Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)- Music Box

27. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings (2021)-Logan Theater

28. A Foreign Affair (1948)- Music Box

29. Greed (1924)- Music Box

30. A Corner in Wheat (1909)- Music Box

31. Dimland (2021)- Music Box

32. The Card Counter (2021)- Landmark Century Centre Cinema

33. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)- Music Box

34. Titane (2021)- Music Box

35. The Shakedown (1929)- Music Box 

36. In a Lonely Place (1950)- Doc Films

37. Dune (2021)- Regal IMAX

38. No Time to Die (2021)- Regal IMAX

39. The Magnificent Seven (1960)- Pickwick

40. The French Dispatch (2021)- Logan

41. The Power of the Dog (2021)- Music Box

42. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)- Logan

43. Suicide Club (2001)- Music Box