Holiday Affair is a pleasant holiday confectionary that is more notable for its appealing performances than the originality of its story, which is perfectly fine when those performances are coming from the likes of Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh.
The Production: 4/5
The idea of casting Robert Mitchum as a genuinely decent man in a Christmas-themed romantic comedy sounds too unlikely to be something that could happen. But it did! After an infamous arrest for marijuana in 1948, his home studio of RKO decided that some image rehabilitation was in order (though the public’s appetite for his films both before and after suggested they needn’t have worried), and thought Holiday Affair would be the perfect vehicle. Though the film lost money in its original release, it has gained a following in later years due to television re-airings, and Mitchum obviously continued on with great success. And if it’s not at the very top echelon of holiday classics, the chance to see someone like Mitchum lend his weight to this kind of project gives it an enduring appeal.
The year is 1949 and Connie (Janet Leigh) is a war widow raising a young son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert) in New York City. Her suitor Carl (Wendell Corey) has long harbored feelings for her, but remains a loyal and caring friend while she tries first to move forward from the loss of her husband. Working as a comparison shopper for a rival department store, she buys and later returns a model train from a good-natured department store salesman, Steve (Mitchum), who promptly loses his job for not turning her in to store security. Steve is a war veteran who dreams of relocating to the west coast to build sailboats, a dream complicated by his sudden loss of income. Steve and Connie share an instant attraction, though only Steve is comfortable admitting it. Connie’s confusion at having feelings for a man other than her late husband only seems to drive her closer to Carl, a man she cares for but ultimately not in the way Carl wishes. Though the outcome might seem inevitable, the film’s 87 minutes breeze by before the audience can get too far ahead, and there are enough amusing obstacles and turns to allow for some lighthearted suspense.
The film’s greatest asset is its cast, and it shines. Janet Leigh is wonderful here: so young, but with a glimmer in her eye that reveals a more experienced weariness than her age would suggest. Robert Mitchum is Robert Mitchum, but with a winking charm and steady decency that is a delight; one wishes that he might have had a few more opportunities to play against type like this. There’s a certain look in his eye that just telegraphs sincerity. Wendell Corey has the unenviable job of being the good guy whose only misstep is that he’s fallen for someone who doesn’t return the feelings and is too uncertain to know that about herself. He plays it well, and the script never consigns him to the cliche of the man who feels he has ownership of the woman he longs for. Instead, Corey gets several moments to play the hero as he comes to understand the reality of his situation. In one of the film’s most entertaining segments, involving Mitchum being mistakenly detained by the police, look out for an early appearance by Harry Morgan (credited as “Henry”) playing a sergeant trying to make heads or tails out of an increasingly ridiculous but completely true explanation. (Decades before his portrayal of Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H, Morgan was already a master of incredulity.)
Holiday Affair is undoubtedly a small story, and the movie works as well as it does precisely because it doesn’t try to make it bigger than it is. Don Hartman, though better remembered as a screenwriter, delivers crisp and unpretentious direction that emphasizes sincerity in performance over flashiness. Isobel Lennart’s screenplay, from a story by John Weaver, similarly avoids unnecessary hysterics and twists, trusting the characters to carry the day. It’s these qualities which make the film enjoyable to revisit, particularly in the sentimental holiday season.
3D Rating: NA
Holiday Affair is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Given the reputation for the poor condition the elements for many RKO titles are believed to be, the presentation here is nothing short of marvelous. Though there are moments of slight inconsistency, the video quality is very pleasing overall, rock steady and free of debris, damage and other age-related wear. Closeups maintain strong detail throughout, while there are some smaller sections of the film where the longer shots seem slightly softer than might be expected. Parts look phenomenal, while others look simply very, very good. These minor discrepancies are really only noticeable in projection or on larger screens; on a small or medium television screen, they virtually disappear. Regardless, there is nothing distracting or untoward in the presentation, and this release marks a major improvement over the previous DVD.
The film’s monaural audio is presented in the lossless DTS-HD MA format. The audio track is clear and free of crackles, pops and distracting age-related anomalies, with dialogue well recorded and easy to discern in the mix. The film’s musical score sounds appropriately rich as well. There are several very minor, very slight instances of hiss or background noise on the track, but it’s never distracting; it’s always preferable to chance leaving in a slight imperfection vs. filtering out the imperfections at the expense of fine detail. At any rate, much like the video component, the audio offers a major improvement in clarity over the previous DVD.
Special Features: 3/5
Theatrical Trailer (1:56) – Presented in high definition, the vintage trailer is in reasonably good condition. It probably draws too much from the latter portion of the film, making the mood of the film appear more dramatic than it actually is.
Lux Radio Theater (12/18/50) (59:56) – This hour-long radio adaptation of the film has Robert Mitchum reprising his role, with actress Laraine Day taking over the part originated by Janet Leigh in the film. The audio quality here is an improvement over copies that have long circulated on internet archives.
While Holiday Affair may not be in the very top tier of Christmas movies, it offers a simple story, told well, with appealing performances from its lead trio of Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh and Wendell Corey that make it perfect for repeat viewings. Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray release is a significant upgrade over the original DVD, improving on the technical presentation while adding bonus features for the first time.
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