Kent Adamson On Deanna Durbin and the Christmas Holidays in Hollywood

There is a fascinating little movie that has shown up spliced into several parts on YouTube. One of the most defiant and rebellious feature films ever turned out in Hollywood stars the often nauseatingly cheery Deanna Durbin as a hard bitten hostess in a southern brothel. It co-stars the usually lighter than air smiley hoofer Gene Kelly as a pathological liar and murderer. They are lovers and marry. It was written by the gifted and maniacal Herman J Mankiewicz, who is better known for his work on the script of “Citizen Kane” and producer of the surrealist extravaganza “Million Dollar Legs”. “Christmas Holiday”  is directed with more dark shadows than three Val Lewton movies by the bitterly brilliant ex-pat Robert Siodmak best known for his blacker than pitch, and blacker than  black crime thrillers “The Killers” and “Criss Cross”. Though it is called “Christmas Holiday”, it was released in the summer of 1944, and is colder than the Hollywood snow that never melts.

The production world in Los Angeles is always aglow with holiday sights and sounds every year in late summer. July/August is generally the deadline for completion of the projects and supporting materials for fourth quarter Christmas time releases. Never is the disjunction greater between the world depicted on the screen and life as it is really lived by people who shovel real snow. Rarely do they match up, especially in older classic era studio features, “Christmas Holiday” is an exception.

The chubby child star Deanna Durbin of the 1930’s had grown into a lovely young woman by the mid 1940s. Siodmak introduces her in a sexy skirt slit up to her neckline, singing mournfully in a smoke filled bar on Christmas Eve. What is important here is not the plot, but the manner in which every element of the film unfolds against its own grain. From the casting choices, to a WWII “Dear John” letter prologue that sets the plot in motion, to the hopeless fatalistic conclusion, it turns all holiday expectations inside out. Even when Durbin seeks solace in a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, she doesn’t join in singing her praises with the choir. She breaks down in a pool of bitterly lonely and needy tears. She cries for hours as the church shuts down around her.

This film was a favorite of my dear and much missed friend, actress Ann Savage. She had an ambivalent relationship with the holidays. Though she loved the food, music and friendly camaraderie of the season, it was an especially painful time for her as she grew older. It was a time of year that also gave her joy as it brought out her spirituality, hope and faith. She remembered and honored those who had been most loving to her, and prayed for their souls. Her beloved mother Louise had passed away at Thanksgiving. Her third husband Bert, whom she adored, left the world on New Year’s Eve. Her step-son Bert Jr. died thirty years after his father to the day, on New Year’s Eve. Ann visited with her mother and Bert Sr. at Hollywood Forever Cemetery most frequently during the holidays. Ann herself left the world on Christmas day. Every year since, the expectations of holiday cheer as shown in the movies manufactured in Hollywood have been heavily leavened with celebration of the great spirits and beautiful souls who have graced this world.

Deanna Durbin and Ann Savage were both born in 1921. Durbin was born in Winnipeg Canada, and just turned 90. She left Hollywood in the 1940s and resides comfortably in Switzerland, refusing to look back. Ann Savage spent her teenage and young adult years in Hollywood. She left California in the 1950s to travel the world, returning to Los Angeles often. She spent her last three decades in Hollywood, and had a significant relationship with Winnipeg. She is now infinite.

Bio: Writer/Filmmaker Kent Adamson co-wrote the book “Savage Detours”. He will spend his Christmas Holidays with family, friends, Ann Savage at Hollywood Forever and “Christmas Holiday”.

Link for Christmas Holiday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHrZyUO3b24