Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movies: Holiday Affair (1949)/Remember the Night (1940)

At Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, which you should be reading regularly anyway, Ivan has a post on holiday movies that mentions the VKDC Christmas Film Festival. In some sense this is appropriate, because Ivan programmed my yuletide viewing. I made a point of recording two movies he championed and watched them as the last of the snow fell on Seattle. With the Shreve Seal of Approval, you’re seldom disappointed.

Although I am confused, because watching Holiday Affair so soon after The Killer is Loose raises a perplexing question: do I like Wendell Corey now? Let’s say I’m open to reappraisal and leave it at that. Corey is the Bellamy in this romantic comedy, set in New York City in the waning weeks of December. Janet Leigh plays a war widow with a young son. Accepting lawyer Corey’s longstanding marriage proposal would allow her to leave her job as a comparison shopper for a department store. But that job is how she meets Robert Mitchum, a vagabond clerk who challenges Corey for her affections.

Canned performances by child actors sink many films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but Gordon Gebert feels almost contemporary as the lonely little boy who holds the action together. Isobel Lennert’s script is nicely balanced between the characters. Corey has a lovely moment late in the action when he lays out the facts of the case with legal precision. Some might be surprised by how easily Mitchum takes to the genre, but I’m not; the man always knew how to handle sardonic dialogue, and I will forever insist that His Kind of Woman is a comedy. Amidst the gossamer, Affair is quite tough-minded. Mitchum buys Gebert an extravagant gift because he wants the boy to know that good things are possible in life. Leigh protests only to have Mitchum remark, “Not every surprise is a telegram from the War Department,” a line that brought her and me up short.

Another sweet confection with a tart center followed in Remember the Night. The last script Preston Sturges wrote before moving to the director’s chair teamed Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck four years before Double Indemnity. He’s a New York D.A. charged with prosecuting her for shoplifting. He cagily has the trial postponed until after the holidays, only to discover that fellow Hoosier Stanwyck will be alone in the city for Christmas. The road trip that follows has its share of screwball antics, but mainly it affords Stanwyck’s character the chance to see that a hardscrabble start in life doesn’t have to dictate one’s fate. Sturges fills the screen with his typically vivid supporting characters – Elizabeth Patterson’s Aunt Emma lives an entire life in a single reaction shot – and wraps up the story with an unsentimental but potent ending.

TCM airs both films every December in the hopes of making them seasonal staples. I’ll certainly watch them again, after my screenings of The Ref and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I still prefer my Christmas movies naughty, not nice.