Like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, both undeservedly ignored upon their initial releases but going on to become holiday television staples, Holiday Affair was similarly ignored at the box office but hasn’t quite—yet—become a beloved classic of the most wonderful time of the year. TCM has been giving it plenty of support these past few years, but audiences haven’t yet pinned their stockings to it the way they have other Christmas favorites. Which is a shame because in a few ways it’s the best of the bunch.
Starring Robert Mitchum, taking a break from his usual amiable tough-guy roles, Holiday Affair stars with a fateful meeting between a department store clerk and a “secret shopper” (eleven years away from her life-changing shower in Psycho)—more or less a consumer spy for rival department stores, buying merchandise for comparison prices, etc. When Steve catches young miss Connie Ennis in the act, his duty is to the store, to turn her in to the store detective, which would cost her her job. Instead, upon learning that she’s a single mother (thanks to World War II), with a young son to support, Steve turns a blind eye. Which results to him losing his job during the holiday season. And, of course, it also leads to a series of guilt-fueled run-ins on Connie’s part, to make sure that his act of kindness doesn’t go unrewarded. It also leads to a budding romance, which is complicated by her engagement to Carl (professional “also-ran” Wendell Corey who doesn’t have a lot going against him except for the fact that he isn’t Robert Mitchum). In the meantime, Connie’s son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert, turning in a surprisingly non-aggravating child-actor performance, and whose high-pitched voice is actually more endearing than grating), has taken a shine to Steve, connecting to him as a better ersatz father figure than bland-ol’-agreeable Carl. This all culminates in a series of genuinely funny and touching scenes that encompass everything good and magical about the holidays—stuff we’ve seen countless times over the years but seeming more sincere here. Holiday Affair, in truth, is utterly without irony, which is the most refreshing thing about it.
There are dozens of wonderful touches throughout—Steve spends his lunch hour in the Central Park Zoo feeding the sea lions and tending to “an orphan squirrel”; another visitor to the zoo is a little girl on roller skates who has a balloon tied to the top of her wool cap; Harry Morgan plays a befuddled policeman—and the relationships come off as realistic and caring. Steve doesn’t mean to come between Connie and Carl, but it happens. Timmy doesn’t mean to jeopardize his mother’s job, but it happens. Connie isn’t playing hard to get with either Steve or Carl, but is honestly conflicted about her feelings for both—all stemming from her lingering grief over the loss of her soldier husband. In fact, the resolutions of all these plot lines is handled not only with dignity for all involved (not to mention, in some cases, hilarity), but maturity. Carl is not an unctuous villain out to suppress Connie and Timmy but really does care for them—which seems like an almost foreign ideal compared to the “other man” character in modern romantic comedies—and it’s almost a shock to find yourself taking his side during several scenes!
But in the end, the show belongs to Mitchum. His charisma carries out but he does his generous best to allow Leigh and Gebert their side of the screen as well. Nothing about Holiday Affair feels forced or saccharine or cloying. It’s “sweet” in the best sense of the word, but it never hurts your teeth. Unlike, say, the Richard Attenborough version of Miracle on 34th Street, you won’t be reaching for a dose of insulin by the time the credits roll.
The real surprise is how little regard it was given in 1949, although perhaps RKO’s marketing of it as they did—with a mis-leading poster depicting it as another Mitchum noir—might have had something to do with its initial failure. The disrespect followed it for more than fifty years, as Holiday Affair was long unavailable for viewing save for its annual TCM screening and a blurry VHS. These days, largely thanks to TCM, a DVD can be had with its glorious black and white image restored. This writer would recommend picking it up and pairing it with Barbara Robinson’s 1972 novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to start a new family tradition.