Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) is a widow, raising her son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) alone. One day, while working as a comparative shopper for a department store, she meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Fate would intervene and their paths continue to cross again and again, much to the chagrin of Connie’s suitor Carl (Wendell Corey). Only fate knows what’s in store for these two mismatched, would-be lovers; so goes the basic gist of this particular romance picture, Holiday Affair (1949).
Holiday Affair is an unsung Christmas classic from Hollywood’s golden age. Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh have a tremendous chemistry that ignites this RKO production, transforming it into something special. Overshadowed by It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and The Shop Around The Corner (1940); Holiday Affair deserves more attention, particularly the brilliant screenplay by Isobel Lennart.
Lennart excels in both the comedic and melodramatic genres. Her work on the Danny Kaye picture Merry Andrew (1958) is as hysterical as it is weird and some of that is on display in Holiday Affair; particularly in the scenes between Mitchum and child actor Gordon Gebert. Lennart’s best scenes though are the ones between Leigh and Mitchum. There’s a wonderful synthesis between manliness and sensitivity that Lennart brings out of Mitchum that is largely unseen in the actor’s earlier films. It makes his character equally charming, interesting and sort of dangerous.
Lennart’s script would be meaningless without the chemistry of these two stars. Things crackle and the pace picks up whenever Leigh and Mitchum share the screen. Leigh really puts her heart into the single mother role and is able to add depth to her character’s backstory without any expository information. Leigh’s character emerges onscreen as an almost real human being and it is spellbinding. It’s hard to believe that Holiday Affair is one of her earlier films.
Holiday Affair, made for a modest budget by director and producer Don Hartman is a classic Woman’s Picture of the era. It grapples with the theme of single parenthood in the wake of WWII melodramatically but with snappy zingers and one-liners as punctuation so that, unlike the post-war epics of David O. Selznick, Holiday Affair has a light touch. In many ways Holiday Affair straddles both the conventions of romantic comedy and melodrama, essentially mixing the two and finding a middle ground.
Despite being a relatively unknown film, Holiday Affair shares a number of similarities with more contemporary romantic comedies and dramas. On the strictly dramatic side one can see that Holiday Affair has a good deal in common with Todd Hayne’s Carol (2015) in terms of narrative structure. Meanwhile, on the side of romantic comedies, Holiday Affair has left viewers a legacy that spans from Serendipity (2001) to Sleepless In Seattle (1993).