Don Hartman’s 1949 film, “Holiday Affair,” has many elements of a great romantic comedy. A young widow, Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), is struggling to make ends meet so that she can give her little boy, Timmy, a nice and memorable Christmas. She works as a comparison shopper, and ‘tis the season for shopping! Everyone wants the latest and greatest, and the streets of New York are bustling (more than usual) with shoppers.
Connie’s husband and Timmy’s father died in the war, and now, they find themselves in an uneasy world. Connie treats 6-year-old Timmy as the “man of the house,” and calls him “Mr. Ennis.” It’s a joke between the mother and son, but, just like with any joke, there is a grain of truth in it. There is a place in Connie’s heart that will forever remain vacant because of the wounds of war.
One man in her life, Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), has been courting her. He is a lawyer, a man who can offer her stability and security. Carl is deeply respectful of Connie’s past and is more than aware that he could never replace Timmy’s father. Still, even someone as sturdy as Carl is beginning to get impatient with Connie’s indecision about whether or not she will marry him.
Things get quite complicated when Connie meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Steve is a war veteran, and like most men of that age, he is trying to find his way in the postwar world. He works at a department store and catches Connie in the act of comparison shopping for a rival department store. Instead of reporting her to the authorities, Steve decides to let her go, refunding her money for a toy train, but there are dire consequences for Steve: He gets fired.
The toy train is an object that keeps bringing Connie and Steve together. Timmy thinks that the train is for him, not realizing that it must go back to the store. In order to make Timmy feel better, Steve spends the last of his money to buy Timmy the very same train. As one can imagine, Carl is not naïve. He is right to assume that Steve is interested in Connie, and that he is perhaps using Timmy’s Christmas wishes in order to woo Connie.
Carl is partially correct. Steve’s intentions are honorable, but he has no problem coming between Connie and Carl. He treats it as a masculine right to fight for a woman. Carl is a level-headed and logical man, free of the passions that Steve appears to embody. He understands he has no future with Connie if she’s not actually in love with him.
Janet Leigh’s Connie is a woman who wants to be a good mother first and foremost but is stuck in the past. Sadness overwhelms her, but she keeps it on the surface. As soon as emotions begin to bubble up, Connie swiftly turns away from the difficulties. She feels a sense of duty, both to her dead husband and Carl. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and hers wants Steve.
As much as he clearly wants to marry Connie, and despite the fact that he is a bit of a daydreamer who wishes to move to California and build boats, Steve is still in possession of his wits and approaches the situation with logical coolness. He doesn’t want to be with Connie if she’s going to continue holding on to the past.
“Holiday Affair” is a delightful film, and one could see that many contemporary romantic comedies are based on a similar premise. But there is a huge and very important difference here: American films from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s had a level of realism that is completely alien to our society today. Perhaps this alienation in cinema began in the late 1960s when much of a counterculture began, and when the inward turn to psychoanalysis began to produce people concerned wholly with themselves.
True, the golden age of Hollywood brought glamor that suffered from its inability to deal with reality. Perfect aesthetic looks were prized more than anything, yet even despite this, we see threads of reality in the films from the time. Films are populated with people who speak frankly about their existential conditions, and who don’t mince words about the relationship between freedom and responsibility. In other words, they are unexpectedly not repressed. World War II is a darkness that is always present, yet the characters are trying to live the best life they possibly can in spite of it or, possibly, because of it. After all, they had already seen the consequences of rejecting freedom and responsibility. I would imagine that many people saw themselves in such films, even if, given Hollywood’s propensities, things were often embellished.
In “Holiday Affair,” we witness Mitchum’s Steve Mason speaking frankly with everyone. As Lee Server writes in Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care,” there’s plenty of “schmaltz” in the film, and “although he would not be beaten, pull a gun, or ride into the sunset, the character of Steve Mason was still a recognizable Mitchum archetype, footloose, antiestablishment, an outsider.” Only Mitchum could bring that masculine cool into a film that is essentially a romantic comedy.
Mitchum’s presence is what continues to resonate throughout the film, and here, he is a war veteran who is not willing to give up on living a full life. But the war changed him: he can’t go on living aimlessly in a society that insists on focusing on what he deems superficial concerns. Whether his dream of building boats in California will materialize is uncertain but Mitchum’s Steve is not a man who would abandon Connie or Timmy. In the end, he does care, and Mitchum’s intense presence yet again defines a unique American masculinity.