Holiday Classics: “Christmas Eve” (1947)

Christmas Eve” isn’t actually as Christmas-y of a movie as its title suggests, the holiday setting more serving as a catalyst to pull a few seemingly disparate stories together and only really becoming apparent in the final scene. The 1947 film, which was also released under the title “Sinner’s Holiday,” from director Edwin L. Marin isn’t bad, per se, but it is somewhat of an oddity. The basic outline for this anthology film involves Phillip Hastings (Reginald Denny), the greedy nephew of an elderly wealthy woman, Matilda Reed (Ann Harding), tries to have her judged incompetent so he can handle her wealth. Matilda is charmingly eccentric—a toy train runs around her dining room table, the cars delivering goods like cream and sugar—but still incredibly sharp. Matilda also has three adopted adult sons who could vouch for her; only problem is, she hasn’t seen any of them in years, and they are all scattered in different parts of the world. She convinces a judge to give them until Christmas Eve to come to her.

The title card for the 1947 film “Christmas Eve”

It’s at this point that the film is divided into three segments, each following what each of the three sons is up to that eventually leads them back to their mother—and they are all wildly different. Michael (George Brent) is a broke playboy who schemes to marry into money, while the woman who really loves him (Ann Nelson, played by Joan Blondell), plots to break them up. Johnny (Randolph Scott) is an alcoholic cowboy who has just arrived in New York when he is sidetracked by Jean (Dolores Moran, who was married to the film’s producer Benedict Bogeaus), an undercover policewoman trying to bust a baby racket at a sketchy orphanage who needs someone—in this case Johnny—to pose as her husband. Mario (George Raft) fled to South America after being arrested in New Orleans, and now runs a gambling club there. But the FBI has tracked him down, and they want him to help wrangle a Nazi war criminal who was once involved with Mario’s current girlfriend Claire (Virginia Field).

Each segment is so different—the one involving Michael leaning into screwball romantic comedy, the one with Johnny combining adventure and comedy, and the one with Mario taking on straight up noir—that there’s really no consistent tone to unify them. The three main actors only appear together in the movie’s Christmas-set finale. The movie as a whole, as a result, is a bit of a mess, but each individual story has enough charm to entertain. Blondell, a staple of pre-code comedies whose career was winding down, brings a ton of energy to every scene she’s in. Scott, in his last non-western role, pokes fun at the stoic cowboy persona with his confused antics and laconic drawl. Raft’s segment is the weakest, in large part because it feels the most complicated and out of place, but he’s certainly in his element; the actor had been regularly playing gangsters and noir anti-heroes since his star-making supporting turn in the 1932 crime picture “Scarface.”

Dolores Moran and Randolph Scott masquerade as a couple in “Christmas Eve”

The casting of “Christmas Eve” on the whole is interesting. Harding, who plays an elderly women under pounds of makeup, was only 45 at the time, around the same age or even younger than the men playing her adopted sons. Many of the actors, like Brent and Blondell, were once big names who were aging out of leading man and lady roles. But the film’s most interesting credit actually remained uncredited. Robert Altman, the acclaimed director of such films as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), “The Long Goodbye” (1973), and Nashville (1975), got his start as a screenwriter. His first credit was on the 1948 crime drama “Bodyguard,” but “Christmas Eve” was the actual first movie he worked on, although Laurence Stallings received the sole writing credit. While many of those who worked on “Christmas Eve,” including director Marin (who had worked with Raft on previous noir movies like “Nocturne” and “Johnny Angel,” and who notably helmed a better-known holiday classic, the 1938 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”), were slowing down their careers, Altman was just getting started.

Runtime: 93 minutes.

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