A dark “Christmas Holiday” on radio

poster-ChristmasHoliday

Despite the title, “Christmas Holiday” is no Santa-and-sleighbells yule feature, but a “film noir” drama with a newspaper reporter as a pivotal character: He starts out on the shady side, does a couple of favors for the lead characters, and gets almost-heroic when facing a gunman.

Of the many ways journalists are used in radio dramas, this reporter isn’t the star and doesn’t tell the story. Instead, he’s an outsider, a catalyst who moves things along in key scenes at the beginning, middle and end. That’s an almost realistic job description.

The story is about a soldier on leave, stuck in New Orleans for a day, a girl with a troubled past, and her husband — the source of the trouble. The movie version is memorable for casting two of the three leads “against type”: Gene Kelly, without dancing a step or singing a note, played a convicted-murderer; former teenage sweetheart Deanna Durbin, as his wife, filled a much darker role than usual, although she still got to sing a bit. The third star was the lesser-known Dean Harens, as the just-commissioned Army lieutenant.

In the story’s 1944 movie incarnation, reporter Simon Fenimore was played by Richard Whorf, just before adding directing and producing to his resume. He directed 10 films and episodes of 33 television series, but made only a half dozen more appearances as an actor after “Christmas Holiday.”

Unfortunately, the hour-long radio episode’s version of the role wasn’t big enough for the producers of Lux Radio Theatre’s Christmas Holiday to identify the actor among the cast of its Sept. 17, 1945, broadcast. But more about that later.

Neither Kelly nor Durbin appear in the radio adaptation — although mentions of Durbin in a soap commercial during the show might make one wonder whether she was originally expected to be part of the cast. Harens was also absent.

Lux gave the three starring roles to Loretta Young, William Holden (as the lieutenant) and David Bruce as the at-first-charming murderer. While not as big a star as Young or Holden, Bruce is the only member of the original film cast heard in the radio version — he had a brief part in the movie’s opening scene, as one of the lieutenant’s Army buddies.

As the story unfolds, the young officers have just been commissioned and are on leave — when the lieutenant gets a “Dear John” letter from the woman he was headed to San Francisco to marry. He still boards his cross-country flight, apparently intending to confront her, but instead his plane gets stranded in New Orleans in a Christmas Eve storm.

At a hotel there, the cynical reporter is the first person he meets. Newsman Simon Fenimore is disappointed that there were no casualties in the emergency airplane landing. “I was afraid of that,” he says. But “no story” means he can head for the bar, where he winds up drinking enough to be slurring his words before he again runs into the lieutenant, who doesn’t want a drink, but is willing to talk a bit. The reporter orders another double. The unidentified radio actor playing the increasingly intoxicated reporter delivers his inebriated lines well.

This reporter role is obviously a stereotypical one that Hollywood offered for years — a drunk who has connections with some of the shadier people in town. Fenimore even moonlights as, he says, “public relations counsel — press agent” for a “charming little place” that employs a lot of unescorted women in low-cut dresses.

Whorf, Durbin and Kelly, in the gambling-den flashback

“Just a newspaper reporter…” — Whorf, Durbin and Kelly, in the gambling-den flashback (frame capture from film)

A telling detail from a flashback later in the story: When the eventual murderer introduces the reporter to his sweet young fiancee, after taking her to a dive full of gamblers and bookmakers, her response is, “He isn’t really a friend of yours, is he?”

His answer, “Just a newspaper reporter I happen to know.” That’s the kind of impression the reporter makes. But he’s good with words. He excuses himself, saying, “Got a lot of good stories to write. Fire of mysterious origin… bad boy meets good girl… damage estimated at $3,000.”

In the radio version, when the lieutenant observes that the reporter is “pretty tight,” the young woman, who has gotten to know the newsman over the years, replies: “Not for him. He’s been drinking himself into the gutter for a long time. They’re running out of gutters now.”

But alcohol apparently taps the reporter’s Good Samaritan streak. He takes the stranded soldier to see a resourceful businesswoman — a nightclub operator of the Maison la Fête, who might be able to find emergency out-of-town transportation.

“Simon has a heart as big as all outdoors…” the proprietor says. “He likes to help people, if I can do it.”

Even she can’t help with train tickets on Christmas Eve. However the reporter also suggests she introduce the soldier to the nightclub’s star singer. (Of course broadcast-into-the-living-room radio does not characterize the establishment as a brothel or the singer as a “fallen woman.” The motion picture version could at least show women in low-cut dresses waiting for male customers. The original novel, by W. Somerset Maugham, is more specific.)

Just before the good-hearted reporter passes out, he suggests that the lieutenant take the singer to Christmas’s Eve midnight mass at the cathedral. They go, and she dissolves in tears, then tells him her life story. The reporter’s role is all of this has been subtle. The flashbacks only hint that even in his alcoholic haze he has great insight into what both the woman and the young soldier need.

She apparently needs to stop carrying a torch for her bad-boy husband, serving life for murder, and she needs to shed a guilt complex over not managing to reform him in the six whole months they were married. Meanwhile, the angry soldier needs to cancel his plans to fly west and confront his unfaithful fiancee, which might lead to his doing something he will regret.

Like the movie, the radio episode is told mostly in two-year flashbacks. The action takes place in one evening, but we learn about the husband’s domineering mother, the couple’s brief marriage, the gambling habit that led him to murder and robbery. And now his Christmas Eve escape from prison — after which he immediately seeks out his old friend the reporter, then brings him along when he goes off to confront the wife he assumes has been unfaithful. After all, his formerly pure and sweet bride has been working in that “party house” with a French name since he went to jail.

Robert Siodmak directed the 1944 film. Former Chicago Tribune newspaperman Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay; newspaper-film fans don’t need reminding that he was co-author of “Citizen Kane” a few years earlier. Sanford Barnett adapted the story for radio and Fred MacKaye directed the show, according to radio historian J. David Goldin.

On the big screen, “Christmas Holiday” had some cinematic advantages over the radio version, despite Lux Present’s Hollywood’s star-quality cast and high production values. Just seeing how young and innocent Deanna Durbin looks as the “nightclub” singer, despite her shady work situation, helps establish her character. The club’s shadiness is accented by the plunging necklines of women sitting alone until their hostess passes notes directing them to particular male customers — all transactions conducted silently. The combination eventually makes it clear that the young singer has been degrading herself by working in such a place, because of guilt feelings induced by her strange mother-in-law. On radio, dialogue has to tell the same story — and in half the time of a feature film.

The movie is also clearer about the street-wise reporter’s role in the final dramatic scene — a showdown with the escaped murderer-husband.

In the rapid-fire dialogue, punctuated by gunshots, radio listeners might think it’s the soldier who saves the day. But it’s the tough-guy (and finally sober) reporter — who tells the gunman, “You’re not going to kill anybody here… You’re not going to shoot me because you’ll have to wait until I turn my back on you, and I’m not going to turn my back on you, see….”

In the film, he also talks the gunman into a visible position, and gives the nod to a uniformed policeman outside the window.

Neither the film nor the radio script follow Simon back to the newsroom to write-up a story about all of this. The drama isn’t about him — as is usually the case with reporters.

———————————

Who played the reporter?

Old-time-radio collector J. David Goldin lists cast members for the Lux episode, some of whom “doubled” in additional roles, but he does not say which one played the reporter. His RadioGoldIndex.com gives the cast as: Loretta Young, David Bruce, William Holden, Charles Seel, Ed Rand (doubles), Norman Field (doubles), Colleen Collins, Gerald Mohr, Billy Roy, Ed Emerson (doubles), Noreen Gammill, Anne Stone, Devona Doxie and Toby Williams.

Does that mean Charles Seel played the reporter? If someone with an ear for actors’ voices can identify the player, please add a comment here.

Coincidentally, the “coming events” announcement at the end of the program mentions that actress Gail Sondergaard will be among the stars of the next week’s episode. She did not appear in the Lux production of “Christmas Holiday,” but she co-starred as the killer’s manipulative mother in the original film.

Changes in the radio adaptation:
The singer is from Vermont in the movie, but from Maine on the radio.
The soldier’s name is Charles Mason in the novel and movie, but Jerry Mason on the radio. He has a friend named Jerry in the opening scene of the film — played by David Bruce, who shifts to the killer’s role in the radio version.

The (family values) radio version goes to great lengths to emphasize that the lieutenant and the singer do not sleep together. The chivalrous lieutenant fibs to her, saying his plane is leaving, gives her his hotel room, then goes off to sleep “at the athletic club.” (In the movie, it was easier to show their polite separation in a two-room hotel suite, where she could insist on sleeping on the couch, giving him the bedroom all to himself.)

A single tear in the moonlight

The End

The radio version adds an extended scene at the end of the story, replacing some lovely cinematography in the movie. Radio had its great techniques, too, but it just couldn’t shine a light in a starlet’s eyes and have a constellation-filled Christmas night sky break through the storm clouds the way a classic black-and-white Hollywood film could.

Other sources:

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, adaptations, crime, holidays, movies, reporters. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s