Families are complicated things and there is an Oedipal undercurrent throughout portions of Holiday Affair. Connie prefers her son to speak to her as though he were her deceased husband. They use the verbal figurations of husband and wife. It’s a game, but it lingers on, past its shelf-life of cuteness, indicative of larger issues, a blocked pathway on life’s journey.
Connie is also engaged—putatively—to Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), who is more of a calming, avuncular presence than an actual suitor. He is holding a place in this woman’s life, his tailored role being that of friend, but his heart leads him to a spot where Connie’s does not take her. She’s also clinging to a past, wishing to move forward without having to do the leg work of ambulating again, which makes Carl a welcome construct rather than man; he is a fence against which to lean. He’s being used, but he knows this, remaining aspirational that his utility might, with the right amount of time and better timing, blossom into love. If only that were how loved worked, though both he and Steve Mason, his would-be rival, are equally aware that that’s a souped-up dream a long way from the glade of love’s truths.
Corey played Jimmy Stewart’s buddy cop in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. His presence in films is often calming, if we discount the likes of 1955’s The Killer is Loose, though in that picture, let it be said, that Corey is a calm killer. He was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at only fifty-four, and each year when I view Holiday Affair, I wonder what he made of the subject matter.
We up our alcohol consumption at Christmastime, telling ourselves that it’s appropriate that we cut loose, it’s been another long year, now we deserve to make merry, but as with Tiny Tim, we often need our crutch. Crutches. More so, I think, in our current age, because gloom at the holidays will just not do. We must put on the happy face, we must have something to share on social media.
Mason spends time with these people, including Carl Davis. There will be a mix-up that employs a premise that could be shoehorned into a screwball comedy, but with somber shading. In other words, one that employs the seemingly free-for-all, mechanics of entropy—or of the arbitrary nature of the universe—but with cold water splash to the back of the neck, rather than a tickle of the ribs.
Not that it’s super serious—but the jokes are bittersweet, the root remaining earthen, aromatic, half in, half out, something one consumes in the field, not at table. Screwball comedies were anarchic. Maybe more so than the movies of the Marx Brothers, the ultimate retinue of anarchists, which is saying something. Mitchum’s Mason has no problem sharing his feelings, despite the embarrassment this causes him—or, rather, what many of us would view as embarrassing. He takes risks. Emotional risks. As you watch the film, you realize that, yes, he’s taking them for himself, in part, because he is falling for this woman, but he’s also taking them on her behalf, with the knowledge that given where she is in life, she’s likely going to marry Carl and he will drift on, making his way to the West Coast. She needs a jarring.
Fitzgerald, in The Crack-Up essays, wrote about the blows that jar our insides such that we are never the same again. Connie Ennis has had her share of those already. We know what they are. We assume that Steve Mason has had his as well, though his past is murkier. But a man who risks like we see him risk, surely did not adopt that approach on a whim because it was Christmas, la de festive da. You live by the sword, you die by the sword, and he’s a sword guy, a Christmas sword dance guy.
You can also come back to life via the sword. The ghosts of old screwball comedies have their climax—think of it like Jacob Marley triggering those bells in Scrooge’s rooms—in a courtroom scene, where a young Harry Morgan presides as judge. He’s the perfect straight man here—his M.A.S.H. persona on display a quarter century before the fact. Mitchum was always adroit at humor, though no one ever says this, because he didn’t make comedies. If you’ve seen Out of the Past and I reference it to you now as a way of commending Mitchum’s way with a joke, you’re not going to think there’s any way that Mitchum is funny in it, because it’s white-knuckle noir; if noir has a darkest shade of black, let’s call that hue Out of the Past.
But next time you watch it, note how many times Mitchum pulls a laugh from you with his timing, the cadences of his voice, while you scarcely realize you’re laughing—even as you do it—because laughter is not foregrounded in the picture.
We laugh in hospitals during times of great stress and loss, but we rarely remember that later, because, again, that is not the foreground focus. Mitchum is what I think of as a life actor. By which I mean, life is never all serious, nor is it all funny. It is a multiplicity in every moment. M.A.S.H. understood this, which is why the show connected with people—still connects. Mitchum is as flat out screwed as you can be in Out of the Past, but the human condition is never, potentially, so screwed, at the level of a strong individual, that some humor cannot be emitted and emoted.
These chops served him well in Holiday Affair. You don’t want the likes of Mitchum doing gushy jokes, you also don’t want “dramedy” treacle. This isn’t punchline humor. It’s a humor of directional flow, arising from context, with angling turns. Three very serious things, for instance, might be said in succession, the third expressed in a way that suggests a jocular remark to the other person. They make the remark. They didn’t enter a situation aiming to be funny. The opportunity came to them, they took it. They angled the flow. New direction now. Mitchum’s a master at that form of humor. So was Lear’s Fool. Different intentions, but both posses the ability to facilitate geometric comedy, the humor of directional progression and redirection. That’s the difference between life humor and gag humor. That’s why life humor lasts, and gag humor is relegated to old broadcasts of Saturday Night Live, better left back in their crates.