One of those WTF Hollywood rarities – a Yuletide movie frothing with film noir elements – 1947’s CHRISTMAS EVE finally comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the malevolent elves at Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment.
Imagine Frank Capra directing a Raymond Chandler or Cornell Woolrich holiday tale and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. Matilda Reid (aka Aunt Matilda, aka Ann Harding) was one of the great beauties of 1890s New York. Her looks paled next to her smarts and she amassed millions in investments. The investments, however, paled next to her eccentricities, which include a dinner table surrounded by electric trains to shuttle condiments to her guests, and shoveling bird seed on her floor each morning before opening the doors and French windows to let Manhattan fowl feast in style. But there’s also Manhattan foul, particularly her sleazy, oily relative Phillip Hastings (Reginald Denny), who, armed with a judge (Clarence Kolb) and shrink (Carl Harbord), is determined to commit the now-aged woman to an insane asylum and reap her fortune.
But Matty has an ace card, or so she thinks. Decades earlier, she adopted three infant orphans and raised them as her sons. The lady has high hopes that these grownup versions will come to her aid. Alas, it looks like the ace card is a joker. In triplicate. The lads are bad boys. And there is the rub.
Michael Brooks, an over-the-hill playboy/fake entrepreneur (with enough bags under his eyes to open a Samsonite outlet), is plotting to marry into dough to alleviate 75K in bad checks. Ann Nelson, his snarky ex (and still occasional squeeze), whom he passes off as his sister, has other ideas. That this pair is enacted by George Brent and Joan Blondell ignites a cinematic spark that recalls the best of their pre-Code Warners days. Can the pair’s verbal battles and schemes to bilk the 400 bend to the do-the-right-thing sector? They might, due to Michael’s learning of his mom’s plight. Well, maybe.
Son # 2, Mario Torio (George Raft) has escaped a criminal rap in the States, and now resides in South America, where he runs a high-roller casino/nightclub. His main source of romance is Jean (Dolores Moran, coincidentally, wife of the pic’s producer Benedict Bogeaus), who, unbeknownst to Torio, is the puppet of an ex-Nazi (Konstantin Shayne), now a war criminal hiding out below the border after taking a powder prior to the Nuremburg trials.
Son # 3, Johnny (Randolph Scott, in his last non-oater before enforcing his “westerns only” policy) is an alcoholic, womanizing rodeo rider, down on his luck, who, upon hearing of Matilda’s problems, figures it’s a good way to maybe score some moolah. He returns to New York, and immediately hooks up with a femme fatale (Virginia Field) involved in a loathsome baby racketeering crime ring.
It’s that kind of a holiday movie. True, any Christmas pic featuring Nazis and a subplot where one of the beauteous heroines gets murdered is tops in my book. And, certainly, in this area, CHRISTMAS EVE doesn’t disappoint. The cast, as assembled by aforementioned indie producer Borgeaus (who released this poison bon-bon through UA), is phenomenal. Aside from the excellent Harding as old Matilda (in actuality, younger than both Raft and Scott, and only two years older than Brent), and the other already listed cast members, the stellar thesps include Douglass Dumbrille, Dennis Hoey, Joe Sawyer, Molly Lamont, John Litel, Walter Sande, Andrew Tombes, Marie (Blossom Rock) Blake, J. Farrell MacDonald and John Indrisano. The script, too, can’t be faulted. It’s a honey, as constructed by Laurence Stallings (What Price Glory?, The Big Parade, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers), who wrote the story, and contributed to the screenplay with Richard H. Landau plus uncredited participation from Arch Oboler and, in one of his first movie gigs, Robert Altman (all obviously saw the previous year’s Gilda and Notorious).
The shimmering monochrome photography is by Gordon Avil. Sadly, this is where the Olive/Paramount Blu-Ray drops the Christmas ball. Although it’s not really their fault. While utilizing the best elements available to create this transfer, the results are less than perfect. Seventy-one years of neglect have taken their toll; while certainly viewable, and with nice contrast, images appear occasionally soft and washed-out. That said, we should be grateful for what we have. It is that time of the year after all. The audio, a bit on the bass side and slightly low, nevertheless does deliver and allows us to savor the score by Heinz Roemheld and much of the snappy noirish dialog (“Raise your hands to the perpendicular,” demands Scott, brandishing a gat).
The biggest letdown is the choice of directors. Edwin L. Marin was a total professional, and his work here is serviceable. Yet, one can only imagine what the results might have been in the hands of a Jacques Tourneur, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann or Joseph H. Lewis. Again, the script and cast are so good they help immensely to smooth over any directorial shortcomings.
Long story short, for those who like their mean streets adorned with mistletoe and bullets, CHRISTMAS EVE is the Blu-Ray gift that keeps on giving.
CHRISTMAS EVE. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1]; 1080p High Definition. 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF1155. SRP: $29.95.