Although this film has been in my collection for several years, this is the first time we have seen the film. Based on the dark synopses that I had seen, I had hesitated to put the film in the Christmas rotation but still had hopes because of the leading cast members, so when some spots opened up because of the early Thanksgiving start to our holiday we finally watched this film by Edwin Marin, who also directed the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, which we will be seeing later in the rotation.
Unfortunately, Christmas Eve was not worth the wait, and it won’t stay on the watch list in future years. There are many weaknesses in the film, primarily in the script, the direction and the portrayal of the key characters. The lead actors — George Raft, George Brent and Randolph Scott — all come across as caricatures of roles that had previously brought them fame but that are only rough outlines in this film. Raft is a gangster with a few hints of Bogart from Casablanca. Brent is a sophisticated ladies’ man, and Scott is a slow-talking cowboy. There are appearances from well-known character actors, but these are not only fleeting and wasted but interesting only in contrast to their more effective use in better scripts shot by better directors.
Aunt Matilda’s nephew, Phillip, has enlisted a judge to declare his rich relative incompetent and give him control of her estate. The eccentric old woman, who lives in a Fifth Avenue mansion, declares that she wants one of her three adopted sons to take control of her substantial funds, even though she has not seen them for years. The judge agrees to wait until Christmas Eve, when Aunt Matilda is sure that her sons will return to aid her. We meet the first son, Michael, who has been writing bad checks and is planning to marry a wealthy woman he does not love to recoup his losses. The nephew blackmails him to stay away from New York. The second son, Mario, runs a club in South America, having fled the United States because of a vague crime for which an FBI agent is pursuing him. Mario’s girl friend has absconded with funds from an escaped Nazi war criminal, who abducts and tortures Mario to find the funds. Attempting to escape, Mario kills the Nazi but not before the Nazi kills the girl friend. It seems certain Mario, on the lam from Nazis and the FBI, will never make it back to Aunt Matilda. With the aid of a detective, Matilda has located the third son, Jonathan, who rides in a rodeo. He returns to New York, but on the way to his aunt’s he is picked up by a strange woman investigating a baby selling racket who wants Jonathan to pretend to be her husband. Attacked by the baby racketeers, Jonathan escapes with three baby girls and takes them to Aunt Matilda’s mansion, where the nephew and the judge have been waiting. Then unexpectedly Michael and Mario also arrive. Phillip is revealed as a crook, and we learn that Matilda, far from being a doddering old woman, has known all along about the weaknesses of her adopted sons and the fraud of her nephew. All ends well, however, as the sons and their new fiancés join Aunt Matilda for a Christmas Eve dinner.
The film concludes on Christmas Eve, with snow-covered New York streets and a lavishly decorated tree and a sumptuous feast in Aunt Matilda’s mansion.
Ann Harding, who plays Aunt Matilda, appeared as the estranged wife, Mary O’Connor, in yesterday’s film It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Both films were made in the same year. In Fifth Avenue, she plays a middle-aged woman trying to look young, and in Christmas Eve the 45-year-old actress plays an aged woman. In the 1930s, she appeared in early film versions of two Philip Barry plays — Holiday (1930) and The Animal Kingdom (1932) — as well as an early version of Enchanted April (1935). She had dozens of character roles on TV during the 1950s.
J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays a policeman, will be the link to tomorrow’s film, Preston Sturges’s The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1943).
Joan Blondell, who plays the girl friend of George Brent, appeared in well over 100 films, starting with a mix of Warner Brothers gangster films (The Public Enemy) and musicals (Footlight Parade) and ending her career with classics such as Grease (1978).
Dolores Moran, who plays the baby investigator, appeared as the exotic French wife in To Have and Have Not (1944). She had a scandalous reputation in Hollywood and was the wife of Christmas Eve‘s producer, Benedict Bogeaus.
Reginald Denny, who plays the nephew, Phillip, appeared as Frank Crawley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and as Simms the architect in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Douglass Dumbrille, who plays Dr. Bunyan the baby seller, had similar villainous roles in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and A Day at the Races (1937).
Clarence Kolb, who plays Judge Alston, played the corrupt mayor in His Girl Friday (1940), Cornelius Vanderbilt in The Toast of the Town (1937) and a doddering party guest in After the Thin Man (1936).
Molly Lamont, who plays Michael’s brief rich fiancé, plays as a similar role as Barbara Vance in The Awful Truth (1937).
John Litel, who plays the FBI agent, will appear in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). He had a continuing role as the governor in the Zorro TV series (1958-59).
Joe Sawyer, who plays Aunt Matilda’s private detective, appeared in over 200 films and TV shows. Among the classics on his film roster are Sergeant York (1941), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Petrified Forest (1936).
Randolph Scott appeared with Fred Astaire in two RKO musicals: Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936).
Clarence Kolb appeared in two Astaire films: The Sky’s the Limit (1943) and Carefree (1938).
John Litel appeared on a benefit bill with Fred and Adele Astaire for the Actors Equity Association on May 9, 1920.
Douglas Dumbrille appeared with Astaire at the Lambs Gambol on April 27, 1930, at the Metropolitan Opera House.
While George Raft never performed with Astaire, Fred knew him in the 1920s during their days in Manhattan. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire remembers Raft as “the neatest, fastest Charleston dancer ever …. He practically floored me with his footwork” in appearances at Texas Guinan’s nightclub during Prohibition.
LOVE SORTA LIKE THIS MOVIE
Christmas Eve shows by contrast with other films on our list how important a solid script, quality direction and good acting are to creating an engaging film. While the idea behind this movie is in some ways stronger (and less sappy) than films such as It Happened on Fifth Avenue, the confused story-line, the caricatured roles and the weak staging of scenes such as the engine room fight with George Raft turn what could be an interesting idea into a weakly realized film. I am willing to suspend my disbelief in a character’s irrational choices when the story and the character pull me in, but not when the story is confused and the characters are weakly drawn.
My favorite part of the whole movie was recognizing the voice of Robert Dudley, who plays one of Aunt Matilda’s staff, as the actor who plays the delicious role of the Wienie King in Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942). We will see (and hear) Dudley tomorrow in The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek and later this month in Lady on a Train.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies has not scheduled Christmas Eve for this season. It is available on DVD for $14.95. Don’t waste your money.