After we first saw this film about five years ago, it has become one of the favorites on our Christmas watch list, and even though it is a quintessential holiday movie with department store toylands, gifts, trees, dinners and snow, it is much more than simply a feel-good film. The script is tightly constructed, the characters quickly and precisely drawn, and the themes substantial. While it has moments of sentimentality (what Christmas movie doesn’t?), it is not a piece of romantic fluff. There are some serious things here: a war widow’s economic struggle to raise her son alone, her tendency to become enmeshed with the child, the difficulties of finding fulfilling romantic relationships without settling for simple safety and security, and the risky nature of true love. Robert Mitchum, who is not known for his romantic roles, does a lovely job here, and the perky young Janet Leigh also does a fine job. If you know her only from her cynical, short-lived role in Psycho, you’re in for a surprise with this film. Wendell Corey, the third lead, has some of the best dialogue in the picture and carries off his role as the long-deferred suitor quite well. And, of course, there are some wonderful character actors with some nice surprises.
War widow Connie Ennis works as a comparison shopper for a department store and purchases a train from toy salesman Steve Mason a few days before Christmas. She takes the train home, where her son, Timmy, sneaks a peak and thinks it is his Christmas gift. Connie has been dating a lawyer, Carl Davis, for two years and keeps putting off his proposal of marriage. When Connie returns the train for a refund, Steve recognizes her as a comparison shopper, who should be identified, in effect ending Connie’s job. When he decides not to turn her in, Steve is fired and they spend the afternoon together. Both are clearly attracted to each other. Steve returns to the apartment with Connie, where he encounters Carl and also meets Timmy and learns about his disappointment in not getting the train. Even though he is short of money, Steve buys the train for Timmy and leaves it at the door on Christmas morning. Connie tracks Steve down in Central Park and tries to pay him back, but he refuses. Steve is invited to Christmas dinner, where he embarrasses everyone by proposing to Connie, who has finally accepted Carl’s proposal. Carl eventually realizes that Connie is in love with Steve and breaks off the engagement. Steve decides to head to California for a risky dream job, and Connie plans to stay in New York with Timmy, until she realizes that she indeed loves Steve and rushes off with Timmy on New Year’s Eve to join Steve on the adventure in California.
The story begins a few days before Christmas, continues through Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. There are intimate scenes of decorating the tree, crowded scenes of Christmas shopping, and a warm Christmas dinner. The silent New Year’s Eve party scene on the train is beautifully shot and symmetrically ends the picture the way it began.
Esther Dale (Mrs. Ennis) had roles in many different movies. Her best films include two top-notch screwball comedies: The Awful Truth (1936) and Easy Living (1937). She also appeared in Curly Top (1935) with Shirley Temple and Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. She appeared with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in The Egg and I (1947) and continued her role through the silly Ma and Pa Kettle sequels.
Henry O’Neill (Mr. Crowley) had a long career, including roles with William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), with Jimmy Cagney in Lady Killer (1933) and with Cary Grant as a client in the Plaza bar in North by Northwest (1959).
Harry Morgan is hilarious in this film as a befuddled police lieutenant. Though his best known roles were on TV in Dragnet (1967-70) and M*A*S*H, he had a long and varied film career with roles in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), High Noon (1952), Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954).
Larry Blake (plain clothesman) appeared in such films as Sunset Boulevard (1950), High Noon (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
Frank Mills (bum in the park) was seen previously as the bartender on Christmas Eve in Cary Grant’s In Name Only. Check the blog post for that film to learn about his connections with Fred Astaire.
William J. O’Brien (peanut vendor) has been seen previously in Good Sam (1948), where he played an usher. He appeared with the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935),
Bert Stevens (Henry) has been seen in several films on our Christmas watch list: Meet John Doe (1941), Christmas Eve (1947) and It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947). His other notable films include some of the best screwball comedies: You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Midnight (1939), The Lady Eve (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), I Married a Witch (1942) and Monsier Verdoux (1947). He also appeared in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959),
Bert Stevens appeared in three films with Fred Astaire Three Little Words (1950), Let’s Dance (1950), Royal Wedding (1951)
William J. O’Brien appeared with Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937) and as one of the bartenders in the spectacular “One for My Baby” dance in The Sky’s the Limit (1943).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
It’s a lovely story, well acted and beautifully shot. We are suckers for any Christmas movie set in New York, and since we are train lovers as well, beginning and ending the story with trains (both toy and real) cements the deal for us.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies runs the film several times every December.