vt Sinner’s Holiday
US / 93 minutes / bw / Miracle, UA Dir: Edwin L. Marin Pr: Benedict Bogeaus Scr: Laurence Stallings Story: Laurence Stallings, Richard H. Landau Cine: Gordon Avil Cast: George Raft, George Brent, Randolph Scott, Joan Blondell, Virginia Field, Dolores Moran, Ann Harding, Reginald Denny, Dennis Hoey, Clarence Kolb, Joe Sawyer, John Litel, Konstantin Shayne, Douglass Dumbrille, Carl Harbord, Molly Lamont, Walter Sande, Claire Whitney.
Eccentric elderly NYC spinster Matilda Reed (Harding) has permitted some of her estate to be managed by her nephew Philip Hastings (Denny) but has kept control of the main part. Now, horrified by the amounts she’s been giving to charities, Philip has enlisted the aid of Judge Alston (Kolb) in trying to get her declared unfit to handle her own affairs, so that he might take over the entirety of the estate. And indeed, visiting the old woman with psychiatrist Doremus (Harbord) as ballast, the judge has to admit that “Aunt Matilda”—as she’s universally known—is certainly quite dotty: she attracts pigeons into her dining room to feed them, and uses a sophisticated electric train set to serve meals at the dining table.
Aunt Matilda naturally resents the encroachment, and declares that she’d rather her estate were handled by any one of her three adopted sons—all of whom flew the roost to make their own ways in the world but told her that, if ever she needed them, they’d be there for her. Philip, who knows more about the sons than Aunt Matilda thinks, scoffs at the idea. But the judge agrees that, if she can produce all three sons at the house on Christmas Eve, he’ll believe her claims of mental competency.
In turn we see three episodes about the sons, interspersed with scenes of Aunt Matilda, her redoubtable butler Williams (Hoey), and the gumshoe she hires to assist her search, Gimlet (Sawyer).
The first son up is playboy Michael Brooke (Brent), who’s seeking to solve the problem of his mounting debts by marrying heiress Harriet Rhodes (Lamont). The problem is that Harriet is one of the causes of those mounting debts: he’s been passing off rubber checks all over town to the tune of $75,000 in order to woo her with jewels and raiment. The other problem is that lovely salt-of-the-earth broad Ann Nelson (Blondell) loves him and wants him, and if truth be told he wants her too. Philip finds him and tells him he’s taken care of the checks, but asks in return that he steer clear of Aunt Matilda, who’d be agonized if she discovered how low her beloved son has sunk. When Michael extorts a further $10,000 from Philip and cheerfully announces to Ann they should use the money to live it up, she declares he’s a skunk for abandoning his adoptive mother in her time of need—by now the papers are full of the story of Philip’s and the judge’s intentions to have Aunt Matilda committed.
Mario (George Raft) and his sweetheart Claire (Virginia Field).
It’s in the episode about the next son, Mario (Raft), that the movie’s noirish interest lies. (Mario is universally identified in sources as Mario Torio, but, in the brief instance when we see a newspaper headline with his surname, it doesn’t look like “Torio”—more like “Violin”!) Ever since he went on the lam from the US over a crooked business deal, Mario has been living in South America, where he runs a by-now highly successful gambling joint, Yank’s Club, and is involved with the beautiful and rich Claire (Field). One night an FBI agent, Joe Bland (Litel), calls by the club, explains to Mario he doesn’t much care about his past, and asks his help in capturing one Gustav Reichman (Shayne), a Nazi war criminal condemned to death in absentia at Nuremberg and now believed to be hiding out in South America with $10 million in Nazi loot. Mario doesn’t know what Bland is talking about; Claire, overhearing, very obviously does—and, as we eventually discover, was once the Nazi’s lover. Just as our opinion of her is plummeting, though, we discover she really is the good egg she appears to be. This strand incorporates an exciting shootout and fight in the engine room of the sadistic Reichman’s yacht.
The shootout in the engine room (George Raft).
The third son, Jonathan (Scott), has become a rodeo rider with a profound drink problem. On hearing from Gimlet that Aunt Matilda needs him, though, he comes dutifully running. Met at Grand Central by Williams, he promptly drags the stately butler into a bar . . . where Jonathan, barely able to believe his luck, is picked up the very lovely Jean Bradford (Moran). Her aims aren’t amorous, however: an officer of the Welfare Association, she dupes him into posing as her husband in order to bring to book the principals of an illegal baby-farming operation, Dr. Bunyan (Dumbrille) and his wife (Whitney). By the time Jonathan reaches Aunt Matilda’s home he’s acquired three infant “daughters” . . . and, very soon after, he acquires a fiancée, Jean.
Jonathan’s the first son to reach home, just as the judge is declaring his intention to leave. The judge is doing the same again when Michael arrives with Ann on his arm; to Aunt Matilda’s glowing approval, he’s decided to bow to the inevitable and marry the woman he loves. As Mario arrives he’s met on the doorstep by Agent Bland; the latter exacts a promise that Mario will give himself up at the end of the evening, and in the interim pretends Mario is an esteemed FBI colleague who just has to make an urgent dash to Washington later.
But then things start unraveling for Philip. Michael spent that $10,000 not on partying but on proving that a couple of the big enterprises Philip supposedly bought for Aunt Matilda don’t in fact exist. Mario leads Philip to another room and suggests he get out of town fast before Mario reveals the truth about the dirty deal for which Mario was framed years ago: it was really Philip’s deal, and an unwitting Mario took the rap for him. Jonathan . . . well, you wouldn’t trust him to stay in the saddle even after marriage to Jean, but it’s obvious his heart’s in the right place.
The judge, seeming to believe that Mario’s an FBI agent, Michael’s a successful businessman and Jonathan has been lucky enough to find a rich vein of gold under his ranch, takes his leave, as does Agent Bland. It’s then that Aunt Matilda spells it out to her boys that she can see through their pretensions and knows all their failings—but loves them anyway.
This is not a movie that’s susceptible to sober analysis. Two of the three episodic strands are comedies, the one involving Michael being a rather slight sitcom (although a very funny blonde-bombshell turn from Blondell makes it work) and the one involving Jonathan being quite a lot cleverer, scripter Stallings clearly having a lot of fun filling Jonathan’s dialogue with as much cheesy cowpoke imagery as possible. The central episode, the one involving Mario, is more weighty: the scene in which Reichman beats up a pinioned Mario is certainly not played for laughs, and the subsequent tragedy is as certainly poignant. Raft’s at the top of his game here; it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret that he couldn’t have tried equally hard in some of his more prominent roles.
Mario (George Raft) under torment by Gustav Reichman.
Harding, who plays the doddering Aunt Matilda to a T (except perhaps for the old-lady walk, which leans toward caricature), was actually just in her mid-30s when she played the role: her “sons” were all in their mid- to late 40s!
Pleasingly amiable and with a topnotch performance from Harding, Christmas Eve has become surprisingly obscure when you bear in mind the caliber of its cast. Although you can occasionally catch it on TV and there was a VHS release (see below), it’s to be hoped a properly restored DVD release will be available soon.
On Amazon.com: Christmas Eve VHS