Just before Christmas, department store clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) meets big spending customer Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), whom he unmasks as a commercial spy. When Steve discovers Connie lost her husband in the war, he chooses not to expose her subterfuge, a decision that costs him his job. However, circumstances bring Steve and Connie together on a shopping date, which does not sit well with her would-be fiancé, Carl (Wendell Corey), but delights her little son Timmy (Gordon Gebert), who reckons Steve would make a much better step-dad.
This holiday why not give the oft-screened and overrated White Christmas (1954) a miss and seek out this seasonal romance instead. Its key themes of daring to dream big and giving freely of love and generosity certainly embody the real spirit of Christmas better than any greetings card sentiment. RKO boss and billionaire germ-o-phobe Howard Hughes supposedly shoehorned star Robert Mitchum into this picture to repair his image after being busted for marijuana possession, but the role befits his easygoing charisma. These days a lot of movie fans remember Mitchum as the archetypal doomed film noir antihero or else as the kind of psychotic villain he played in Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962) or A Killer in the Family (1983), overlooking his remarkable range as an actor. Holiday Affair has Mitchum in handsome matinee idol mould but far from sleepwalking through a stock rom-com role, the star latches onto the vibrant script by Isobel Lennart - who penned another superb Mitchum movie: The Sundowners (1960) - to craft a faceted, fascinating romantic lead. Straight-talking, honest, decent Steve Mason is an ex-G.I. who can’t grab a piece of the American Dream until he seizes his chance for happiness with war widow Connie. For Steve, dreaming big is what life is all about, even if it means making your self vulnerable to heartache and disappointment. However, Connie is willing to settle for humdrum reality: a man who is decent enough but whom she does not really love and job buying things she can’t keep but must hand on to a big corporation. In her eyes, people who wish big will only be disappointed - an idea poignantly illustrated when young Timmy sneaks a peak at a toy train, only to realise it is not for him.
Holiday Affair was one of only five movies directed by Don Hartman, a multitalented producer, actor, author and songwriter on Broadway, film and radio. Hartman penned several films in the Road series starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope including the zaniest instalment Road to Morocco (1942), but instead of their flights of fancy the humour here stems from well-observed, real-life situations such as the awkward conversations between love rivals Steve and Carl. Isobel Lennart defies rom-com convention by painting Carl not as an unworthy opportunist but a stand-up guy. He nobly defends Steve against the police when his altruistic impulses unexpectedly backfire in amusing case of mistaken identity involving future Dragnet and M*A*S*H star Harry Morgan as a befuddled desk sergeant.
Besides Hartman’s deft direction and Lennart’s vibrant script, the film’s greatest strength are its charmingly natural performances. Mitchum and the radiant Janet Leigh (at her loveliest) share terrific chemistry both together and opposite young Gordon Gebert, bringing sparkle and sincerity to what in lesser hands might come across as saccharine schmaltz. It is a film that believes wholeheartedly in the essential decency of human beings and features a wordless climax set aboard a speeding train that deserves to be remembered as a classic. Mitchum reprised his role in a sixty minute radio version broadcast at part of the Lux Radio Theatre and the film was remade for television in 1996.