The Archivist #129: Warner for the Holidays [HOLIDAY AFFAIR & IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE]

Spending this unconventional Christmas with a pair of equally offbeat holiday tales new to blu-ray from Warner Archive.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Christmas 2020 looks heaps different than most of the ones that have come before, both good and bad. Currently, society is being plagued by recession, unrest, division and an actual plague in the form of Covid-19, making it harder and harder to cling to the lives we’ve carefully cultivated for ourselves. Still, the holiday season is going to happen regardless of what the state of things may be. While the amount of Christmas cheer is noticeably (and understandably) lower than normal, there’s still some to be found, even if only in the form of escape through the movies.

Our good friends at Warner Archive know this to be the case and have brought two classic Christmas films to blu-ray for the first time in celebration of the season. While both 1947’s It Happened on 5th Avenue and 1949’s Holiday Affair are chock full of the kind of winning sentimentality that accompanies the majority of seasonal films, the two titles also manage to make genuine comments on their times and in the sheer humanity radiating through everyone which proves to be greatly heightened during this time of the year.

Holiday Affair (1949)

This romantic charmer has gained traction over the years as a solid Christmastime staple. Janet Leigh plays a widowed mother named Connie who works as a comparison shopper for a large department store during the holidays. When she’s found out by Steve (Robert Mitchum), the employee of a rival store, an instant attraction is formed. Complicating things however is name’s relationship with Carl (Wendell Corey) and the worry of making sure she provides the right kind of life for her son.

I have to admit that I wasn’t so wowed by Holiday Affair when I first saw it a few years back. I thought its story was flimsy and it’s characters bland. Watching it again in preparation for this piece however, I was struck by how emotional of a story it was. There’s a winsome romance at the heart of the film between Connie and Steve as well as a worthwhile triangle involving the latter’s relationship with Carl, who is a genuinely good guy. But at its center is the story of a woman who has never been able to move on from the love she lost, out of fear and incomplete grief.

Watching her chemistry with Steve, we see Connie begin to emerge from the emotional fortress she built for herself and start to acknowledge the possibility of another chance at romance and a life she had all but written off for herself. Leigh and Mitchum (who makes for a loveable wise guy) truly sparkle, but it’s watching how Christmas has the ability to bring with it reflection and renewed faith that gives Holiday Affair its poignancy.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)

Another past tale that has since taken its place alongside newfound holiday classics is this wonderfully sweeping tale about humanity during the holidays. In It Happened on 5th Avenue, the large New York mansion of a wealthy industrialist named Michael O’Connor (Charlie Ruggles) is taken over by vagabond Mac (Victor Moore), former serviceman Jim (Don DeFore) and a host of other homeless residents while its owner is away for the winter. When the millionaire learns about his unexpected guests, he decides to live among them incognito and ends up getting reacquainted with the other side of society he forgot existed.

Like Holiday Affair, I encountered It Happened on 5th Avenue close to a decade ago and instantly fell in love with this story of a bunch of colorful characters holed up in the mansion of a wealthy tycoon during the holidays. I also loved seeing said tycoon be constantly brought back down to earth by failing at a series of domestic tasks which he hadn’t performed in years. As to be expected, the character does learn a valuable lesson about the other half; but it’s a lesson the movie presents beautifully with a philosophical tone rather than a schmaltzy one.

It Happened on 5th Avenue also presents its social commentary in a way that’s rather up front for the times by examining how those staying in the mansion ended up where they are in life, showing the falsehood behind the images and stereotypes society is quick to put on one another. Maybe it was because of the commentary that the film wasn’t a hit when first released and took far longer to become a classic than it should have. But virtually everyone who sees it agrees that the film is a Christmas tale, a love story, a screwball comedy and an ode to humanity with themes which prove timeless.

Holiday Affair and It Happened on 5th Avenue are both available on blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.

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