Monday, December 19, 2016

Strange Holiday (1945)

Director: Arch Oboler                                      Writer: Arch Oboler
Film Score: Gordon Jenkins                           Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Holden, Martin Koslek and Milton Kibbee

The only thing stranger than this picture is how Claude Rains ended up in a poverty row film distributed by PRC and funded by General Motors only a year after appearing in Passage to Marseille and Mr. Skeffington for Warner Brothers and a year before starring in Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock. Strange Holiday is an absolutely bizarre movie, part Twilight Zone and part propaganda film. It’s the dark side of It’s a Wonderful Life come to pass, essentially indicting viewers for apathy. It essentially imagines what America would be like if it allowed a dictatorial government like the one in Nazi Germany to take over and destroy our civil rights and take away our freedoms because ordinary citizens, fat and happy at home, didn’t care enough to do anything to stop it. The screenplay was originally a radio play from 1942 by writer-director Arch Oboler called This Precious Freedom, and first produced as a short film. General Motors financed the film and showed it to their employees and their families. It took Oboler three more years before he could get the financing to turn it into a feature, though at a running time of barely over an hour that’s being generous. In reality, the later version was simply padded with extra footage, and the bulk of the film featuring Rains was from the original short.

The film begins with documentary footage of various scenes of war accompanied by a voice-over straight out of an Ed Wood film. From Japanese samurai battles to the American Revolution and from cavalry charges in Europe to footage of World War Two, the montage finally ends with the atomic bomb. Then Claude Rains is seen in a jail cell. After the credits the film flashes back to Christmas time, with Raines taking pictures of his three children decorating the tree. The family is overly-wholesome and utterly American. Gloria Holden is his wife, posing for pictures for him in the kitchen like a Betty Crocker commercial. Throughout the film it continues to cut back to Rains in jail. He says the thing began in the North Woods, flying up and camping with Milton Kibbee for a few weeks. Rains isn’t interested in the war, only his contentment, willing to let the government handle things. On the way home their plane goes down in a field and they walk to a farmhouse where they’re told to leave. Then Rains hitches a ride with a truck driver, Wally Maher, who is just as unfriendly but gives him a ride for twenty bucks. When Rains gets into town he finds the streets empty and people he knows equally unfriendly. Then, when he finally gets home, everyone’s gone. Two guys grab and sap him and he wakes up in a jail cell with Charles McAvoy.

The suspense of the picture hinges on the fact that no one can tell Rains exactly what is going on. Finally, McAvoy tells him: the Bill of Rights has been removed from the Constitution. He’s brought in and questioned by Martin Koslek, who has a not so subtle German accent. Rains is insistent in demanding his rights, oblivious to the fact that he no longer has any. The film definitely wears its radio beginnings on its sleeve. Viewers can literally close their eyes and still get the full effect of the message. Rains, for whatever patriotic reason he had to appear in the film, does as well as he can with the two-dimensional character he is given. It’s also fascinating to see Gloria Holden in a straight role after being so closely associated with her role in Dracula’s Daughter. Martin Koslek’s Nazi is the only real equal to Rains. The rest of the cast is decidedly average, though it is interesting to see Guy Kibbee’s brother Milton on screen. He appeared in hundreds of films during his career, but most were of the low-budget variety. Ultimately it’s not a very satisfying film, despite its star, and the utterly ambiguous ending doesn’t help. Strange Holiday is simply a strange viewing experience that has to be seen to be believed.

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