Like most of us, I grew up on classic Christmas films—from White Christmas to The Bishop’s Wife to Christmas in Connecticut. And as I realized new-to-me pre-1968 Christmas movies were dwindling, I began scrounging for more. Surely there were still some left to discover!
That’s how I stumbled upon “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952) last Christmas while browsing Amazon. But much to my dismay, the only DVDs sold were Region 2 (not able to play on U.S. devices) and it didn’t appear to be streaming online.
So as the holidays rolled around again this year, I searched and found someone selling a DVRed copy of this English film and I snatched it up.
Starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, Denholm Elliott, Margaret Leighton, Hugh Williams, Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delaney, the film takes place as a family returns home on Christmas Eve. And in the midst of the bright holiday, none of them are very happy and are hiding their troubles.
Rev. Martin Gregory’s (Richardson) wife recently died and his daughter Jenny (Johnson) cares for him at the parsonage. Jenny sends letters to her brother Michael (Elliott), sister Margaret (Leighton), cousin Richard (Williams) and aunts Lydia and Bridget (Halstan, Delaney), inviting them to their home for the holiday.
Jenny is the only child of the reverend who lives at home, and she feels she can’t leave him. But on Christmas Eve she learns that her fiancé David (John Gregson) is being transferred to South America for his job. David tells Jenny that he told his job he would be bringing a wife, but she doesn’t feel she can marry and leave her father. She wishes her younger sister Margaret would leave the city, where she works as a fashion writer, and live at home. But Jenny isn’t even sure Margaret will come home for Christmas.
As each family member arrives home, they bring their problems. Michael is in the Army and lies his way to get leave so he can go home. Aunt Lydia is a grand, wistful, and dreamy woman who has been a widow for 30 years, but talks of her deceased husband constantly. In stark contrast, Aunt Bridget is crabby and constantly criticizing everyone. Bridget never married, because she spent her life caring for her mother.
Margaret arrives late on Christmas Eve and is deeply troubled by loss she experienced during and after World War II. She masks her pain by drinking and only confides in Jenny. Margaret doesn’t feel that she can divulge her sins to her father because he is a holy man. Michael and Margaret feel that they will be judged by their father and will receive a religious lesson if they discuss their indiscretions with him.
Rev. Gregory is oblivious to the unhappiness surrounding him. When the Reverend realizes his children never brought their pain to him and why, he feels he has failed as a religious figure—he isn’t there to criticize but to help.
Set on the snowy English countryside, “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952) has a cozy, warm feel to it. But this isn’t a happy or magical Christmas film.
The film begins with a sweeping tune of “The Holly and the Ivy” over the credits. It opens with children with their faces pressed to the glass of toy-filled storefronts and turkeys hanging at the butcher. We later see Jenny decorating her home with holly and streamers and setting the Nativity scene in the church as a children’s choir sings “The Holly and the Ivy.”
But while the holiday surroundings are inviting and happy, no one seems to like Christmas much. Jenny decorates the house “because it’s what we always do.” David says decorating is a waste of time. Michael and David agree that Christmas is depressing. Margaret wonders why she even returned home.
Even the Reverend says he hates Christmas, because it focuses more on drinking and commercialism and “No one remembers the birth of Christ.” He also hates giving his Christmas sermon, because he knows everyone is fidgeting and “wanting to get home to baste their turkeys.”
Ralph Richardson was only 50 when he played an elderly father and reverend, and as with all his roles, he does a wonderful job.
The film well exhibits how different siblings can be. Celia Johnson’s character of Jenny is the calm, homespun and responsible daughter who is concerned for the family. Margaret Leighton’s character of Margaret is hard, bitter and emotional. Jenny asks Margaret, “Why must you crackle like ice?” But despite her icy exterior, Leighton does a good job of exhibiting that pain she’s trying to mask. Denholm Elliott’s Michael doesn’t seem to take life too seriously.
While the film is largely a drama, the aunts played by Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delaney are the comic relief. Delaney’s character of Aunt Bridget is always snapping: fussing about the fact that the family eats duck eggs and how they will die because of it, and wants to leave when Michael comes home drunk on Christmas Eve. Aunt Lydia dreamily talks about the past and and Jenny’s love life; describing everything poetically.
“The Holly and the Ivy” originated as a play by Wynyard Browne, which premiered on London’s West End at the Duchess Theater in 1950. Browne based the play on his own family members. Maureen Delaney and Margaret Halsan are the only actors who were in both the play and the film.
Without knowing this was a play, you can tell this film was adapted from the stage by the extent of dialogue, long scenes and drama.
During this time, producer Alexander Korda was bringing successful stage plays to the screen—including this one. The others Korda produced were Home at Seven (or Murder on Monday) (1952), Who Goes There (or The Passionate Sentry) (1952), and The Ringer (1952), according to the book “Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema” edited by Mark Connelly. While the film was released on Dec. 22, 1952, in the United Kingdom, it wasn’t released in the United States until February 1954.
An Oct. 25, 1952, review in The Daily Worker said the film was, “a straight transfer to celluloid of a cozy West End play,” according to Connelly’s book.
Many 1952 critics lightly criticized the film directed by George More O’Ferrall as a “good copy” of the stage play. However, while it’s obvious that it was a play, I don’t think it takes away from the film.
Though “The Holly and the Ivy” isn’t your standard, bright Christmas film, it is still lovely and hopeful despite the problems of its characters. It’s a good, under seen film that moves quickly. If you happen to run across this one, watch it!
Our friend Laura reviewed “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952) in 2011, which you can read here.