After Robert Mitchum was released from jail for marijuana possession, his studio was looking to clean up his image. The answer was a romantic holiday comedy, “Holiday Affair” (1949).
“At this time Robert Mitchum was operating under the cloud. The head of the studio was eager to clean up his image with this film,” said former child actor Gordon Gebert at a recent screening of the film in Yadkinville, NC.
The film “Holiday Affair” (1949) revolves around war widow Connie, played by Janet Leigh, who lives with her son Timmy, played by Gebert. Connie has dated her boyfriend Carl, played by Wendell Corey, for two years. Carl is secure, reliable and has a steady job, but while Connie likes him, she ducks the discussion of marriage.
Then Connie meets a stranger, Steve, played by Robert Mitchum, who is a store clerk she gets fired. While they never plan on it, the two continuously run into each other, making it hard to forget the other.
Outside of the romantic triangle, the film also focuses on what post-war widows most likely faced: How do you move on from your husband who was killed in war?
Connie hasn’t and tries to honor her husband’s memory every day. She lives a quiet life with her son who she calls the man of the house. Connie tells him frequently that he looks like his father and tries to part his hair in the same way that her husband wore his. She hasn’t allowed herself to fall in love again, because she doesn’t want to be unfaithful to the memory of her first marriage.
Robert Mitchum’s character forces Janet Leigh to face a truth she has been hiding from. Leigh’s character is flustered both by her feelings and by the harsh reality quoted to her by Mitchum.
In most films that feature a love triangle, one of the characters is majorly flawed: they’re sloppy, rude or not very smart. This allows the audience to know exactly who which hero they should be cheering for.
What’s interesting about “Holiday Affair” is that this isn’t the case. While Robert Mitchum is the hero of the story, Wendell Corey isn’t made out to be a buffoon. Corey’s character, Carl, is really an all-around good guy. He’s patient about Leigh’s marriage decision, knowing she experienced tragedy with the death of her husband. In the end, he realizes they both have to do what is best for themselves and that he should be with someone who loves him back.
The adult’s problems also don’t just affect them, they trickle down to Connie’s child Timmy, played by Gordon Gebert. Connie’s romantic decisions also affect her son, who likes both of the suitors, but is drawn more to Steve.
In just his second film, Gebert’s character isn’t just the cute kid. Some of the adult issues are tied to him. For example, Timmy really wants a train, which Steve (who has little money) learns about. Timmy receives the train as a gift, but his mother is upset because of the expense. Timmy also doesn’t want his friend to be broke because of the train and feels it should be returned.
Gebert’s was in 35 films and television projects from 1949 to 1960, when he left acting to go to college. Along with “Holiday Affair,” he was in films like “The Flying Leathernecks” (1951), “The Narrow Margin” (1952) and he played young Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back” (1955).
Gebert was present at a screening of “Holiday Affair” on Nov. 18, in Yadkinville, NC, as part of as part of the RiverRun Retro film series. I had the opportunity to interview Gebert about this film and his experiences in Hollywood (I happened to do this interview on my birthday, which made the day even more special!)
What was it like to work with Robert Mitchum?
At this time Robert Mitchum was operating under the cloud. The head of the studio was eager to clean up his image with this film since he had just been arrested for marijuana possession. He was great to work with, but he may have also been on his best behavior too. He definitely cast a prescience over every scene.
The director, Don Hartman, worked well with me. He had a son my age and was a good father, so I responded well to him. He was patient and insightful. This is most telling in a scene with Robert Mitchum in my room. It took us two days to shoot it, and in between takes, we would talk and fool with a pet turtle my character had, and that ended up as part of the film. It was a perfect film for someone my age.
I’ve read about competition between child stars. Did you experience that with your peers?
I observed that competition. My mother was a stage mother in the sense that she took me of interviews—what you call auditions in Hollywood—meetings and she had to be on set at all times due to the laws. We would watch what movies were casting. I was aware of the competitive mothers too and tried to avoid that.
It can be difficult to transition from child actor to older roles. How did you overcome that?
Simple, I got out of it, and I went on to be an architect. Early on I had the dream of being an architect, and I never lost that. I got my degree in 1966 and my license in 1969. I’m still an architect today; I’m the Dean of Architecture at the City College in New York.
Do you watch your films?
As I grew older, I wasn’t confident as an actor. I used to find some of my performances pretty cringe-worthy. It was only 20 or 30 years ago that I started to embrace my films and those roles. I now think some of the movies are pretty good and got ideas across to the audiences. To some extent, I loved the parts, because the parts were me and I didn’t have a hard time transitioning out of characters.
As a professor, I still utilize acting, especially when I teach.
What was your favorite film experience?
I loved making The Flame and the Arrow (1950) with Burt Lancaster. It was filmed at a studio, but we got to be outdoors, run around and ride horses. It was fun. Burt Lancaster was great to work with and it was a fun cast. My favorite to watch is Chicago Calling (1951)
Overall “Holiday Affair” is a charming, fun romantic comedy. While prior to this, Mitchum largely played soldiers or tough guys, he proves he had the chops for comedy. This was a fun film to see at the audience because as other audience members laughed at the funny parts, it just made me laugh even more.
As an aside: Do we know who the man is in the photos as Janet Leigh’s deceased husband?
Thank you to my friend and Yadkin Ripple reporter Kitsey Harrison for inviting me to this screening!