Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

STREAMING SATURDAY! THE HOLLY AND THE IVY Make for a Prickly Christmas

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we bring you a free, fabulous movie to watch right here every week!

How can you help but love a Christmas movie where a brother and sister duck out on the family festivities to get roaring drunk?

They have their reasons. But then just about everyone has cause to knock back a few in The Holly and the Ivy, one of the least jolly Christmas movies ever. Which, for some of us, looks a lot like Christmas.

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Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald from a play by Wynyard Browne (who wrote the screenplay for Hobson’s Choice), the 1952 film used to be a holiday staple on PBS back when they showed old British movies all the time. (I blame them for my insatiable crushes on Alistair Sim, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Robert Donat and Trevor Howard. They’re lucky I still give them money.) But it hasn’t turned up on TV in ages, so I hunted it down on DVD, admittedly worried it wouldn’t live up to my memories. I needn’t have feared.

In the first few scenes, which could be called “Backstory Theater,” we meet everyone who’ll be gathering for Christmas at the rambling country house of Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), a recently widowed  vicar who’s leaning heavily on daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) to keep his home, health and hectic schedule from falling apart. Uncle Richard (Hugh Williams) is killing a few hours in the pub before he’s due to pick up Martin’s daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), a fashion writer in London. But she’s taken to her bed and pulled the covers up after her, hoping to skip the whole trip. Son Mick (Denholm Elliot), who’s doing his National Service, gets busted by his Sergeant Major (William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who) for sneaking back to barracks after hours, forcing him to do some fast talking (and truth-stretching) to hang onto his holiday leave.

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And Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan), who feared she’d be spending Christmas in her residential hotel, finally gets the letter she’s been longing for, inviting her to her brother-in-law’s house. (Halstan, with a wide-eyed gentleness that calls to mind Patricia Collinge, quietly steals away with every scene she’s in.) On the train down, she runs into Aunt Bridget (Maureen Delany), the vicar’s sister, who insists on hunkering down like a martyr in her third-class berth, balking at Lydia’s offer to pay for an upgrade. (When she gets to the house, after waiting roughly 10 seconds for someone to answer the door, she huffs, “Did you forget we were coming or what?” Does anyone not have an aunt, or God forbid a mother, like this?)

Jenny, of course, is already home—and in mortal danger of staying there. Her fiance, David Paterson (John Gregson), has just landed his dream job in Argentina, but trying to pry Jenny loose from her father may be the toughest feat of this engineer’s career. Here, as with Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter, Johnson is honor-bound to one man and in love with another. Has anyone ever made self-sacrifice so wonderfully appealing?

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Eventually, after everyone’s settled in, Margaret does make it home—bucking herself up with a nip from the decanter in the hallway before facing the family. (And in the person of Leighton, she looks the way all neurotics secretly dream of looking on their best days.)

Later that night, as they’re washing up the dinner dishes, Jenny tells her sister about David and asks if she might come home for a bit to stay with their father—an idea Margaret quickly dismisses. “You say it so immediately… click, like that, it’s done with,” Jenny snaps. “Life must be very easy for people like you.” Witheringly, Margaret retorts, “Well it’s always easier than people like you make it.”

“You have grown hard, haven’t you?” says Jenny. “Mag, what’s happened to you?” And then… she finds out. Her sister has suffered an awful loss, and her grief has congealed to bitterness. Suddenly all the talk of “people like you,” on both sides, is over, probably for good.

There’s great chemistry between the gentle Johnson and the brittle Leighton, each just as vulnerable in her own way as the other.  (The two were also a joy to watch, as school friends turned romantic rivals, in Noel Coward’s The Astonished Heart; much more on that fabulous film, including where to watch it, here.) During their extraordinary scene in the kitchen, Margaret says off-handedly, “What nonsense life is…” and Jenny mutters in agreement. “Do you think so?” asks Margaret, as pain and disappointment flicker ever so slightly across her face. The same stalwart quality she’d derided in her sister just a moment before is also one she depended on. In the course of a few short minutes, their relationship and their assumptions about each other have changed forever.

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Meanwhile, like the doctor whose own family is wasting away in front of him, Martin is too busy tending his flock to see what’s happening under his own roof, and his children (wrongly) assume he’d disapprove if he knew. He has no idea that Margaret drinks, or why. He doesn’t know Mick is clueless about his future and Jenny is about to throw hers away for duty’s sake. In fact he’s been hoping David and Jenny would “move things along” and is thrilled about David’s new post, regaling him with tales of South America. (Oh and you really haven’t heard the word “guano” until you’ve heard it said by Ralph Richardson.)

When Mick confronts his father with the truth, he’s hurt and appalled to find out everything that’s been kept from him for so long—how his children have borne their pains alone, fearful of turning to him. It’s one of several epiphanies that unfold naturally and believably, not so much “Aha!” moments as “Ah, now I see…”

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The film is not without its little flaws. Johnson, who is supposed to be 31, was 43 (and looking fabulous, but still)—a distraction that could easily have been avoided simply by not noting her age in the script. (Really, Anatole, how hard would that have been?)

And the ending felt hurried, especially since I wanted to spend a lot more time with these people. It was as if someone said, “Okay kids, we’ve only got the studio for another five minutes, let’s move it!” Some may say things are wrapped up a bit too neatly, but for me that was comforting—in the same way, I imagine, that bullied kids probably get a special thrill out of the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe because my family is just the opposite—you hope and you pray, stupidly or crazily, that this time, people will listen and get along and understand, and then, once again, everything pretty much goes to hell. (I always carry a small dress purse to family dinners, but never too small to hold the Advil.)

But for all its minor faults, The Holly and the Ivy is quietly stunning. It sneaks up on you and stays with you, especially if your family holidays tend more toward O’Neill than O. Henry. I love these people. I love how they open their hearts and minds, toss aside their hardened beliefs about one another and start again. I love their flaws and their eccentricities, which no one holds against them. I love how their honesty isn’t edged with cruelty. I want to spend every Christmas with them.

Usually I embed Streaming Saturday movies, but this week, I’m sending you to… wait for it… a pastor! In this post, she talks briefly about the film and embeds it on the page. I have the technical skills of a backward wombat, and this was the only workable way I could find to get this movie to you!

Here it is!

I hope you love the film as much as I do. I send it with my warmest wishes to you and those you love, for a happy and peaceful holiday season and a wonderful new year!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you a free, fabulous film every weekend! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

1 Comment

  1. Hala

    i know this rather late of me to say, but i loved this little movie..what an unexpected gem! thanks so much!

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