Friday, April 12, 2013

Discovering Dean Harens on a Dark "Christmas Holiday"

 
Actor Dean Harens is virtually forgotten in the history of cinema, theater, and acting.  A promising actor from Indiana who started acting at an early age, Harens developed his craft while studying at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago as well as summer stock.  His talent and initiative eventually brought him to the Broadway stage where he appeared in "The Talley Method" (1941), "Papa is All" (1942), "Men in Shadow" (1943), and "Those Endearing Young Charms" (1943).  Handsome, if slightly offbeat looking, with a gravelly and raspy voice that belied his youthful features, Harens was eventually discovered by Universal Pictures, who put him under contract and cast him in a handful of films before he eventually returned to Broadway.  I found an interview with Harens online where he admitted his frustration with being underutilized at Universal led him to return to the stage.  Harens appeared in three more Broadway plays in his career including "Tenting Tonight" (1947) where he met his wife actress June Dayton, "Be Your Age" (1953), and "A Girl Can Tell" (1953).  In addition, Harens was one of the early pioneers of television, appearing in live anthologies such as "Studio One," "Robert Montgomery Presents, " "Lux Video Theater," and "Climax!" before he and Dayton eventually relocated back to Hollywood.  Both Harens and Dayton became prolific TV guest star actors all the way into the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, building up hundreds of credits between the two of them on almost all the major episodic television shows during that time.  June Dayton passed away from cancer in 1994, and Dean Harens died not long afterwards in 1996 in Van Nuys, California at the relatively young age of 75.


Actors like Dean Harens and June Dayton are normally given short shrift because they worked hard in their field without ever landing that breakthrough role that would have granted them ever-lasting fame and acclaim.  However, I still think of actors like them as winners because they succeeded at their dream of becoming actors and built long careers where they were able to make a living practicing their trade.  One of the great services that IMDB and IBDB have done is to compile detailed credit listings for actors like Dean Harens so that one can marvel at the long list of credits from his body of work, which helps underscore why he is a winner in my book.  The only actors I consider to be "losers" are the ones with an inflated lack of perspective who develop a narcissistically egotistical view of their accomplishments and careers that is completely disproportionate to reality and only serve to highlight their deficiencies--like Morgan Fairchild, and Francine York.  However, I have not found any evidence to suggest Dean Harens was ever like that, which is why I view him as a winner, and probably the role that best demonstrated his dramatic potential in movies was his debut in Robert Siodmak's off-beat film noir "Christmas Holiday" (1944).

 
In "Christmas Holiday," Dean Harens played Lt. Charles Mason, a newly commissioned Army officer who has just graduated from anti-aircraft artillery training in North Carolina on Christmas Eve.  Lt. Mason plans to fly to San Francisco so that he can marry his long-time sweetheart Mona and honeymoon in Coronado for a week before he is deployed overseas.  However, as he is packing for his flight, he unexpectedly receives a "Dear John" telegram from Mona, notifying him that she has married another man.  A crushed and enraged Lt. Mason swears "They're not going to get away with this" and decides to fly to San Francisco to confront Mona and her husband as his best buddy Lt. Tyler (David Bruce) unsuccessfully tries to convince Lt. Mason to go skiing with him for the week.  While he is flying out west, his airline flight is diverted to New Orleans due to bad weather.  Lt. Mason meets a sleazy reporter named Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf) at the hotel where the airline has arranged for him to have a room, and Fenimore convinces Mason to accompany him to a roadhouse/brothel run by Valerie De Merode (Gladys George).  While at the brothel, Lt. Mason meets torch singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin) who appears deeply troubled and who asks Lt. Mason to take her to midnight mass at the local cathedral.  The religious ceremony brings Jackie to tears in front of the other shocked worshippers.  Afterwards, Lt. Mason and Jackie grab a meal at a diner where Jackie explains her emotional outburst.

 
Over the course of the meal, and later back at Lt. Mason's hotel room into the early morning, Jackie tells Lt. Mason that her real name is Abigail Martin, the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette (Gene Kelly).  Robert was a seemingly charming no-account from an upper crust family.  Abigail fell deeply in love with Robert and the two moved in with his possessive mother Mrs. Manette (Gale Sondergaard) with whom he had an unhealthy, almost incestuously obsessive relationship.  The marriage takes a dark turn when Robert murders a bookmaker named Teddy Jordan and Mrs. Manette tries desperately to cover up the crime.  Mrs. Manette blames Abigail for failing to help Robert because she turned a blind eye to his failings so that she could continue to see only what she wanted to see in Robert, whereas Mrs. Manette loves and accepts Robert for all his failings.  When Robert is ultimately convicted and sent to prison for the murder, Mrs. Manette blames Abigail for her son's conviction and throws her out.  Abigail changed her name to Jackie and went to work for Valerie in order to support herself.  By morning, Abigail finishes telling Lt. Mason her sad life story.  She thanks him for his kindness and the two part company.  After listening to Abigail's sad life, Lt. Mason decides not to fly to San Francisco to confront Mona and her husband and instead books a flight back to his camp.


As he is checking out of his hotel, Lt. Mason notices a newspaper headline indicating that Robert Manette has escaped from prison.  He heads over to Valerie's brothel to ensure that Abigail is safe.  As Abigail finishes her musical number, she spots Robert in the brothel and she happily reunites with him.  Abigail reaffirms her love for her husband, but Robert is repulsed at seeing her in such a tawdry setting.  Abigail admits that she blames herself for not working harder to reform him and that she came to work at the brothel out of a sense of guilt for his conviction in order to punish herself as much as he was being incarcerated in prison.  Robert attempts to kill Abigail, but Valerie and Lt. Mason walk in on the scene.  Simon Fenimore distracts Robert long enough for a police officer to show up and fatally shoot Robert.  As Robert dies in Abigail's arms, Lt. Mason echoes Robert's dying words as he tells her "You heard what he said.  You can let go now, Abigail," as the tortured young woman rises and walks to the open window and sees the clouds in the sky above part, signalling that she has finally emerged from the darkness that had enveloped her life.


A somber film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, the ironically titled "Christmas Holiday" allowed the talented soprano musical star Durbin an opportunity to display her rarely challenged acting chops after nearly a decade of lighter, escapist fare.  Unlike almost every other character Durbin played in her career, Abigail/Jackie is a woman who lacks any self-confidence or self-respect and blinds herself to the sinister truth about her husband who she loves deeply in order to cling to her illusions of happiness.  When he is convicted, Abigail lacks any sense of perspective that Robert's actions are in no way a reflection upon herself and becomes a prostitute/nightclub singer in order to punish herself, just as Robert is being punished, by wallowing in a depraved and sleazy world.  As she admits to Robert, "There's only one reason why I've been working here, only one.  When it was all over, the trial and everything, I saw your mother was right.  I should've kept you from doing the things you were doing.  I was just as much to blame as anybody.  I can still hear them call you guilty.  "Guilty, guilty" and every time they said it I knew it was meant for me too.  I wanted to die, but you were in prison alive.  That's why I had to live.  To live like you, to suffer like you.  The people I met here had nothing but contempt for me, that's what I wanted.  This is my prison, Robert, but I'm not as strong as you are.  I can't break out without you.  I need you.  I've been holding onto you all the time.  I love you."  After years of watching Durbin as a positive and assertive female role model in almost all of her musicals and comedies, it's simply shocking and refreshing to see Durbin crawl the gamut of human emotions in "Christmas Holiday." 


Durbin is matched every step of the way by an equally atypical Gene Kelly playing the charming, but disturbed and dangerous Robert.  Robert is someone who keeps the other characters and the audience perpetually off-balance by virtue of his unpredictability.  We don't know when he will suddenly drop his veneer of warmth and turn violent and menacing to either his mother or Abigail.  Robert is a person who has spent his entire life in a state of subterfuge, particularly with regards to his interaction with Abigail.  As such, her love for him is pathologically co-dependent and needy, which is why Lt. Mason's entrance into her life on Christmas Eve must have been a refreshing change from what she had been used to with Robert and with her customers at Valerie's brothel.  Dean Harens doesn't have nearly as flashy and meaty a role as either Durbin or Gene Kelly, and both he and his character Lt. Mason are often overlooked in any scholarly dissections of this movie.  However, I think he may have the most difficult role in the movie by virtue of the fact that he has to be both enigmatic and accessible at the same time.

 
The Lt. Mason character is enigmatic to ensure that his story, which is a Marion Crane-like red-herring meant mainly to help set up his introduction into Abigail's life, does not overwhelm the main storyline.  But Lt. Mason is also accessible because he has to act as the audience's stand-in throughout the movie.  He is the "regular" person that the audience can identify with in a film full of mentally and emotionally disturbed characters.  (Gladys George's Valerie, the brothel owner with a heart of gold, is the only other genuinely sympathetic person in the whole story.)  The only dark edge to Lt. Mason's personality is his angry reaction to being jilted by his fiancee Mona.  Because we have not spent much time with him yet, since it occurs at the start of the movie, we don't know if he plans to simply demand answers from Mona and her new husband, or seek revenge on them.  However, as the movie progresses and we realize the depth of Lt. Mason's character and integrity, we know that he will remain on the straight and narrow path, particularly after listening to Abigail's sad story.  The scenes between Durbin and Harens are interesting in how direct and honest they are with one another from a virtually platonic perspective.  There is no romantic undercurrent to their relationship as they are both emotionally preoccupied with their respective mates to ever be interested in each other.  Rarely in movies at that time will you see a deep and insightful scene between a man and woman that does not have an explicit sexual or romantic undercurrent.

 
Durbin is particularly good in these scenes, projecting a low-key, subdued quality that I've never seen from her before.  Moreover, Dean Harens is excellent at demonstrating Lt. Mason's hurt and emotional turmoil over being abandoned by Mona, as well as his compassion when he recognizes a fellow human being in-need of assistance.  Lt. Mason's presence allows Abigail to finally articulate her feelings of grief and shame over her life.  Meanwhile, Abigail helps Mason to understand how chasing after Mona and her new husband would be a fruitless and destructive venture.  As Lt. Mason explains to Valerie at the end of the movie, "I'm not going to San Francisco.  No, I'm going back to camp.  You know, I've learned a hundred years worth of life in the last 24 hours.  I found out that you just don't do things because other people have done the same things the same way.  The important thing is being honest with yourself, whatever you feel, whatever you are.  That's why I said I think I know Jackie better than you think I do, or maybe I mean I know Abigail."  After all that he has gone through and experienced upon receiving his "Dear John" letter from Mona, Lt. Mason has a bright future ahead of him because he has become a wise and insightful young man, someone who will avoid the romantic pitfalls of loving the wrong person that Abigail was unable to avoid in her own life.

 
At the end of the film, when Lt. Mason comforts Abigail by urging her to let go of Robert and move on with her life, director Siodmak avoids the cliche of concluding the story by allowing Lt. Mason to have the final clinch with Abigail.  They have made a profound difference in each others lives, but there is no suggestion that the two will end up together.  While, on the one hand, I'd like to think that Abigail's sad life will be rewarded by ending up with Lt. Mason, I like his character too much to see him trapped with another unhealthy woman.  There will always be a part of Abigail who will continue to love Robert, and Lt. Mason deserves better than being second-best and winning the hand of a beautiful woman out of default.  Similarly, Dean Harens' fine performance also deserved better than the lukewarm reaction he seems to have gotten from Universal.  After "Christmas Holiday," Harens again worked with Robert Siodmak in the period-noir "The Suspect" (1944) opposite Charles Laughton, and was loaned out to RKO for another noir, this time with Pat O'Brien, called "Crack-Up" (1946).  Dean Harens' unusual features and gravelly voice were perfectly suited to the film noir genre and he deserved more good film roles instead of simply returning to Broadway.  Nevertheless, as I explained earlier, he still built a good career for himself on-stage and on television and deserves greater recognition than what he currently enjoys.  Hopefully, this modest blog entry will serve as a first step to help shed light upon Dean Harens' considerable acting accomplishments. 

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post about Dean Harens. He was my uncle (my father's brother). We were proud of his accomplishments as an actor. It's nice to read that other people appreciated his talent. June was a wonderful person, as well as a fine actress. I have many fond memories of family gatherings and parties with them. Dean was a character with a great sense of humor. Few people could tell a story the way Dean could! He certainly loved his craft. It was the only thing he ever wanted to do.
    Best, Tim Haerens

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    1. I am a relative of June Dayton and found this site doing a search for information about her. She was my mother's cousin. Because I did not grow up in California, I never had the opportunity to meet either of them but my mom always pointed out their names in the credits of theTV shows in which they appeared.

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  2. I had never heard of this actor before. I watched the film out of curiosity because Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin were cast against type and reviews of the film were good. I was riveted by Dean Haren's acting. It was as if Maugham wrote the part with him in mind. It is pity he was so underutilized during the golden age of Hollywood.

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