This is a lovely little English Christmas film from 1952, adapted from a 1950 play. A small-town parson’s family returns home to the vicarage for Christmas after he became a widower earlier that year: Son Michael (Denholm Elliott), serving in the military; daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) who lives at the vicarage taking care of her father, Martin, the parson (Ralph Richardson); and eventually, daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), a fashion journalist in the city. Other houseguests include a voice-of-reason cousin Richard (Hugh Williams) and a duo of aunts, deemed by TCM host Ben Mankiewitz as “one grand, the other grumpy” (Margaret Halstan, Maureen Delany).
The ostensible conflict is that caretaker Jenny wants to marry a neighbor, an engineer being sent to South America (John Gregson), but feels she can’t abandon her father. But as the guests arrive it becomes clear the underlying issue is the three children believe they can’t communicate with their father on a personal level, given his religious calling.
Not to spoil a 70-year-old movie, but it turns out Ralph Richardson plays a reasonable man.
Richardson, a prolific English actor, performed from the 1920s to 1983 including as a member and co-Director of the Old Vic and on Broadway. He was nominated for three Tonys, two Oscars and a Grammy.
Leighton also performed with the Old Vic and made her Broadway debut in 1946 as the Queen in Henry IV, also starring Richarson as well as Laurence Olivier. Leighton was nominated for four Tonys, winning two, two Emmys, winning one, and an Oscar; her first Tony, in 1957 for ‘Separate Tables’ came the same year Richardson was nominated for ‘The Waltz of the Toreadors’.
Johnson performed between 1928 and 1981, including on Broadway. She was nominated for an Academy award for 1945’s ‘Brief Encounter’.
Elliott — I recognized him as Marcus Brodie in ‘Raiders’ — has more than 100 film and TV credits. Like his character, he served in the military. A member of the RAF, his bomber was downed in a raid on some U-boat pens and he spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He debuted in 1949 and performed through 1992, when he died. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986 for ‘A Room with a View’.
Halstan debuted in theater in 1895 and acted in her first film in 1916. She performed ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ in both the stage and screen versions.
Delaney, an Irish actress, debuted in 1914. She was nominated for a Tony for 1959’s ‘God and Kate Murphy’.
There’s also a small cameo by William Henry Hartnell, better known as the first Doctor Who.
Richardson, as I said, plays a reasonable man, if a bit aloof. Leighton plays dark and sophisticated, but ultimately vulnerable. Johnson is her opposite: caring and sacrificing herself to keep the family running. Elliott is impish and impudent enough to (finally) speak the truth about the family’s dynamics.
There’s a delightful bit of framing when the Martin is confronting his son about drinking too much, where Martin is standing behind a sparse Christmas tree looking much like a priest concealed in a confessional, rather than a father talking to his son.
It’s such a cozy little play; theatrical even in the filmed version. I’d very much like to see it on the stage, but I sure am glad this film with these distinguished actors exists. At one point Williams’ character says “Cheer up Mick, old boy, in a hundred years we’ll all be dead.” As far as I can tell, everyone involved with the film is, in fact, dead. But their performances have brought me joy for several years now, and hopefully will for many years into the future.
“One regards oneself as an individual, Aunt Bridget. Types are other people.” — Margaret Gregory
“Don’t you know I doubt if half of them have the faintest conception of what I’m here for. They think I’m paid to marry them and bury them and sign their pension papers for them, just like a civil servant.” — Martin Gregory
“You can’t be told the truth. That’s the trouble, the whole trouble.” — Michael Gregory
“I’m out all day scribbling smart, highly paid nonsense that earns the rent of a wonderful flat that I can’t bear to stay in alone for five minutes when I get back in the evening.” — Margaret Gregory