Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

It's an old-style musical from 1943 about a young woman looking after a group of children.

It sounds like it's going to be another Sound Of Music, or even Mary Poppins, but someone obviously forgot to tell the makers of The Amazing Mrs Holliday to coat everything in sugar.

Right from the monochrome opening scene, nice Christian girl Ruth Holliday (Deanna Durbin) gets a gigantic monologue about the personal disasters of the eight orphans whom she has rescued at sea, and is now hoping to get through US immigration. The word bleak doesn't quite cut it. As this utterly compelling narrative develops, we learn that she is an also an orphan herself, and along the way has lost a ninth kid. Are we supposed to be chuckling good-naturedly yet? Is the port going to be packed with grinning tap dancers? The country of America's populated by cartoon singing animals, right?

Even when Ruth gets into the States by unwittingly getting swept into a scheme to pretend that she's recently married, the fellow in question is aged about 70 and dead. Again, this doesn't exactly sit well in what I expect of the usual pretending-to-be-married caper.

At last a smooth guy more her age shows up in her life, and it looks like things are about to get a bit more romcommy, but no. Ruth instead breaks off into a huge series of flashbacks featuring her tough missionary upbringing, the outbreak of war, occupation, and exactly how that ninth kid had copped it when the boat blew up.

The first half of this film is just plain appalling, and I mean that in a positive way. I make an obligatory comment here about how first-rate storytelling like this just doesn't exist in films nowadays, but I was unaware that it existed in the old days either. I felt awful watching this, but there was no way I could turn it off. (excusing that I was watching it in two halves!)

Even Deanna Durbin's beautifully warbled songs go to extremes that I hadn't expected. She sings so high that our TV increasingly vibrated with distortion as its speakers attempted to reproduce it for us. Even the words are hard to make out, which was a little less disconcerting once I'd figured out that she was singing in Chinese. (I don't know which dialect)

But… but I thought musicals were supposed to be full-colour affairs, with a charming will-they-won't-they romantic thread, lots of melodrama and, oh yes… catchy songs that we can all sing along with?

Nah. Sorry mate, it's 1943, so this year we're doing the horrors of war. Tell you what, come back next year in 1944 when you can see Meet Me In St. Louis. Now that's fun!

By the time that poor Ruth has had her passive subterfuge rumbled, and been accordingly judged, she's agonisingly having her heart broken another 8 times by having to say good bye to all the cute and very well acted children. No doubt the tag-line on the posters for this family-friendly singalong sold it with "THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY: War is Hell. Why, God? WHY?"

However then the final reel throws all that to the wind. Whew!

The songs get lyrics in English again, and pretty much from the ludicrous scene at the train station onwards, the whole thing unashamedly descends into the more traditional farce. By the point when the dead child has been revealed to be alive after all (don't ask how - they never tell us), even the drama of this moment is abandoned to happen off-camera. Aww, we don't want to waste valuable screen-time on all that aching maternal love - we've got a happy couple to get engaged!!

The Amazing Mrs Holliday has won me over. It was awful to watch, but that's the way it was supposed to feel.

There aren't many films about which I can say that.

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