Strange Holiday

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(2/10) Originally produced as a propaganda short for General Motors, and then stretched to feature length, this 1940/1945 low-budget affair by radio legend Arch Oboler is as curious as it is flawed. Claude Rains stars as a man returning to the city from a fishing trip only to find that the US has been taken over by fascists. 

Strange Holiday. 1945, USA. Written & directed by Arch Oboler, based on his radio play. Starring: Claude Rains, Martin Kosleck, Bob Stebbins, Barbara Bate, Paul Hilton, Gloria Holden, Milton Kibbee, Thaddeus Jones, Helen Mack. Produced by Frank Donovan, Edward Finney, A.W. Hackey, et.al. IMDb: 6.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1945_strange_holiday_001The story of the making of Strange Holiday may be even more interesting than the film itself — and knowing its background is crucial for understanding this odd 1945 propaganda picture. The brainchild of radio legend Arch Oboler, the movie originated in his own patriotic 1939 radio play called This Precious Freedom, about a man returning to the city from a holiday in the country, only to gradually realise that the US has been taken over by the Nazis, thanks to the complacency of the US general public and the non-confrontational stance of the government.

Somewhat surprising, perhaps, Oboler was approached by car manufacturer General Motors, who asked him to turn his play into a half-hour morale-boosting propaganda film meant to be shown to the company’s employees and their families. This can perhaps partly be interpreted as an attempt by GM to counteract the bad publicity of the fact that their sister-company in Europe, Opel, was supplying vehicles for the Nazis. But GM also wanted their movie to have a message for the employees that hit closer to home: that complaining about salaries, working conditions and low wages was in fact in the interest of the Nazi fifth columnists in the US, who would use the discord created by unions and socialists to undermine the country. At the time, GM was having trouble with the unions. But there is also evidence that the fear for America’s future was sincerely felt by the management at the company.

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Employees at General Motors in Detroit building war planes during WWII.

Oboler gathered a top-notch crew, including to future Academy Award winners as cinematographer and editor, as well as British Thespian Claude Rains to star in the propaganda piece. He shot the film on a shoestring budget in 1940, but for reasons that remain unclear to this day, GM chose not to screen it. Interest in the film resurfaced when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, leading major studio MGM to buy the rights to the movie — only to shelve it. Oboler and Rains then managed to buy back the rights, reworked it and padded it out to a feature film length of 60 minutes and released it in September 1945 — after WWII was over. The new film now made no direct reference to the Nazis, but the fascists — including Martin Kosleck with a very German accent — leave no mystery as to whom we are referring to.

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John Stevenson (Claude Rains) being picked up by American Gestapo.

The film’s limited release met with negative reviews from both critics and audiences. After four years of war, the public was not interested in watching a movie where Nazis had overtaken the US, as if all their hardships had been in vain — nevermind that Oboler was actually accusing the audiences of helping the fascists. Still, the film would not go away. In 1946 Claude Rains was the man of the hour after a critically lauded portrayal of Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and an Oscar nominated turn in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Poverty Row Studio PRC saw their chance to cash in on the Rains and bought the rights to the movie, edited it down to 55 minutes and gave it a new ending, which was at least slightly less ambiguous than the original one. But the film fared little better commercially than the previous time around. It was picked up in the fifties by a TV network in the US, and shown as an anti-communism film. And it is this TV grab that is available online at the present.

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A somewhat disguised Nazi symbol.

Strange Holiday shows its patchwork nature from the get-go, as the movie opens with endless stock footage and clips from old movies, showing historical wars and WWII, overlaid with a melodramatic voice-over typical of Oboler’s work. In the middle of the title sequence, Gordon Jenkins’ bombastic music abruptly cuts off, and the some of credits are shown in a completely different style than the rest, then the old credit sequence, with the music, suddenly returns. Next, we see Claude Rains in a crumpled shirt, we later learn he is in a prison cell, raising his eyes to the audience, asking “how did it all happen?”. Next, we meet the same character, John Stevenson, on a holiday in the woods, along with his friend and co-worker Sam Morgan (comedy staple Milton Kibbee). When Morgan suggests heading back to the city, as fishing isn’t any good and there’s nothing much else to do, Stevenson protests, and complains about having to go back to his chores and his work at an office. But when Morgan mentions that it is Friday 13th, Stevenson is on his feet, as he remembers that it is his wedding anniversary, and his wife is expecting him home. The two men FLY home from their vacation, but are forced to make an emergency landing, all while Stevenson is complaining about his job. After being rudely told off at the first door they knock on, they decide to hitch-hike into town, but find the roads completely deserted. Finally they are picked up by a truck driver who refuses to say anything about the current situation.

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Claude Rains and Milton Kibbee flying home.

Back in the city streets and offices are empty. When Stevenson tries to by a lacy night gown for his wife, he is told by the shopkeeper and her employee that they aren’t allowed to sell anything, and refuse to say anything more than “don’t you know?”. The same procedure repeats a number of time at different locations, until Stevenson heads home, only to find his house deserted. Two men in plainclothes arrive to arrest him, and when he protests they club him over the head. Stevenson wakes up in a prison cell, along with another inmate, a black man who used to work for the same company as Stevenson. Stevenson explains that fascists have taken over the government and thrown out the bill of rights. Next, Stevenson is taken to be interrogated by someone who is named in the titles as “examiner”, played by the great Martin Kosleck sporting a healthy German accent. The examiner refuses to believe Stevenson’s explanations that he really doesn’t know what’s going on, and proceeds to torture him by whipping him with a rubber tube. After being thrown back into his cell, Stevensons starts hallucinating a montage sequence where he hears the examiner’s voice explaining how dissent, distrust of government and authority, protesting in the streets and calling for more rights, unions and democracy helped lay the foundation for the fascist fifth columnists to infiltrate government and seize power. Finally Stevenson realises that he has been taken all the freedoms he has enjoyed for granted and forgotten that they were no gifts, but victories, and now swears not to stop fighting for them.

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Claude Rains and Thaddeus Jones.

We then jump back in time to the beginning of the film, where Stevenson is waking up his half-slumber on his holiday, when his friend reminds him that it is Friday the 13th. We then make a second jump, this time forward in time and meet the whole family on vacation, now with grown-up kids(?). Apparently it was all a dream.

Director Arch Oboler’s name is not much more than a footnote in film history. Aside from Strange Holiday he is known for a number of quirky independent movies, such the powerful but preachy post-apocalyptic low-budget picture Five (1951, review), the first colour 3D film Bwana Devil (1952), the flawed SF comedy The Twonky (1953) and the interesting but unfulfilling 3D (or “Spacevision”) movie The Bubble (1966).

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Arch Oboler at the premiere of Bwana Devil in 1952.

But if he is somewhat anonymous as a filmmaker, he is revered by those who know their radio history. Working at NBC, Oboler, like his counterpart at CBS, Orson Welles, rose swiftly up the ranks of radio theatre in the thirties. Known for his unbridled imagination, his powerful writing, his prolific output and his mastery of atmosphere creation, he was almost unrivalled as the king of radio drama by 1940 — or perhaps with one single rival — said Orson Welles. He is probably best known for the long-running, groundbreaking horror and SF show Lights Out (1934-1947). Lights Out was created by prolific radio writer Wyllis Cooper in 1934, as one of the earliest horror shows. Cooper’s early stories were infamous for their macabre elements and tongue-in-cheek humour. He would have people skinned alive, eaten and vaporised and a legendary episode has a scientist create an ever-growing amoeba that starts eating everything in the lab (including the cat). The show was taken over by Arch Oboler in 1936, and Oboler infused the scripts with more social content, often anti-fascist and pacifist messages, as well as a slightly more sci-fi edge to some of the scripts. One of Oboler’s most famous episodes portrayed the panic striking America when a genetically engineered chicken heart starts growing exponentially and threatens to swallow the Earth. The story was made famous later when retold by Bill Cosby. Another gruesome episode, The Dark, followed two policemen into a dark house where a black mist turns people inside-out, complete with gory sound effects and a crazy, hysterically laughing woman.

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Arch Oboler directing Lights Out.

NBC brought Lights Out to television as early as 1946 as a four-episode special. This would make it the first TV show to feature sci-fi – that is, if any of these four shows had contained any science fiction, which they didn’t. Rather, they were comprised of some of the more tame scripts, dealing mainly with traditional supernatural or ghost stories. This is often counted as the first season of Lights Out, however it didn’t become a regular TV show until August 1949 (review), when other science fiction shows like Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review) had already started airing.

Oboler’s background in radio is all over Strange Holiday. The movie is filled with bombastic lines and monologues, as well as tropes that work well on radio, but not necessarily on film, such as repetitions of statements and lines in order either to create an atmosphere or drive home a message. One example is the line “Don’t you know?”, which all the people Stevenson meets keep repeating. This works on radio, because radio is format where you do not expect realism and accept some dramatic poetry. The problem with this kind of dialogue in a film is that films as a visual medium has a lot of other tools in the toolkit to achieve the effect that radio has to rely on dialogue and sound only to achieve, which means you usually don’t need to drive home a message or a point as long as in radio. And film being a visual medium has another expectation of realism than radio, and doing this kind of stylised dialogue tends to shatter the illusion of realism on screen.

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Poster detail.

But Oboler’s radio background is not just a detriment. The sound design in the film is amazing, and really hits its stride toward the end of the movie, where it gears up to the hallucinatory scene where Stevenson is struggling both to realise what has happened and with his own conscience. The overlapping cacophony of the fascist’s taunting speeches, the sound of Stevenson’s family, friends and himself from the past, other sounds and voices, as well as his own increasingly desperate monologue mash together into a harrowing and powerful sequence, leading up to a highly melodramatic speech about freedoms won worth fighting for, screamed by the great Claude Rains pressing up against the bars of his jail cell. This is also where Oboler hits his stride as a visual storyteller, as his lessons learned in radio are put to the test against Soviet montage theory and the dreamlike qualities so well used by the novelle vague a few centuries later. This is also where the work of cinematographer Robert Surtees and editor Fred Feitshans come into their own right. Surtees works here with lessons learned from German Expressionism and Feitshans enhances the building madness of Oboler’s script. Surtees would go on to 13 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including King Solomon’s Mines (1950, review) and Ben-Hur (1959). Fred Feitshans isn’t as big a star as Surtees, but he was nominated for an Oscar. However, he is well-known to SF buffs, as he’s worked on such classic B movie fare as The Jungle Captive (1945, review), The Man from Planet X (1951, review), The Neandarthal Man (1953), Indestructible Man (1956), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1966) and Frogs (1972).

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Claude Rains as John Stevenson.

Strange Holiday has few reviews online and those that do exist are not particularly favourable. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings writes: “This piece of wartime propaganda is so paranoid, so overwrought, so preachy, and so emotionally manipulative, I found myself wondering just what brought on this serious lapse of taste. If anything, it’s even more simplistic and unbelievable than its nearest cinematic equivalent, Invasion U.S.A. (1952), and it’s only the impressive thespic talents of Claude Rains that keeps the movie from sliding into total camp.” Sindelar, however, notes the movie’s background as a redeeming feature, and that the fact that it was supposed to be shown by GM to its employees during the war “goes a long way towards explaining why the movie is so unsubtle”. Matthew Rovner at Parallax View has a long write-up on Oboler (do check it out!) where he calls Strange Holiday in its final form “a propaganda palimpsest with fascinating remnants of Oboler’s original vision”, but that, “despite its shortcomings, Strange Holiday is an interesting time capsule and intriguing attempt to bring stream-of-conscious radio technique to filmmaking”.

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Claude Rains and Griff Barnett.

In their book Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to His Work in Film, John Soister and JoAnna Wioskowski write: “although shots of jackbooted goons on the march and atomic explosions, claustrophobic sets, and familiar backlot streets were pained with the widest palette of angle and light that photographer Robert Surtees could wield, the obvious artificiality and cheapness worked against everybody’s best efforts. At one point, Claude Rains opens and enters the same room (from opposite ends) a half-dozen times. He’s supposed to be wandering through his house, searching out his family members, but not even the repeated change of paintings on the walls behind him makes the illusion successful. Working with editor Fred Feitshans, Oboler tried valiantly to offset the more preachy aspects of the screenplay with a succession of abrupt cuts, fades and flashbacks, anything to keep the picture moving. The results, though, are never less than unfortunate.”

They continue: “Long on sermonizing, the film was woefully short on logic”, and note that it is unclear whether Stevenson and his pal spend two or four weeks on their vacation, and either way, both are way too short for a complete thrashing of a country’s economy and political system, and way too long for a friendly fishing trip in the woods. They also note the complete absurdity of any invading force to forbid vendors to sell their goods, and the further absurdity of Tommy the newspaper boy standing in his usual spot for Stevenson to find without any papers to sell and of the women “manning” the women’s shop — when it is obviously closed for business. “Even in the reworked PRC release, […] the poor editing left the viewer uncertain as to whether the last-reel picnic scene was a flashback to happier times, a bit of wishful thinking on Stevenson’s part, or the denouement. When the scene faded, Rains was back in his prison cell, leaving audiences confused and frustrated.”

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Lobby cards: To the right Martin Kosleck and Claude Rains.

As noted earlier, the film’s history almost demanded that Strange Holiday would be flawed when it was finally released. Not only was it adapted from a radio play; it was also stretched to double the length of the original short film and released to a general audience that was never the intended target audience and released as a normal entertainment drama when its original purpose had been tailor-made as a propaganda movie shown to a company’s employees by its owners. And finally, a film that was originally intended as a war-time morale booster had to wait for its general release until the war was over.

All of these factors have left their mark on the final product. Most egregious is perhaps the movie’s odd moral conclusion: that by quietly going to work against our own best interests and avoiding to criticise the government or our employers we shall defeat fascism. Of course, this was a message tailored for GM, who didn’t want their employees to skip work because of the war, and who was at the time having trouble with unions and a growing popularity of communism and socialism in the US, plus the burgeoning civil rights movement causing unrest. This had not quite been the point of Oboler’s original play, more perhaps the fact that he saw complacency and “anti-Americanism”, and naturally communism, as a threat to American freedom, and indeed as a backdoor for fascism to enter through, using the unrest, discord and dissatisfaction with the government to stage a “democratic coup”. But for the sake of GM, the business and capitalist angle was greatly exaggerated, to the point of absurdity.

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Union protests during the forties.

There is much to like about Strange Holiday. There are moments when Oboler’s writing shines through, and a number of atmospheric or suggestive shots with superb lighting. But these are more like stars twinkling through gaps in a cloud-covered night sky and makes the movie bearable, rather than good. Claude Rains has one hell of a load to carry. Not that the other actors are bad, either, they just don’t have enough screen time to have any greater impact on the end result. And in the end, even Rains isn’t able to save the movie from all its flaws.

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Claude Rains and Gloria Holden.

Among the other actors worthy of mention is Gloria Holden, who plays Mrs. Stevenson — the flashback family scenes of her and Rains are really rather sweet. There’s a wonderful dinner scene with Rains trying and failing miserably to cut thin slices of bread. Holden is known for her role as Madame Zola in the 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola, but her real claim to fame is her appearance as the titular villain in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Wikipedia recognises Stevenson’s little daughter as being played by Barbara Bates, known for her role as Phoebe in All About Eve (1950). However, Bates was born in 1925 and Strange Holiday was filmed in 1940, at the earliest, which would have made Bates 15 years old at least at the time, and the girl in the movie is definitely not over the age of 10. Besides, she is named in the credits as Barbara Bate.

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Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter.

Martin Kosleck was a German stage-cum-film actor who fled to the US during the Nazi rule. In Germany he had a prominent role in the Brigitte Helm sound remake of Alraune 1930, review). In the US, it became his yoke to appear as a Nazi in a whole slew of WWII movies. After the war the demand for Nazi villains diminished and like so many other European actors he found himself working primarily in B-movies. Horror aficionados may remember Kosleck from a string of Universal cheapos from the mid-forties. He appeared in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945) opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., who he is reported to have disliked intensely. His biggest role in the four Universal films came in House of Horrors (1946), and he also appeared in the better known She-Wolf of London (1946).

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Martin Kosleck.

Most iconic is perhaps his top-billed turn in the micro-budget cult classic The Flesh Eaters (1964), that’s been called the very first gore film (although this is debatable), where he plays (surprise, surprise) a mad Nazi scientist. Oddly enough he returned two years later in another film about bacteria devouring humans from the inside, the legendarily bad TV-pilot-turned-theatrical-film Agent for H.A.R.M. (1966), this time playing a Soviet villain. However, he made much of his income from the fifties onward doing guest spots on TV shows — he appeared in over 40 shows — including The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Wild Wild West, Batman and Night Gallery. He made his last film appearance in 1980 in the campy comedy The Man with Bogart’s Face.

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Helen Mack in She (1935).

Helen Mack appears in a small role as a secretary. Mack is known to genre fans as the lead actress in Son of Kong (1933) and as the ingenue in the H. Rider Haggard adaptation She (1935, review). Mack had a short string of prominent roles in the mid-thirties, including one opposite Cary Grant in the musical comedy Kiss and Make-Up (1934), but would ultimately settle in smaller supporting roles like the one in Strange Holiday. After she left the movie business in 1945 she had a successful career as a radio writer and producer.

Janne Wass

Strange Holiday. 1945, USA. Written & directed by Arch Oboler, based on his radio play This Precious Freedom. Starring: Claude Rains, Martin Kosleck, Bob Stebbins, Barbara Bate, Paul Hilton, Gloria Holden, Milton Kibbee, Thaddeus Jones, Walter White, Jr., Wally Maher, Tommy Cook, Griff Barnett, Edwin Max, Paul Dubov, Helen Mack, Charles McAvoy, Priscilla Lyons, David Bradford, Albert Bassermann. Music: Gordon Jenkins, Nat Winston. Cinematography: Robert Surtees. Editing: Fred Feitshans. Art direction: Bernard Herzbrun. Sound: William Wilmarth. Special effects: Howard Anderson, Ray Mercer. Produced by Frank Donovan, Edward Finney, A.W. Hackey, et.al for General Motors, Elite Pictures, Mike J. Levinson & Soundmasters Inc. 

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