There’s a reason it’s called The Holly and the Ivy and not “holly jolly” (a name I’ve mistakenly called this movie several times). While it hasn’t stopped shops from putting their Christmas displays out early, I could’ve waited until after Halloween to review a Christmas movie. Even the new Emilia Clarke movie (that looks inexplicably adorable) had the decency to wait a week, but while The Holly and the Ivy is unquestionably a Christmas film, it’s not necessarily one you want to watch at Christmas time.
Based on a play by Wynyard Browne, and directed by George More O’Ferrall, the opening scene of The Holly and the Ivy (written for the screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald) could easily be reworked into the opening of a horror movie. A pair of mittened hands brings four letters to the mailbox, dropping each one in separately, so you can make out the addresses. Since no one’s been introduced yet, it wouldn’t have been a big deal to show the person wearing the mittens (and it’s a mystery that doesn’t go anywhere) but their identity’s kept a secret.
As we meet the letters’ recipients in the following scenes, it becomes clear they’ve been invited to a family gathering for the holidays. It’s one small step from there to an Agatha Christie novel where everyone’s invited to the house to see who lasts the longest, but while some people will relate to a family gathering being like this, The Holly and the Ivy isn’t really And Then There Were None but a family drama set around the holidays.
As Jeremy Arnold notes in his commentary track for Kino Lorber’s new DVD (he also wrote the book, Christmas in the Movies, for TCM), The Holly and the Ivy is a Christmas movie about adults. There are children in the church choir and among the carolers, but that’s it, and the tone of the movie, as a result, is a lot less celebratory than the films you might gravitate towards if you’re trying to put yourself in the holiday spirit.
Jenny (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) at least tries to spread some holiday cheer, but her efforts to hang up Christmas decorations are met with remarks that she’s wasting her time, or “mad” (which, coming from the fiancé we’re supposed to be rooting for, are less than appreciated).
“What are you doing all of this for? You’ve got children coming or what?” he asks, implying that all of the fuss around Christmas is for children’s benefit, but that’s something the film deals with overall – whether Christmas can be the same once you’re older, or if it’s all one big attempt to recapture something that’s gone. Not exactly holly jolly, but these are the sort of questions that can creep up on you in December and there’s an honesty to this movie that’s almost too truthful – the real Christmas, not the one you get your hopes up about.
On the outside, The Holly and the Ivy may look like a picture postcard – all fluffy white snow in the English countryside – but there’s a lot going on underneath and Arnold’s commentary is a fantastic listen, for recognizing how Christmas acts as a force throughout the movie and his breakdowns of key scenes (like a five minute sequence where Jenny talks to her sister, Margaret (Margaret Leighton), while cleaning the dishes).
While the dialogue feels stagier than The Happy Breed, another film adapted from a play and starring Johnson, The Holly and the Ivy still makes for a sound, ensemble piece and comes out November 26th on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.