Strange Holiday (1945) is a dystopian view on the United States in the closing days of World War II. It’s warning message, belatedly, was for the generation of civilians that fought the war on the home front to keep them pitching in, doing their part, and remembering why doing their part was so important. Soon to be a museum piece in the post-war era when victory brought both relief and amnesia, the movie ironically has more punch to it today. It is a message for our time.
I’d like to note that this movie first came to my attention back in May when I posted a request from someone wanting to know the name of a move he recalled from childhood. I had no clue, based on his description, but a reader came up with this movie, and I think it might have been the one in question. Many thanks to readers of this blog for always providing such a wonderful wealth of information. I learn a lot from you. The movie is currently up on YouTube.
Claude Rains stars as a businessman on a fishing trip in the wilds of “the north woods” with his buddy, played by Milton Kibbee. Since the movie is sandwiched in this period of Rains’ career between Mr. Skeffington (1945) and Notorious (1946) and Deception (1946), which we discussed here, it’s a little surprising to see this magnificent actor in his prime appearing in such a low-key, and low-budget-looking film (it runs just over an hour). It’s difficult to surmise whether this is just an example of Rains’ fulfilling his studio contract and getting off the bench when he was called, or if this movie was intended to create a bigger splash but the production never lived up to its greater possibilities.
Rains is a family man. His wife is played by Gloria Holden, and his three young children are Bob (Bobbie) Stebbins, Paul Hilton, and Barbara Bate. It was little Barbara’s only film; the boys both had minor careers in a handful of movies, but Paul actually started in the Our Gang shorts in the 1930s.
Rains’ marriage is a happy one, and he is a doting father. The movie begins when he realizes he must return home from his vacation immediately because it is his wedding anniversary. We have a flashback to his life at home, his kids celebrating Christmas, enduring school assemblies. It is a quiet and contented life, but even through these prosaic early scenes we are jabbed with a sense of foreboding by his voiceover questioning, “How did it happen? When did it happen?”
The director is Arch Oboler, from his screenplay based on his radio play. His name may be more familiar to fans of old time radio for his work as a producer/writer/director, a creator of many thoughtful, inventive radio stories that were powerful in that medium. Here, the emotional and psychological meandering seems somehow diluted as we must wait a rather long time to find out exactly not just how or when, but “what” happened.
Mr. Rains and Mr. Kibbee have taken their trip to get away from the tiring war news. Rains is sick of it and wants a break. They have been gone from home for a few weeks. They have been cut off from any news. They are in such a remote area that it was only accessible to them by plane. Kibbee flies the small plane that is owned jointly by several of their buddies.
The plane has some engine trouble and they land in a field, where they approach a farmhouse to use the phone. The farmer acts as if he is suspicious of them, shuts the door and tells them to go away. The buddies are baffled and miffed, but shrugging it off, they begin to hitchhike down a highway. A truck comes along and they stop the driver. He is also standoffish, rude, but he will take one of them back to town for $20. Kibbee stays with the plane, Claude Rains goes with the truck driver and will send help back.
When he reaches the city where he lives, there is nobody in the streets. He meets a few people he knows, but they shun him. He goes to a familiar shop to buy an anniversary present for his wife, but is told, “We can’t sell anything. You know that.”
He knows nothing, but his unthinking, exuberant nature seems to keep Rains from questioning any of this too deeply. At this point in the film, we have more questions than he does, and the sense of fear comes to him rather late in the game.
He meets someone from work and is told, “You can’t ask questions.” There is no one in the office. There is no one at home. Everyone is fearful and more than a little impatient with him for behaving as if he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He gets on their nerves as much as they get on his.
Two plainclothes detectives grab him and hit him with a blackjack. He wakes up in jail. A slow-talking older man is his cellmate, who kindly brings him water and tries to revive him. He is played by Thaddeus Jones. He had a long acting career, but not many movies and most roles were servants, porters, or waiters. He quiet gentleness is appealing, and unlike all the other frightened citizens, displays humanity despite his obvious helplessness. He tries to tell Rains what’s been happening to society while Rains was on vacay, but it is difficult to comprehend, let alone to explain it. The best he can do is, “They threw out the Bill of Rights.”
Claude Rains doesn’t believe him, and shouts for a lawyer. Though all the authority figures up to this time have been Americans, the local man in charge, called the examiner, is a man with a slight German accent, played by Martin Kosleck. Kosleck had a long career in film and TV, with his earlier movies casting him mostly as terrifying Nazis. He interrogates Rains, wants to know all about his vacation, where did he go. They bring in Rains’ wife, who is crying, and then take her immediately away. They knock Rains unconscious again and he wakes tied to a table, where the examiner will beat him with a rubber hose. We see Rains’ bound hand flinching, and then it does not move.
He is interrogated again and is told, “Discipline, the first rule you must learn in this new state of ours…This glorious new state that we are planting here. The fulfillment of the dreams some of us have had since the day we heard a voice telling us of our destiny.”
Though there are few displays of fascist regalia, it is inferred that this new order came from outside our country, but that we were not so much invaded as displaced by people educated by a foreign fascist doctrine planted here.
The words were likely less chilling to audiences then, when the war was nearly won, than they are today. “We will turn your own democratic weakness against you.” Marches, labor unions, all our freedoms will be wiped away.
In a haze in between beatings, Claude Rains reviews in his tangled mind what has happened. He dreams of an idyllic scene of his family and friends having a picnic in the country, where a young couple discuss their future. “We were too young for the war and we’ll be much too old for the next one…We can have anything and everything we want…” Are the young always so callow and self-centered, so unable to see trouble ahead? Rains, back in his cell ponders with greater regret of those lost in the war, “They died on the battlefield that I might live, and out of their victory, I made nothing.”
Through nightmarish whispers, he confesses, “I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to go on living.”
“I thought that freedom was like the air, always with me as long as I lived. I thought you didn’t have to do anything about it.”
He resolves in his cell to keep on fighting. However, and somewhat disappointingly (because a Resistance-style pushback would have added some satisfying action), it was all a dream. He wakes in the fishing camp in the north woods and is eager to rush home to his wife and kids.
“It was only a dream” is probably the biggest deflator in any movie plot.
A lot more might have been made of this movie, which feels like it was padded a bit to fill out what might have been a more taut radio script. The most chilling aspects are the loss of the Bill of Rights and the way his frightened community has caved. And his confession that he is afraid to go on living.
We are on the brink of such a scenario today. Russian election sabotage mixed with white supremacist street gangs playing soldier with AR-15 weapons, rampant police brutality, along with a Republican Party that has caved in to the Trump Party, all gleefully and greedily conspiring to destroy American democracy, and during a raging pandemic to boot. It would be a good time to wake up.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally. Her next book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - will be out next month.