Friday, May 14, 2021

Holiday (1938)

USA, 95 minutes
Director: George Cukor
Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, Philip Barry
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Sidney Cutner
Editors: Al Clark, Otto Meyer
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Lew Ayres, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Henry Daniell

Annals of screwball comedy: Holiday came out four months after Bringing Up Baby in 1938. They make interesting companion pieces—one obvious stop for double-feature programmers. Both have Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in starring roles with visible chemistry. Sometimes I think Grant brings all the chemistry necessary for anyone he played with because Hepburn is more of a peculiar and specific figure, as the mid-Atlantic accent attests (though it's true Grant sports the accent too). These two movies are distinguished more by the sensibilities of their directors. Bringing Up Baby is a Howard Hawks picture and shot through with his dry cynicism, all romance dialed way down for the sake of clarifying the absurdity, whereas Holiday, directed by George Cukor, is much closer to romantic comedy than screwball comedy perhaps because Cukor, a certain Hollywood titan on Andrew Sarris's "far side of paradise" (Gaslight, My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, etc., etc.), was more of a romantic than a screwball.

To be sure, both the screwball and much of the romantic elements are the weakest parts of Holiday, the better to focus on its quiet confidence in asserting self-fulfillment as our greatest aspiration over making a lot of money. It is completely audacious in its own way, particularly given its home in the Great Depression when making money was a natural concern for most and getting rich easy seemed like an obvious solution, if you could make it happen. In that way Holiday is more of a bohemian movie at its core, about the pursuit of freedom, self-expression, and happiness. It's a little corny for these sophisticates, a little painfully sincere, but it has a lot to do with what makes this strange gem work.

It's audacious in another way that I particularly like because it's so sneaky-good at it, which is that it's also a movie about one sister stealing the other sister's man, though it's done as fair and square and squeaky clean as it can be. No Freud nettled by our misunderstanding of psychology is spied lurking in the background sucking on a cigar and clearing his throat with furrowed brow. In fact—spoiler!!—the actual theft is not accomplished until approximately the last six minutes of the movie.

Though I love and appreciate him, Cary Grant never reminds me of myself. I am something of an anti-Cary-Grant in my personal life. So it was hard for me to believe it was him espousing my own basic lifelong ethos, which is to get into the rat race only long enough at a time to make some money to go away and live on for a while. (Note: this has been getting harder and harder for 40 years. But that's another, more political story.) "I want to save part of my life for myself," says Johnny Case (Grant). "There's a catch to it, though. It's gotta be part of the young part."

Johnny has made his nut and is ready for a long break—as long as he can go. He is engaged to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan, generic blonde) but it's Julia's older sister Linda (Hepburn) who understands Johnny. Linda is also considered the black sheep of this ultra-rich family, which is funny considering the youngest brother Ned (Lew Ayres) is a ne'er-do-well lush headed for a bad case of DTs one day. Never mind—Ayres is great here, touching on both the humor and pathos of the one tragic figure in the picture, shunted to the side because he's almost such a bummer. While I'm on the character actors, Holiday also has a particular favorite of mine, Edward Everett Horton, who is a pleasure as always.

The father Edward (Henry Kolker) is like a Koch or a Trump—his father made all the family money, he just inherited it and managed not to lose it (so actually doing better than Trump). In other words, he's a bad case of "born on third and thinks he hit a triple" and is generally insufferable with his banker's values and such. Julia is on board with him in most things and Johnny comes awfully close himself.

Still, as insufferable as these stodges are, the heroes do not necessarily come off that well. At one point everyone agrees Johnny and Linda have the spirits and maturity of 17-year-olds, which is not necessarily the compliment Johnny and Linda think it is. These "real people" as opposed to the rich phonies can unfortunately be nearly as unbearable, particularly when they start singing, joking, and jumping around like idiots. Holiday definitely has its cringy quotient.

But these excesses suit my heart and my own aspirations so I'm inclined to forgive them. The ending here is nothing less than sublime—one of the best in romantic comedies. Yes, Holiday is another Depression-era comedy about poor people and their poor rich betters, but that's a branch of screwball comedy I happen to enjoy regularly. Holiday may not be as funny as Bringing Up Baby but it's not embarrassed to pile on with the heartening messages and ends up working for me in spite of all misgivings.


  1. Glad to read your comments here, as I was thinking of re-watching the movie. Now that will come sooner rather than later.

  2. As debonair Hollywood hunks go, old and new, Grant's not the strong, silent type but the sly, talky type, which I prefer enormously. And he's funny.