This classy late-’30s Park Avenue romp gives us Katharine Heburn and Cary Grant at their best; Grant is especially good in a particularly demanding comedy role. The original play is warmed up a bit with comedy touches, and some pointed political barbs slip in there as well. The marvelous acting ensemble gives terrific material to favorites like Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton.
The Criterion Collection 1009
1938 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 7, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell, Ann Doran.
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editor: Al Clark, Otto Meyer
Original Music: Sidney Cutner
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman from the play by Philip Barry
Produced by Everett Riskin
Directed by George Cukor
Holiday was written by Philip Barry, the playwright who tailored The Philadelphia Story for Katharine Hepburn. We’re told that she was the driving force behind this film as well. On the surface it is just another elitist social satire, a frolic with the ultra-rich in Park Avenue digs that look big enough to serve as a museum. A daughter of the snooty rich finds love by catching her sister’s beau on the rebound. He’s an up-by-his-bootstraps man of the people who expresses his joy for life by performing impromptu cartwheels and handstands. Debutante and rebel exit the soft life to find adventure and truth while they’re still young. Did I mention this is a fantasy?
We learn from the informative extras that Holiday’s screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman made several important changes to the Barry play. We can see them for ourselves in Criterion’s presentation, because one of the extras is an HD scan of the earlier 1930 film version of the same play.
An engagement turns a wealthy NYC banking family upside-down, revealing the life pressures put upon the three adult ‘children,’ who still like to congregate in their old playroom upstairs. Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) brings home her fiancée Johnny Case (Cary Grant) to obtain her father’s approval to wed. But Johnny’s wild ideas are met with horror: anticipating making a major killing on Wall Street, he plans to drop out of the rat race and take an indefinite ‘holiday’ to decide what he really wants to do with his life. Julia isn’t pleased either; she wants him to take a position in father’s bank. She does her best to change her sweetheart’s mind, but Johnny is supported by his friends in academia Nick and Susan Potter (Edward Everett Horton of Shall We Dance and Jean Dixon of My Man Godfrey). The Case philosophy does find two new converts in the Seton manse, Julia’s alcoholic brother Edward (Lew Ayres of Johnny Belinda) and her ‘black sheep’ sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Actually, Linda’s conversion is a bit too complete — she’s acutely aware of the crisis in the Seton family, and quickly falls in love with Johnny.
Directed in effortless high style by Cukor, Holiday is a tip-top theatrical presentation that hits all the right notes with a highly likable group of characters. Grant is suitably spirited, but not silly; he jokes about the Seton’s cavernous townhouse but shows respect to Julia’s father. Lew Ayres is the soak of a brother who’s actually a good egg, and Katharine Hepburn is the frustrated nonconformist desperate to be liberated from her gilded birdcage.
This is really one of George Cukor’s most polished jobs of directing, with no missteps in sight. His cast pulls added meaning out of every bit of dialogue and meaningful glance. Cary Grant is so good, Johnny’s talks with his prospective father-in-law are some of the film’s best material. In this version, the upstairs playroom is more than a symbol — Hepburn and Grant perform new bits of business — music, games, and acrobatic tomfoolery that define Johnny and Linda as not having lost their childhood sense of fun. The three Seton children each left behind early ambitions in the arts, interests clearly discouraged by their domineering father.
Although the movie retains the play’s ‘big’ moments of character declaration, the casual scenes of loose, natural fun are what make it special. It feels less rehearsed than similar material in The Philadelphia Story, and even the popular films of Frank Capra. This version also stresses the unhealthy dynamic in the Seton household. One daughter plans to extend the dynasty and the other wants to escape but doesn’t know how. The key is Lew Ayres’ brother Edward, whose personality seems to have been crushed and suppressed by his father’s disapproval. Edward has an easygoing acceptance of everything. He loves his sisters and happily participates in the escapist fun in the playroom. But nobody directly addresses the poisonous truth that the family is letting Edward drink himself to death. Holiday could easily be re-written as a grim family tragedy, with the surviving children making a ‘don’t look back’ final exit from the toxic Usher Seton mansion.
One special surprise is Edward Everett Horton, who gets to play a relatively hip college professor as opposed to one of his usual twits. Professor Potter even has an ideal marriage worked out with the equally adorable Jean Dixon. We like Horton’s fuddy-duddies (Trouble in Paradise) and admire the way he plays sexless busybodies (Lost Horizon). Holiday allows his Prof. Potter to be shown full respect, essentially letting him in on the joke. It’s like spending an hour with a favorite relative who just recovered from a mental illness.
The play, or the screenplay, pussyfoots around its central issue without ever really addressing it. To explain: while working for an investment firm, Johnny Case has pulled off some kind of personal financial coup that will make him independently wealthy — and has impressed Julia’s father. But Johnny talks about ‘big, exciting new ideas coming into the world,’ and to learn about them has planned a trip to Europe, of indefinite duration. He’s essentially ‘dropping out’ of the money-grubbing rat race, a favorite theme of anointed independent thinkers in any decade. We learn nothing about Johnny’s personal philosophy.
The original play was written in 1928, during the economic bubble that preceded the catastrophic Wall Street crash. This movie adaptation takes place when War Clouds were already forecast for Europe’s future. Whereas we can imagine a 1928 Johnny looking for a philosophical alternative to ‘mindless prosperity, 1938 doesn’t sound like an ideal time for a spiritual or political quest in Europe — the continent is being overrun by Fascist dictatorships. As we haven’t a clue what Johnny has in mind, we assume that we’re meant to endorse his Great Escape on the basis of his sincerity — he’s Cary Grant, after all.
Julia and Linda’s stuffy dad (well played by Henry Kolker) is also concerned about new ideas and other vague ‘things’ in his business and wants to keep them at bay. Is Mr. Seton concerned about Communists, or the New Dealers in Washington? Just how dangerous could Johnny’s ideas be, when his stock manipulations business deal makes him a poster boy for capitalism? Johnny is set to scoop up a heap o’ cash earned by other people, and to use it to finance a Junior Siddartha project.
Holiday does have an overt anti-Fascist message, that would likely offend conservatives of 1938. Father’s business friends Seton and Laura Cram (Henry Daniell & Binnie Barnes) congratulate Johnny on his killing. The reptilian Seton’s remark ‘things would be a lot better if the right government were in place’ goes beyond typical anti-FDR sentiment, to endorse outright Fascism. When the Crams enter the playroom, Linda leads her Fun Brigade in giving them a Fascist salute. One would think there would have been a bigger reaction to that gesture — in ’30s comedies, it’s much more common to make absurd Commie characters the butt of a joke.
There’s no such conflict in the resolution of Holiday’s romantic triangle; we know from the start exactly where Johnny’s affections will end up. Julia hasn’t got a chance: does the costumer’s choice of hat for her entrance telegraph her downward romantic trajectory? The hat certainly seems awful now. Thankless roles don’t get more thankless than Julia’s. At first we think her choice of a non-aristocratic mate is a good sign, as it is established that Johnny is a self-made man, a kid who supported himself from age ten. But Julia reveals her true colors the moment Johnny doesn’t keep his end of her bargain. She says things like “Going after money is the most exciting thing there is!” Thus a broad and guilt-free path is opened for the true-hearted Hepburn to claim her man.
The charming Holiday plays exceedingly well, mainly because it updates its play origin with delightful business that makes its characters irresistible. Its unusual politics and escapist ‘dropping out’ theme only make it more interesting.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Holiday is a new 4K digital scan of a photochemical restoration done quite a while ago. Until a so-so DVD turned up, this particular Columbia film was in a shape almost as dire as the studio’s You Can’t Take It with You and Lost Horizon. The filmic rescue must have been accomplished with some down-stream protection copy, for even with the new scanning technology, the image swims in grain. It only becomes distracting in dissolves and wide shots that lose a bit of detail — overall, the presentation is still a delight.
The first extra is a near-flawless HD presentation of the 1930 film version of Holiday, an early talkie starring Ann Harding, Mary Astor and Robert Ames. Poor Mary Astor plays Julia, and must work overtime to seem unreasonable — the actress’s personality fights the role. In a nice touch, Edward Everett Horton plays the exact same character, eight years earlier.
The new extra on board is a lively, informative discussion between critic Michael Sragow and the filmmaker Michael Schlesinger. Their examination of Holiday explains the differences made to the original play and especially the added material from the ace screenwriters and the comedy trimmings afforded by the creative collaboration of Cukor and his star actors. We hear about Hepburn’s status as Boxoffice Poison, and learn that Lew Ayres plays the banjo because that talent was his initial entree into show business. It’s a fine piece by gentlemen who know what they’re talking about and express themselves well.
Criterion’s disc producer has also tapped Oral History audiotapes recorded in the early 1970s, featuring George Cukor speaking to Gavin Lambert. A costume gallery is a another extra. The essayist for the insert folder is Dana Stevens.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Holiday (1930), a previous adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, directed by Edward H. Griffith; new conversation featurette between filmmaker and distributor Michael Schlesinger and film critic Michael Sragow; Audio excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with director George Cukor, recorded in 1970 and ’71 ; Costume gallery; insert folder with an essay by critic Dana Stevens.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 23, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson