Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Movies: HOLIDAY (1938) starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

Tuesday means Overlooked Films Day, a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are posting about today.

I am here to confess that, strangely, I've never seen HOLIDAY, although I was sure I had. Possibly I saw bits of it over the years, just never all the way through. I'm so glad I finally decided it was time to change that. I most especially loved Katherine Hepburn in this. She is superb. Grant's good too, as always, but it's Hepburn who steals the show. She is radiant as the sister (the black sheep in the family) supposed to be 'less than' her steely and 'more' beautiful ice blond sister.

But as Lew Ayres (playing her sad, weak-willed brother, Ned) tells her late in the film: "You're twice as beautiful, ten times the person she is." Or words to that effect, I'm paraphrasing. Of course, he's perfectly right. But these are words that Hepburn's character, Linda Seton, has never heard from anyone in her family. It is a wonderful moment.

By the way, the story takes place over the Christmas to New Year's Holiday so it's a perfect film for this time of year, give or take a few weeks from now.

HOLIDAY, as directed by George Cukor, is  not really a comedy though it has its moments. For me, it's more of a romantic drama with touches of comedy and wit. But at its heart, it is anything but light-hearted.  Cary Grant's character (in a manic sort of way) is trying to dodge the bullet. But that particular bullet is never really defined. It's not enough to say that possessions and money are the root of all evil. Besides, Johnny seems a bit too old not to have decided what he wants to do in life. I had a suspicion while watching his antics that a prescription for Zoloft would have done Johnny a world of good.

I also am leery of men who are still called Johnny though they've obviously at an age when John would be more appropriate. Jeez, I'm sounding like the stiff-necked, icy blond dame when I would much rather be Katherine Hepburn. I mean, who wouldn't?

Here's the plot:

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a man newly in love. He thinks he's found the perfect woman in Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), an heiress to millions (though he's unaware of it at the time). They both appear to be impulsive love-at-first-sight types. Ah, but appearances can be so deceiving.

Almost from the first we can see that Julia is all wrong for Johnny, just as he is wrong for her. (He wears a bow tie, for goodness' sake!) But he is besotted. He wants a quick marriage so he and Julia can go off on their own and make their happy life.

Of course, WE know that's not going to happen. Julia is too much daddy's little girl, too much under his restrictive thumb, too much like him - a Wall Street mogul who worships money. As the story develops it's easy enough to see that what Julia wants is someone to manipulate and make into the image of her father. She doesn't realize that Johnny is NOTHING like her father, though he is capable of making a great deal of money. (That part isn't made very clear except that it has something to do with stocks and bonds.)

BUT - Johnny has a plan: once he reaches a certain amount in the bank, he wants to quit work and go on holiday to find himself. Yeah, it's a bit naive and kind of infantile, really, especially in the late 1930's with war on the horizon. But, hey, it's Cary Grant, we'll allow him anything. But still, there's an uneasiness.

When Johnny calls on Julia at home for the first time, he assumes she's a secretary working at this huge mansion in Manhattan - so wrongly has he misread her. But he is soon disabused of this notion. Julia is Miss Ritzy Ritz - she'd simply forgotten to tell him.

The interior of the Seton house looks like an opulent marble mausoleum. It has all the warmth of the Roman Coliseum. Nobody really 'lives' in this house. It's all for show. The only breath of life in that marble cavern is Katherine Hepburn - though she thinks Johnny's the fresh breath of air - once she meets him.

Linda is a poor little rich girl who can't find her place in life. She's older than her sister and still struggling to break free from a domineering father. She's apparently gone about it the wrong way for years. Julia is the apple of her daddy's eye, Linda just the annoying cinder.

But Linda loves her sister and wants her to be happy. She can probably sense that Johnny is the wrong man for Julia, but doesn't really understand it completely until late in the film.

But she almost immediately realizes that Johnny is the happy-go-lucky sort with his own very definite view of the world. He isn't ready to buckle under the strictures of wealth and position.

When, out of her devotion to Julia, Linda decides she wants to give the happy couple a small, private party for their engagement, she begs Linda not to allow the party to be taken over by all the usual hoopla. She wants to plan and carry out the whole thing herself, up in the play room where it's comfy and cozy. "Let me do this for you," pleads Linda.

The playroom, with its fireplace and comfortable chintz sofas looks like something transported from a New England cottage - yet its on the fourth floor of the mansion. The room served as a 'retreat' for Julia's late mother - someone who, like Linda, needed as escape from the cold marble downstairs. It's the room where Linda feels most at home.

But Julia and her father ignore Linda's wishes (as usual) and we get a quick cut from Julia and Linda hugging on the stairs, to a gilded invitation inviting all of  New York society (it seems) to the Seton engagement soiree. It also happens to be New Year's Eve.

Julia refuses to come downstairs and of course, much is made of her absence by the society snoots cavorting among the marble. But soon, the playroom is filled with laughter when Johnny's friends, Professor Potter and his wife - the wonderful Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon (who appear to have the kind of easy-going, affectionate marriage all of us dream of) show up and find their way upstairs. Then Ned joins them, drunk as usual.

Johnny proceeds to have a grand time with Linda. They do some sort of acrobatic routine and roll around on the floor laughing. Much to her father's and Julia's dismay when they come upstairs looking for Johnny. This dame has forgotten what it is to have fun. Fun that doesn't have anything to with money, that is.

I think, really, that all this silly physical stuff (Johnny can do a backward flip and a somersault at the drop of a hat and does so when he feels pressured) is meant by the director as as easy way to show up the differences between the sisters - Linda joins in the fun - Julia is indulgent, though increasingly annoyed. It's obvious she wonders when Johnny will grow up. It's also a very visual way to show the differences between up tight society  types and the easy going Johnny and his friends who feel free to indulge their eccentricities.

Julia has no idea what Johnny is. He doesn't care much about making money, he wants to be happy, he wants to enjoy life. Money is just a means to that end. But, Julia says, in a very chilling moment: "There's nothing like the thrill of making money."

My feeling is that Julia has taken the place of the son in her father's eyes. Ned is a weakling who shows up at work at the family firm only because his father insists. He just isn't strong enough to break free. He has talent as a musician, which was (as is made obvious) his true calling, but, Linda explains, "Father soon put a stop to that."

If Seton women worked, Julia would be down at the firm making money for her daddy.

On New Year's Eve, before Johnny gives voice to his doubts, Linda and he dance up in the playroom - just the two of them - and you realize that Linda is in love with him and what's worse, she hates herself for it. When he makes a motion to deepen a friendly kiss, she backs off and sends him downstairs to Julia.

That night Johnny leaves the mansion and disappears for a few days - "...to think things over."

Later there is a quietly powerful scene as Linda finds out how her sister really feels about her. Julia has resented Linda - gone around her ideas or blocked them, whichever was easiest for her and father.

Hepburn is superb as she reels from the news that the love she'd envisioned between herself and her sister simply doesn't exist. She backs into a corner as she'd been physically struck.

But Linda wants what's best for Johnny and if Julia is what he wants, then it's Julia he shall have.

Johnny comes back from a few days away, full of purpose. He's decided to give Julia an ultimatum. He's sailing for Europe with his friends the Potters and wants Julia to run off with him. She says no and Johnny shows up at the mansion to speak to her and her father.

SPOILERS coming up...

When Johnny (capitulating) says, that as a compromise he's decided to work for Seton's firm for two years and then he'll re-evaluate - something Julia had proposed - all seems settled. Then, because he can't help himself, Seton, senior, offers the couple their own townhouse and a staff of servants as a wedding present. Then he maps out their entire European honeymoon down to their sailing schedule. Johnny stands numbly by while Julia is delighted.

But he's had enough. Johnny can see that compromise is impossible. He breaks it off with Julia (FINALLY!) and walks out..

Linda immediately confronts Julia. She (FINALLY!) realizes that Julia doesn't love Johnny - she is incapable of the sort of unencumbered love Johnny was offering. Linda says, "Why, you never loved him. Look at you, you're relieved it's over."  Julia responds, "Of course I'm relieved."

It's another chilling moment really and we breathe a sigh of our own relief at Johnny's fortuitous escape.

Linda decides to go after Johnny on board ship. She tries to get Ned to go with her, sail with them. But Ned simply hasn't the courage.

So Linda rushes down to the boat and she and Johnny sail off together into their happy future.

Yup, Johnny's head over heels.

I think, possibly, this movie isn't as popular as many other Cary Grant films for a very good reason. The film isn't sure what it wants to be. It's not a comedy, it's not totally a drama. It also has some very unpleasant characters. Henry Daniells for one. Hisss....!

Henry Daniell...hisss...!

The director, or maybe it's the script, doesn't quite make Johnny's mania for somersaults and yearning to discover what he was meant to do in life, all that appealing or even, charming.

It's not enough to be against something, you have to have a good reason for it. The Setons, father, daughter and son, are the status quo, that is evident. Julia and her father would have smothered Johnny. No one can blame him for wanting out. But it's not enough to be anti-stuffed shirt or anti-society, or anti-whatever, you have to be FOR something else. What exactly is Johnny for?

In my view, that's the weakness in the film. What exactly is Johnny for?

But, if you don't think about it too much, it's possible to enjoy this film for the wonderful performances, most especially that of Katherine Hepburn, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon. Cary Grant is good with a very difficult part.


  1. "Holiday" is one of my New Year's perennials. It evokes a strange mix of joy and melancholy. Some years I get a little peeved at Johnny, but some years I know his heart really is in the right place.

    What intrigues me is that there is an earlier version of the play made in 1930 that no one I know has ever seen. Edward Everett Horton played Nick Potter in that one as well. Ann Harding was Linda and Mary Astor was Julia.

  2. Oh, Mary Astor would have been perfect too. Who played Johnny in the earlier version? I've never seen it.

  3. An actor named Robert Ames played Johnny. He has few credits as he passed away in 1931. He must have had something to be cast in the role. The 1930 "Holiday" has turned into a Holy Grail sort of movie for me.

  4. C.W.: If I see or hear anything I'll be sure to let you know. Though I didn't even know there had been a previous film.

  5. One of my favorites. Love Lew Ayres in this.

    I think you've hit it on the head here: "But it's not enough to be anti-stuffed shirt or anti-society, or anti-whatever, you have to be FOR something else. What exactly is Johnny for?"

    Very good point.

  6. You really nailed the unsatisfying thing about the movie. He's charming but what's underneath remains there. It's like a Pinter play.

  7. 'if he wants to sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts' (- or something to that effect.) That says love to me. As do the Potters.
    I think it a perfect movie. It is my favorite Hepburn and Grant and Ayres film. I don't think any of them have ever been better, more real.
    I don't think he has to be 'for' anything. He is a young man not fitting the mold. I think it is a film that says it isn't what you do, but who you are. More people need to figure that out even now. People say, 'I am a lawyer, a builder, a plumber' - instead they should say I do plumbing, I build furniture,etc. Who we are shouldn't be all about how we earn our money.
    Oh, I could go on and on. I so, so, so love this movie.
    And those flips - well they just make it for me. How better to clear one's mind - quite modern the idea of physical exercise calming the mind. Let alone what a pure delight it is every single time.
    And those Potters. I keep returning to them. I think Linda and Johnny will be like them.
    And lots of grownups still use the 'y' on their names. Often in the south, but also around here - Eddie, Matty, Gordie, Johnny, and even Tom is often called Tommy by those who knew him that way first. :<)

  8. Jacqueline: I agree, really. I love Cary Grant but he makes me a bit uneasy in this film. Nan says they will wind up like the Potters - I hope so. I really do.

  9. Patti: Yes, he's definitely an enigma. Also, all this happens over the span of a week or so. Lots of tumultuous changes. Does he know his own heart?

    I hope so.

  10. Nan: Yes, yes, yes, I want to agree so completely with you. But I can't help feeling, as I said, an unease.

    I understand about people being defined by how much they make - certainly the Setons are prime examples of that. They ENJOY making money, it's their reason for living.

    They are dreadful people and my heart goes out to Ned for being unable to tear himself away.

    I get all that.

    I also understand that Johnny is appalled by this way of life. But he rails against possessions. Does that mean that he and Linda will have NO possessions? Does that include a house? Are they destined to wander the world like the Flying Dutchman?

    It's okay if you love this movie, Nan. I really want to love it too.

    But I guess it's okay if I don't love it as much as you. :)

  11. I love Nan's enthusiam for this movie. If you fall in love with a film, that's just how it should be.

  12. Maybe they'll have a little cozy homey apartment like the Potters!

  13. I agree, Jacqueline. That's how I feel about my favorite films. :)

  14. Nan: I hope so. The Potters are so loveable. I'm mad about their marriage. :)

  15. Well, I yawn a bit about movies about the rich unless there are real challenges and drama about real people that mix it up a bit.

    However, I adore Katherine Hepburn, so I'll watch it, and I like Cary Grant, too, so I should enjoy the movie.

    Being anti-wealth and possessions doesn't mean he doesn't want the basics of existence. It means he doesn't attach importance to opulence, to wealth as a means of identity, class, self-importance.

    However, what he's for: I have to see the movie. Maybe he's for having a leisurely, fun life, with love and humor. That's o.k., but he has to earn a living somehow.

    I must see it now, even if only to try to answer these pressing questions.

  16. Ok, ok, I see your point, but but but...

    You know I love this pairing. These are my favorite actors, and I really enjoyed this film, though I do understand what you're talking about with Johnny.

    You just constantly feed my classic film addiction. Thanks for that!

  17. Also, I know two wonderful men named Johnny. One is a great dad and overall nice person, and the other did something so kind, generous and poignant that I tear up thinking of it.

  18. Kathy: I think that's what he's for, really. But...

    Oh, you have to see the film and decide for yourself. :)

  19. You're welcome, Picky!

    I know, I know, it's hard to find fault with Cary Grant, he's so perfect. :)

    It's definitely a film that gives rise to discussion, that's for sure.

  20. Kathy: Yeah, yeah, that's true. Forget I said that. ;)

  21. Did you know that this film plus Bringing Up Baby almost ended Hepburn's film career, Yvette? She came to be seen as box office poison because men felt intimidated by her. She had to prove herself a good sport and get punched in the face (in The Philadelphia Story) to get back in the public's good graces. It's one of my favorite screwball comedies as well--and maybe my favorite Hepburn-Grant pairing.

  22. Robin - hi! No, I didn't know that about these two films. Wow. I LOVE BRINGING UP BABY!!

    I also love THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, though BRINGING UP BABY and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE remain my favorite Cary Grant films.

    But as for Hepburn and Grant pairings then I agree: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is added to the mix.

    Are men so easily intimidated?? Jeez.

  23. One other little note, Yvette: Grant HATED his performance in "Arsenic and Old Lace." Capra told him to ham it up and Grant tried to distance himself from the role for years afterwards. I, on the other hand, remember seeing the movie in Paris as a kid and loving it.

    You've got to remember that guys sense of masculinity was already suffering a blow from the Great Depression. That's why they preferred Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. But yes, we guys need to stop being so fragile.

  24. Robin: I think possibly Hepburn's intelligence was a key factor. On screen, she never looked less than VERY intelligent, even when she was playing vulnerable as in HOLIDAY. I suppose some men would prefer their leading ladies a bit dumbed down. :)

    As for Cary Grant. I never thought he was the best judge of his own work. Well, I'll bet most actors aren't. He was brilliant in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Grant could sometimes come across as unlikeable (yes, I'm afraid he could) but not in this film and not in BRINGING UP BABY. In THE PHILADELPHIA STORY he is kind of intimidating and basically blames his drinking on Hepburn's character. Just as her father blames his unfaithfullness on the mother. Very handy. Still, it's a great movie.


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