Holiday (1938)

Holiday (1938)

Toronto Film Society presented Holiday (1938) on Monday, January 24, 1977 in a double bill with Brighton Rock as part of the Season 29 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 6.

Production Company: Columbia.  Associate Producer: Everett Riskin.  Director: George Cukor.  Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, based o the play by Philip Barry.  Photography: Franz Planer.  Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Lionel Banks.  Set Decoration: Babs Johnstone.  Editors: Otto Meyer, Al Clark.  Sound REcording: Lodge Cunningham.  Musical Score: Sidney Cutner.  Musical Director: Morris Stoloff.  Costumer: Kalloch.  Jewelry by: Paul Flato. Assistant Director: Clifford Broughton.  Release Date: June 15, 1938.

Cast:  Katharine Hepburn (Linda Seton), Cary Grant (Johnny Case), Doris Nolan (Julia Seton), Lew Ayres (Ned Seton), Edward Everett Horton (Nick Potter), Henry Kolker (Edward Seton), Binnie Barnes (Laura Cram), Jean Dixon (Susan Potter), Henry Daniell (Seton Cram), Charles Trowbridge (Banker), George Pauncefort (Henry), Charles Richman (Thayer), Mitchell Harris (Jennings), Neil Fitzgerald (Edgar), Marion Ballou (Grandmother), Howard Hickman (Man in Church), Hilda Plowright (Woman in Church), Mabel Colcord (Cook), Bess Flowers (Woman on Staircase), Harry Allen, Edward Cooper (Scotchmen), Margaret McWade (Farmer’s Wife), Frank Shannon (Farmer), Aileen Carlyle (Farm Girl), Matt McHugh (Taxi Driver), Maurice Brierre (Steward), Esther Peck (Mrs. Jennings), Lillian West (Mrs. Thayer), Luke Cosgrave (Grandfather).

Holiday (1938)

Holiday is Philip Barry’s finest play and Cukor’s loveliest film.  It shimmers with grace, intelligence, and humour, and it is laced with deep feeling.  Its story is quintessentially Barry.  Johnny Case, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, falls in love with the wealthy Julia Seton.  Julia presumes that Johnny will naturally accept a job in her father’s bank, but Johnny has another future in mind, and, though he’s not sure what it will be, it doesn’t revolve around such a stuffy, money-making job.  Julia’s sister, Linda, the black sheep of the family, supports Johnny in his fight against her family’s intolerant style of life….

Barry’s play is a romantic comedy, but like many of the better comedies of the twenties and early thirties, it has a serious undercurrent.  Barry is criticizing the materialism of American life, and the snobbishness and stultification that can result from a money-oriented society.  The play has an inherent flaw in that one is not too sure about the sincerity of Johnny Case’s revolt.  There is the faint aroma of the bounder about it.  There is also a touch of the 1920s aesthete who had an inverse snobbism toward the philistine.  Johnny’s credibility depends upon the actor’s ability to charm us into believing the seriousness of his intentions.  Cary Grant succeeds.

Holiday (1938)

Linda Seton, the play’s central character, is as critical of the society in which she lives as is Johnny, but she is also a product of that society.  To it she owes the breeding, the elegance, and the poise that only the background of money can supply.  Her innate intelligence and sensitivity, however, are at odds with the shallow and stultified circle of family and acquaintances who surround her.  Without Johnny, Linda might never have escaped that life of frustration that has already immobilized her equally fine, but weaker, brother Ned.  With Johnny, she escapes–although neither is sure exactly what they may find.  Their chance lies in finding the affirmation of that better life they may have only nebulously formulated but nevertheless passionately believe is possible.

The quality of Holiday springs from the fervor of its optimism and the vibrancy with which Linda affirms it.  From hindsight, we can feel condescending toward its naivete, and it is true that Holiday is very much the product of its time.  In 1938 the film was criticized for being out of step with the mood of a nation not yet out of a depression and close to a war.  Holiday, nonetheless, is an affecting play because of the purity and vigor of the author’s belief in what he is saying.  Barry’s later plays suffer from an attitude of despair.  About this time, Barry began to write straight dramatic plays that failed because he became trapped in the labyrinth of his own confustion.  He was a comic writer who found that there was no time for comedy, and his later comedies such as The Philadelphia Story are synthetic.  They try to recapture the spirit of Holiday, but the author himself no longer really believes in it.

Holiday (1938)

The dialogue of Barry’s early romantic comedies is highly individual.  It is a kind of elegant banter, but under it is an abruptness and tension that suggests that the characters are withholding more than they are telling.  A sampling is the scene between Linda and her alcoholic brother…  The scene is meant to be played lightly.  The relatively short lines which dovetail so beautifully have a swift rhythm which does not allow the underlying emotion to surface. When it does, as Linda says, “I love the boy, Neddy,” the impact is overwhelming.  Then as soon as the emotion is out, the bantering tone is swiftly resumed.  Barry’s gift for dialogue was just this: writing light, airy lines that were nonetheless supercharged with emotion.

The scene quoted above (which is the one Hepburn used for her screen test for A Bill of Divorcement) is quite the loveliest in all American film comedies of the thirties.  Hepburn and Lew Ayres (who plays Ned), are extremely sensitive to the demands of the text, and they play with elegant fluidity, tenderness, and great sensibility.

Holiday exemplifies the type of comedy at which Cukor is best.  There is a strong human situation at its center and strong characters that can be developed and are worth his camer’s time spent lingering over them.  There is not a single misplaced camera set-up or ill-judged cut in the film.  The film can be faulted only on two points.  First, there is the art direction.  A character in the film describes the Seton home as Grand Central Station; one imagines that this was meant to be an exaggeration, but the finished film makes it literally true.  Also some of the minor characters are badly cast.  It is loading one’s guns a little too much to cast such sour, disagreeable actors as Henry Daniell and Henry Kolker as the unlikeable Setons.  Doris Nolan’s uninteresting beauty is no foil for the distinctiveness of Hepburn’s personality.  No Johnny Case worth his salt would look twice at this Julia after he had met Hepburn’s Linda.

Holiday (1938)

In all other areas, Cukor is extremely fortunate in his collaborators.  The titles give credit for the screenplay to both Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but Cukor says that it was Stewart’s work completely.  Stewart played in the original Broadway company of “Holiday”, and he is extremely sympathetic to Barry.  Though the play has been opened up for the screen, Stewart retained the best of Barry’s dialogue almost without change.  The alterations he made strengthen the script.  He virtually rewrote the parts of Susan and Nick Potter, making them warmer and more sympathetic characters (beautifully played by Edward Everett Horton and, particularly, Jean Dixon who retired from the screen after this performance).  These characters are so in tune with the original script that it is a surprise to learn that they are more Stewart’s creation than Barry’s.

The film’s strongest point is Hepburn’s performance.  The part was written for Hope Williams, a theater star of the time, to whom Hepburn was often compared in her early career because of a similarity in their abrupt and boyish manner of playing.  The character of Linda Seton coincides precisely with Hepburn’s abilities as an actress.  Both character and actress are by nature patrician; both are gifted with a shining intelligence–indeed, intelligence is the primary component of Hepburn’s image; both are forceful.  There is an edge of hypertension in Hepburn’s acting that makes her ideal for playing owmen whose finest characteristics or ideals have been, for whatever reason, inhibited or frustrated.  In the long run, for all the analysis in the world, the precise element that makes Hepburn’s performance the lovely thing that it is remains elusive.  Just as Barry’s belief in Linda Seton colors the writing of the role, so in some intangible way does Hepburn’s admiration for the character and the play shines through her performance.

Cukor & Co. by Gary Carey, Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., 1971

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