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Friday Film Review: Holiday

Holiday (1938)
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Grade: B

This movie is really a bit of a fudge as a Christmas/New Year’s themed one since the main emphasis of the film isn’t the holiday season. Instead, the film is set from right around Christmas until shortly after the new year begins. But, what the heck. Read through to the end for a short bonus review.

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a free thinking young man who meets, charms and becomes engaged to a young woman, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), while they’re both on vacation at Lake Placid. But it’s only when he goes to meet the family that he realizes just how much money he’ll be marrying into. Julia is one of ‘The Setons’ of Fifth Avenue wealth and she expects Johnny to continue in the banking business after they’re married. But Johnny has the radical notion of making some money then quitting to enjoy himself and decide what he wants to do for the rest of his life while he’s still young enough to enjoy doing it. Julia’s older sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn) and younger, alcoholic, brother Ned (Lew Ayers) see Johnny and his lack of reverence for riches as a breath of fresh air while Mr. Seton (Henry Kolker) and cousin Seton Cram (Henry Daniell) and his wife Laura (Binnie Barnes) find it appalling.

Will Johnny, along with his friends Prof Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and wife Susan (Jean Dixon), be able to get Julia to see things as Johnny does? Or is it really Julia whom Johnny should be with anyway?

Another thing to note about this movie is that it is not a screwball comedy. There are funny bits, as Johnny has a habit of doing somersaults and back flips, but it’s really more an exploration of what Johnny and Linda want from life and what they’re willing to do to get that. Can they be true to themselves or will Johnny be coerced into the Wall Street rat race while Linda silently dies inside as her family forces her into a straight jacket of Social Expectations? Johnny is a rebel from the work world while Linda yearns to escape her privileged life of enforced ease. With his charm, good looks and acrobatic skills Grant is wonderful in the roll of a man who’s pulled himself up from humble beginnings and who isn’t ashamed to admit how he got where he is now. Hepburn plays the woman who has the confidence of a moneyed upbringing but who will never be satisfied merely sitting back and watching as more filthy lucre pours into the family coffers. She and her two siblings are the third generation of the family with money and, based on real wealthy families, that is when things generally start to fall apart so it does make sense.

I like the pairing of Grant and Hepburn and as others have said, I wish they had done more pictures together. Nolan is cool and in control as Julia – more an ice maiden than a woman truly on fire with love, though she comes across as the eldest sister rather than younger. Ayes is good as the more a tragic figure in the family – a man of true musical talent who must resort to alcohol, and lots of it, to deaden the pain of the life his father has mapped out for him. But the two people I love the most in the film are Nick and Susan Potter who are Johnny’s down to earth friends. Watch for their arrival at the fancy party Mr. Seton insists on hosting to announce Julia and Johnny’s engagement. And then check out the other party that develops in the family’s almost forgotten playroom. Those who prefer the “childrens’ room” are far more intelligent about life and what is truly important. Though it shows how much she loves her sister and wants her to be happy, I do tire a bit of Linda insisting that Julia will change and how she keeps forcing Johnny and Julia together in the face of Julia’s growing nonchalance at Johnny’s plans for life. A woman who’d wear a ghastly gnome hat like Julia first does will never be the one for Johnny.

Holiday is a dramedy with some farcical elements but at heart its underlying message is that money isn’t everything and that we shouldn’t sell our souls for it. I wonder how this actually played out during the Depression. Even without the order of names in the opening credits, it’s easy to see who Johnny belongs with – the person who loves him as he is and who doesn’t feel the need to change him. Check it out to see Grant and Hepburn together and Grant in a role on his way to his ultimate persona of suave leading man. B

So, what’s the bonus? Did you know that there is an earlier version of this film done in 1930? I didn’t until I started reading up on the 1938 one. Edward Everett Horton actually reprises the same role and much of the dialog of the first 2/3 of it is word for word that of the later film. Ann Harding, whom I’d never heard of, plays Linda with more desperation than Hepburn conveys while Mary Astor of Maltese Falcon fame, is Julia. Robert Ames is a charming Johnny without the acrobatics and I was saddened to learn he died shortly after the film was released. The main differences between the two pictures begin during the fancy ball, continue through a very different playroom scene and include a scene of cousin Seton and his obnoxious wife attempting to take over the wedding rehearsal. I do prefer the 1938 ending as it feels like it has more closure.

It didn’t take me that long to find a DVD of this version though I can see why the film has been so forgotten since the print is in bad condition. It also suffers from a lack of background/incidental music which makes scenes feel more static and allows the hiss and pops of the soundtrack to be heard. Still the acting and staging is more natural than I would have expected this close to the silent film era and it’s a movie that I wish could be brushed up a touch to bring it to modern audiences. As it is, it’s probably not worth putting a great deal of money and effort into it to track it down since the 1938 one is so easily found and just as enjoyable.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

12 Comments

  1. dri
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 04:19:42

    Ann Harding! Gosh! I’ve just discovered her in another Philip Barry film that pretty much has the exact same themes as Holiday, only omg it’s so much more scandalous in that delicious pre-Code way. The Animal Kingdom, with Ann Harding and Myrna Loy and Leslie Howard. Gosh, now I HAVE to track down the earlier version of Holiday. I can totally imagine how Ann Harding would have played it.

    Having said that, I can’t tell you how excited I just got to see you tweet this post. Holiday really is my favourite film after The Philadelphia Story and quite frequently it trumps that one. I totally see what you’re saying about the flaws of it, definitely. And omg sometimes I find it such an unbearably sad film but I guess that’s why I love it too. Lew Ayres as Ned just breaks my heart every single time, so much so I had to write not one but two pieces of fan fiction to give him a happy ending beyond the film. So much so it’s taken me all this while to work up the nerve to watch him in All Quiet On The Western Front. *gulp*

    But yes, the Potters! I particularly adore Binnie Barnes, how very sarcastic she is. For some reason, I always think of Susan Potter as a feminist and that’s prolly what she lectured at the uni. And omg, those few throwaway lines about the imminent World War! “Like which country, for instance?” And the heil. Thrills me with terror every time. They’re two such quick moments but man, they get me with the sheer subtlety of that reminder in this apparent high society comedy.

    How funny, I always wanted more of that last scene in the passageway … hmm. *ponders*

    Also, YES! That gnome hat! Bahahaha! Notice that is the only time she actually looks somewhat attractive? The moment she takes it off, her face becomes so hard and unattractive, so … thrusting. I always marvel at how such a ridiculous hat actually flatters her face. The costume design in those times, man … so clever and so tricky.

    And the frills on that hideous lame gown … gah. Gimme Kate’s long sleek black gown with the back torso slit any day … *swoons*

    But yay for the Cukor/Grant/Hepburn love!

  2. Evangeline Holland
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 04:54:46

    I’ve seen both versions and agree with your assessment of Harding vs Hepburn (love, love, love Harding by the way–check her out in Peter Ibbotson with Gary Cooper and Double Harness with William Powell), but I think the character of “Julia Seton” fits Katharine Hepburn like a glove. One thing that interests me about the screwball comedy is how much they emphasize going against the grain of Society and the tug-of-war between the upper classes and the lower classes. Considering that upward mobility has always been a part of American conscious–even during the lean 30s–and that Hollywood recreated their own upper-crust way of life both onscreen and in real life for the stars who usually came from hardscrabble backgrounds, the romantic dramas & screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s seemed to adore the lavishness of Society and question our conflict with wealth and class over and over again. Perhaps this is why romances set in Gilded Age society are rare, yet why we tend to imbue “English” aristocrats with very American ideals.

  3. joanne
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 06:54:43

    I loved this movie and liked the Hepburn edition more then the earlier movie. It took courage for Linda to trust in love and leave everything & everyone else behind (not a recommendation of behavior for the young & silly, just my romance reader point of view!)

    Lew Ayers brought the ‘lost soul’ to almost every role he played and his performance in Holiday was a beautiful gem.

    Lovely review Jayne, thank you.

  4. Jayne
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 08:18:36

    @dri: Yes, give me Hepburn’s black gown! Actually the one that Harding wears in the same scenes of the 30 film are so much better than what Astor gets. Early 30s women’s fashions flattered few.

    The Ned scene which makes me so sad is at the very end when Linda is trying to get her brother to leave with her and he’s so tempted and so close to leaving but…he just can’t quite yet throw over the money and security. But she really shows here that she’s the eldest when she promises him “I’ll be back for you.”

  5. Stephanie
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 09:54:18

    Loved this film from the moment I saw it, years ago, on a late night PBS broadcast. It was a double-header with “The Philadelphia Story.” I hear it didn’t play that well at box offices because of the Depression, and because Hepburn was still overcoming her reputation as “box office poison.” But she’s so well-cast as Linda Seton, and Grant is charming and down to earth as Johnny. And the film is less farcical than “Bringing Up Baby” and less abrasive (in my opinion) than “The Philadelphia Story,” so I personally liked it more.

    And I found the family dynamics between the Setons and even the Potters as intriguing as the romance. You can see that Johnny wants the marriage of true minds that exists between his best friends. His mistake is thinking he’ll ever get that from the ultra-conventional Julia. Maybe she came across very differently in Lake Placid.

  6. Darlene Marshall
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 10:09:16

    Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one, but I’m going to keep my eyes open for it now. Thanks for the review!

  7. Karenmc
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 10:13:29

    “Holiday” has always seemed so magical and sweet that I consider it a real treasure. The Potters, of course, are the perfect friends, and Grant and Hepburn doing acrobatics without the use of doubles is quite the treat. Now I’ll have to track down the 30’s version.

    BTW, Turner Classic Movies is showing several Cary Grant films this Saturday afternoon/evening, and “Holiday” is one of them.

  8. Isobel Carr
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 10:17:12

    I adore Holiday. Own it on DVD. A perfect lazy day for me is a marathon of Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story.

  9. Amy Kathryn
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 10:38:31

    I love how the mini-party moves to the playroom. There always seems to be a party within a party at most of the shindigs I attend these days.

    I also adore Hepburn’s gown. I also really like the one Rosemary Clooney wears in White Christmas when the faux engagement is announced…a v-neck black dress with a lovely crisscross detail in the neckline. I wish I knew a really talented seamstress because I would rock that dress! I have a whole wardrobe in mind from watching old movies.

  10. carmen webster buxton
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 15:52:23

    I loved the Potters! We see them sitting at home, and there’s a knock at their door, which makes Nick ask, “You expecting anyone?” When Susan says no, they both ignore the knock because they’re happy as they are. That one scene told us what we needed to know about them. Great story telling!

  11. Karla
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 16:36:42

    @Jayne:

    I find the scenes with Lew Ayres inctredibly poignant. When I first saw this movie with a good friend, we both came to the realization that he is drinking himself to death, and he knows it, but sees it as the only way he can get out. I find myself really believing Linda comes back to get him.

  12. Ducky
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 23:23:12

    Love that movie. Lew Ayres character made me cry.

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