Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon: Holiday (1938)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, currently underway from May 10-12 and hosted by Margaret Perry.  For a list of participating blogs and the movies/topics discussed, click here.

Returning from a December vacation spent skiing at Lake Placid, iconoclastic Johnny Case (Cary Grant) drops in on his like-minded friends Susan and Nick Potter (Jean Dixon, Edward Everett Horton) with sensational news: he’s engaged to a young woman named Julia Seton (Doris Nolan).  The Potters don’t know exactly how to digest Johnny’s announcement; Johnny knows very little about his intended, but he’s about to discover that she’s a member of one of Park Avenue’s wealthiest families—her father Edward (Henry Kolker) is a well-respected banker and financier, and Johnny’s expected at their home for a lunch date where he’ll ask for Julia’s hand in marriage.

Arriving at Seton Manor—which resembles a museum more than a residence—Johnny meets Julia’s sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn), who’s considered the “black sheep” of the family because of her unconventionality.  (Johnny also encounters—very briefly—the youngest of the Seton children, Edward, Jr. [Lew Ayres]; “Ned” is a dipsomaniac who depends on drink to deal with his stifling existence as the sole scion of the demanding senior Seton.)  Linda, recognizing a kindred spirit in Johnny, takes an immediate shine to her would-be brother-in-law…and though Edward is a tough sell in agreeing to the marriage, she helps Julia convince the Seton patriarch to give his consent after Seton talks with Johnny’s business associates about his future prospects.  All Linda asks in return is to be able to throw her sister an intimate engagement party in the family “playroom”; a no-frills affair with a small gathering of both Julia and Johnny’s friends.

To her dismay, both Julia and Pa Seton hijack the engagement party with a toney, high-class New Year’s Eve soiree…inviting the societal upper crust, notably the family’s snobbish cousin Seton Cram (Henry Daniell) and his equally snooty wife Laura (Binnie Barnes).  Linda boycotts the festivities, and holes up in the playroom…but she’s in good company; she’s been joined by Neddie and the Potters, and the four of them laugh, sing songs and have far more fun than the swells downstairs.  Irritated by Linda’s behavior, Julia persuades Johnny to go upstairs and do what he can to talk Linda into coming down.  Seeing the Potters enjoy themselves, Johnny joins in the festivities until the merriment comes to a screeching halt with the arrival of Julia and Edward.

The elder Seaton may have greenlighted the Johnny-Julia nuptials…but he’s also declared himself the architect of their future, insisting that the young Case take a job at his bank.  Johnny has other ideas—he’s set aside enough money (from a successful business deal) to allow himself to take a “holiday” from the rat race; his philosophy is to enjoy life while he’s still able—“retire young and work old.”  Johnny’s discussed his plans with Julia (and Linda) but she seems to be siding with her father’s insistence that the Case viewpoint on life is crazy talk—and though Johnny agrees to put on a charade for the benefit of the crowd at the Seton New Year’s shindig, he departs shortly after Edward makes the grand engagement announcement without revealing where he’s headed.

Linda desperately searches for Johnny’s whereabouts—even dropping in on the Potters, where she learns that Susan and Nick will be sailing for Paris that evening and that Johnny intends to sail with them.  Johnny’s travel plans are contingent upon Julia’s agreeing to accompany him; a telegram to the Potters reveals that Julia has said no.  Even though she has strong feelings for Johnny (which she divulged to Ned the night of the New Year’s party) Linda’s willing to stand aside because she loves her sister Julia so.  Linda even tries to convince her sis that in refusing to go with Johnny she’ll be throwing away her best shot at happiness.  Linda need not worry; Johnny arrives at the Seton’s and gives in—he’ll acquiesce to Julia’s wishes and take that job at the bank.  It’s only when Edward further demonstrates the depths of his meddling—deciding where the couple will live, the servants they’ll hire, etc.—that Johnny comes to his senses and loudly declares Julia is not the woman for him.  Linda, after seeing that Johnny’s departure means nothing to her spurned sister, is only too willing to become the woman meant for Johnny…she’ll make that appointment on the boat setting sail with the Potters, and she and Johnny will live happily ever after.

This rare lobby card shows a deleted sequence where Johnny (Cary Grant) and Julia (Doris Nolan) first meet at Lake Placid,

The title of the romantic comedy Holiday has two meanings: it refers to the vacation where Johnny Case first meets Julia Seton—a sequence which was actually filmed by director George Cukor but was later excised because Cukor hated it.  (The DVD release of Holiday features a number of surviving production stills from this vacation scene.)  But its main interpretation describes the offbeat philosophy of Johnny Case: he’s a man who’s had to work since the age of ten, and twenty years later he’s ready to take a breather in order to take stock of his life, wanting to decide what direction he wants his career to go.  It’s not a particularly radical viewpoint—why shouldn’t you take time to stop and smell the roses if you’re financially comfortable to be able to enjoy a little posy-sniffing without worrying about the bills?  To a man like Edward Seton, Sr., Johnny’s views are “Un-American”; the elder Seton has done nothing but acquire wealth all his life, and only his shallow daughter Julia appears to share his worldview.  (His late wife “tried to be a Seaton for a while, then gave up and died,” Ned informs Johnny sadly.  Linda and her mother seem to be the only members of the family unaffected by the drive to make money—even the philosophical Ned has been snared in his father’s trap, and drinks heavily to cope with the consequences of “selling out.”)

Holiday’s origins can be traced to a successful play written by Philip Barry, which ran for 229 performances between 1928 and 1929.  One of those performances featured a young Katharine Hepburn as Linda; Kate was the understudy for Hope Williams, who emoted in the remaining 228.  Also in the cast was future screenwriter-playwright Donald Ogden Stewart (as Nick Potter), who would adapt his good friend Barry’s screenplay for the Hepburn-Grant version.  (Stewart shares screen credit with Sidney Buchman, though director Cukor would later claim the screenplay was entirely Stewart’s work.)

Holiday had already been adapted for the silver screen earlier in a 1930 version that featured Ann Harding in the Hepburn role—a performance that earned Harding an Oscar nod for Best Actress (and Horace Jackson a nom for Best Adaptation).  I have not seen the Harding version (my BBFF Stacia has, and you can read about it here) so I’m not able to compare-and-contrast but most sources seem to agree both versions have their strong and weak points.  It’s interesting to note that Edward Everett Horton appears in the 1930 film as Nick Potter, and he reprised his role for the remake; in the earlier movie, he and wife Susan are socialites and dues-paying members of the Idle Rich…but in the Hepburn version they made the Potters academics, reasoning they would be the type of folks with which the “common man” Johnny would associate (and staving off any potential criticism of the portrayal of “lazy” rich people while the Depression was still in full swing).

Holiday fell under the purview of Columbia in 1936 when studio head Harry “White Fang” Cohn purchased it and several other scripts from RKO for $80,000.  At one time Columbia thought the property would be perfect for Joan Blondell (as Julia) and Ginger Rogers (as Linda).  (Starlet Rita Hayworth was also tested for the role of Julia.)  Most modern sources suggest that it was Katharine Hepburn who pressed Cohn to produce the remake, insisting on Grant as her leading man and Cukor as director; Columbia had acquired Kate’s services after she refused to appear in a bit of RKO fromage entitled Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Hepburn and Grant had previously appeared in that same year’s Bringing Up Baby—a screwball comedy that nearly all classic movie devotees acknowledge as one of the best in its genre…but at the time of its release did so poorly at motion picture theaters it was one of several movies that earned the actress a reputation for being “box office poison.”  Kate and Cary had first been teamed in 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett, and would do their fourth and final film together with The Philadelphia Story in 1940; Hepburn would take a “holiday” herself after Holiday performed only so-so with moviegoers (though the critics were quite glowing in their appreciation for the film) and returned to the stage…Holiday screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart would adapt another one of Barry’s plays, The Philadelphia Story, as Hepburn’s movie “comeback” (she had appeared in that stage play to great acclaim) and would win an Academy Award for his efforts.

Holiday is my favorite Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant film.  I’m quite fond of Sylvia Scarlett, you understand—its gender-bending theme is a fascinating one, and quite daring for its time—and to be honest, it was my first choice for the Hepburn blogathon; I just wasn’t sure whether I would be able to locate my copy (I had to let the housekeeper go a while back).  Bringing Up Baby has its cult, ‘tis true, and so does The Philadelphia Story—but I find Kate’s character in Baby intolerably obnoxious and Philadelphia’s insistence that I sympathize with the problems of rich people just isn’t my cup of Lipton’s Brisk.  But Holiday is the one I revisit time and time again—an irresistible paean to nonconformity.  I know that’s odd because Holiday and Philadelphia are so similar: they both spotlight a background of wealth and privilege, feature heroines who eschew their moneyed lifestyles, and were adapted by Stewart from Barry plays.  For me, Holiday has much more substance than Philadelphia…and Kate’s Tracy Lord (from Philadelphia) is much more shallow and brittle than the captivating Linda Seton (Holiday).  (Both the Tracy and Linda characters were based on real-life socialites of Philip Barry’s acquaintance.)

In my family, the “black sheep” was the individual who acquired a criminal record or who made their vocation running 'shine.  (We had so many “black sheep” the “white sheep” were practically outnumbered.)  For the Family Seton, Linda is a “black sheep” because of her idealism and her embrace of nonconformity.  It’s established very early on that Linda can certainly hold her own in disagreements with her father, and that she is the family’s true moral center.  The electric attraction between herself and Johnny is apparent from their first meeting (of course, we can pretty much gamble on the two of them ending up together because Kate and Cary are Holiday’s stars), and the testament to Linda’s fine character is that she fights off any deep feelings she has toward Case because she doesn’t want her sister, whom she loves very much, to be hurt.  It’s an agonizing temptation: Linda and Johnny connect via their idealism and eccentricities, and she develops a closeness to his individualistic friends the Potters almost from their inaugural introduction as well.

The unorthodox Linda should have been shed of the Setons a long time ago.  She stays out of devotion to Julia (the scene where she realizes that her sister doesn’t love Johnny is a revelatory one) and Neddie, who thinks very much like his sister except for a weak will that keeps him bound to his father (and that’s the reason why he imbibes early and often, to numb the pain).  (My favorite moment in the film is when Linda, realizing Ned isn’t strong enough to break free from the binds of the house, promises to come back for him.  “I’ll be here,” answers Ned quietly.)  Johnny will provide the impetus for her “jailbreak”; after seeing Linda light up whenever she’s in his company all through the movie’s running time; watching her grab at the opportunity to make him happy is an emotionally joyous one.  “Oh, I've got all the faith in the world in Johnny,” she assures her family.  “Whatever he does is all right with me.  If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!”

I’m much more tolerant of Hepburn and Grant’s physical comedy antics in Holiday than I am of their doings in Bringing Up Baby.  The slapstick in Baby is often a bit forced; watching the couple step on the back of a sofa as they land on the floor and perform amazing tumbling feats in Holiday (Grant’s former career as an acrobat really comes into play here) is positively irresistible.  Grant is out of his wheelhouse playing a likable everyman (we usually associate him as the picture of suavity and sophistication), and he’s never unconvincing in the part.  Lew Ayres had the role of his career as the younger brother whose judgment is razor-sharp and astute despite peering through an alcoholic fog (Ayres’ melancholy take on the typical “screen drunk” should have garnered an Oscar nomination).  Doris Nolan has the thankless role of being the “ogre” in Holiday, but I’m always impressed at how her true colors as a wealth-obsessed dilettante are gradually exposed throughout the film instead of being apparent from the first reel.

I mentioned earlier that character great Edward Everett Horton reprised his earlier turn from the 1930 Holiday as Nick Potter; the man who became one of the embodiments of the silver screen “sissy” is sensational as the offbeat Nick, with Jean Dixon irresistible as his soul-mate (she reminds me a little of Ruth Donnelly in this).  (Sadly, Holiday would be Dixon’s feature film swan song—she retired from movies shortly after.)  TDOY faves Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes are also first-rate as the detestable Crims (Daniell later appeared as the magazine publisher in The Philadelphia Story), and if you’re quick you’ll spot another blog favorite, Ann Doran, as one of the kitchen help.

It’s inconceivable (I’ll spare you my Wallace Shawn impression) that the only Academy Award nomination received by Holiday was for Best Art Direction (Stephen Goosson and Lionel Banks); it remains one of my favorite romantic comedies (Hepburn is positively luminous), with its perfect dialogue and on-the-money characterizations from its cast.  Holiday is often considered a “screwball comedy” but it’s really nothing of the sort; there are no zany misunderstandings or outlandish situations…just flesh-and-blood people whose situations can’t help but make you laugh…and think.


Anonymous said...

Terrific review. I too love this film.
And thank you for that very rare lobby card showing a scene cut from the film.
We'll have to agree to disagree about the merits of Bringing Up Baby and Philadelphia Story.

Mythical Monkey said...

My favorite of all Katharine Hepburn's films, period. Which is saying a lot because she's one of my favorite actresses.

Unknown said...

Inever tire of this movie. The nursery scene during the party is a classic movie must-see. I also get so swept away in KH's and CG's optimism - when she reads the peanuts line, I'm totally ready to quit my job and go become a virtual nomad in Europe! Thanks for your contribution to the blogathon! said...

Great line: "Philadelphia’s insistence that I sympathize with the problems of rich people just isn’t my cup of Lipton’s Brisk." I agree in your assessment. Bringing up Baby always makes me flinch a bit; it feels terribly unnatural to me. And I admire but have issues with The Philadelphia Story. Holiday? It just makes me happy:)

Anonymous said...

Great post! I do prefer Holiday to the contrived Baby, but for me The Philadelphia Story has the edge. I think it's the dialogue; although Holiday also came from the stage there's something about the self-indulgent witty one liners that I can't resist.

Unknown said...

This was such a great thorough review of such a great film! I hope you'll join us again this year for The 2nd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon!