“When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself, what would General Motors do? And then I do the opposite!”
— Johnny Case (Cary Grant), Holiday
Individuality — the real thing, the ability to define yourself against the mass of men, rather than with them — is a notoriously flimsy, quixotic concept. Like all supremely valuable things, it’s difficult to realise and even harder to hang on to.
This is likely why Hollywood, aka the place where subtlety goes to die, generally feels the need to swath it round in sunflowers and Doc Martens and private journals and Johnny Depp performances. It’s especially noticeable in romantic comedies, which delight in pitting the ‘free-spirited’ heroine (somehow, it’s always the heroine) against the stuffy totalitarian Establishment and watching the sparks fly. Theoretically. The number of heroines in this genre that give audiences cause to wonder if the Establishment might not have a point illustrates another difficulty with the premise.
But even in Hollywood there must be the shining exception, and thus we come round to my beloved Holiday, the least-known of the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant-George Cukor collaborations, and paradoxically one of, if not the, finest. And I say this as a devoted fan of The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.
It is, on the surface, the most romantic of comedies, the formula as comfortable as an old shoe: Joe Average Guy falls for stuck-up beauty, never realising that her smarter, plainer sister is his true soulmate until it’s almost too late. It has an impeccable pedigree as (like Philadelphia) a stage play by Philip Barry. On the surface Holiday is light, witty, charming, and suffused with that playfully cynical chemistry between Grant and Hepburn that alone made all their movies classics. This one’s particularly good looks earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction.
Below the surface gloss, however, Holiday veers off into its own peculiarly intimate awareness of consequences, unique in my entire cinematic experience. (It may not be a coincidence that the closest modern sensibility I can think of is animated: Pixar’s Ratatouille and Finding Nemo both operate on the same basic principles.) It’s the sort of movie that gives those who do know it the satisfyingly superior glow of being in on something really good.
Johnny Case (Grant) and Julia Seton (Doris Nolan, splendidly null) meet on holiday in Lake Placid, and as the movie opens the standard whirlwind has ensued. You can tell there’s something a little more sophisticated than usual at work here, because the movie actually provides a plausible scenario in which our mismatched young couple might believe themselves sunk: to Johnny, Julia is bewitchingly lovely and carefree, and to Julia, Johnny is a bright up-and-coming investment exec. It’s not until they return to the city that Johnny discovers Julia’s ease is the result of belonging to one of New York’s finest old banking families, and Julia realises that Johnny’s shrewdness has led him to plot an escape from that very same world.
You see, he’s been working to put himself through Harvard, working to rise at the solid investment house, with the sole idea of making enough money to take a more meaningful ‘holiday’. To take as much time off as it takes to figure out just where he fits into a world that’s changing as fast as any man can keep up. To find himself, as the saying will go about a quarter-century later. Autocratic old Edward Seaton, Sr. (the effortlessly patrician Henry Kolker) is no pioneer; no sooner has he been convinced to accept Johnny as a solid prospect as a son-in-law than he discovers the boy’s a threat to the very Established Order of Things.
All of this uproar rather bemuses our earnestly engaging young hero, who (being a Cary Grant character after all) had no idea anyone — including himself — must needs take it all so seriously. Luckily, for the sake both of ideology and comedy relief, ranged with Johnny on the side of imagination are Julia’s ferociously articulate siblings.
Her younger brother Ned (Lew Ayres), once a promising musician and now — inevitably — his father’s lackey, retains the quick, sensitive perception of the artist, but has long since lost the will to do anything about it save drink. (Let’s just say that today, this performance would have swept every Best Supporting Actor statuette going). Their big sister Linda (Hepburn), on the other hand, has vitality enough for an entire houseful of Seton scions, but no idea what to do with it — until Johnny, and his world-altering plans, come stumbling through the kitchen door.
Immediately, she’s set to sponsor what she sees as her baby sister’s big chance at escape (”Like him? My dear, don’t you realise that life walked into this house today?!”). She’s determined (being a Katharine Hepburn character after all) to throw everything she has into ensuring Julia’s romance goes smoothly. Only slowly and painfully does it dawn on her that perhaps Julia doesn’t want to escape anything; that in fact Julia is utterly horrified by the very concept.
Thus the lines are drawn for the battle down the marble halls of the Seton mansion. It’s here the movie takes the ‘daring’ turn mentioned in the PR taglines: skirmishes are fought not with wacky contrived hijinx, but real words, the wonderful rich dialogue that resulted back when wielding it was an art form, and the ability to express oneself well was a matter of pride and honour — and urgency. People speak ideas in this movie, not just lines. It’s something you don’t realize is missing from most genre films until you see one like this.
The distinction is especially important because, at its core, the issue here is one of very personal responsibility. Edward Sr. wants only the best for his children, especially his favourite pet, Julia. And Julia, not unreasonably, expects the same from Johnny. This is, after all, what nice, normal people do: acquire comfort and security for themselves and those they love. The weight of their rationality has long since crushed Ned, and soon becomes dangerously compelling for Johnny and Linda. They are vulnerable because uncertain, unable to define the stakes involved beyond an increasingly stubborn belief in their reality.
It all comes to a head around the Setons’ New Year’s Eve ball. Linda had wanted to give a small, intimate engagement party for her beloved sister and increasingly beloved brother-in-law-to-be. Just friends who would really care. Naturally, what she’s confronted with instead is the combined daydreams of Edith Head and Busby Berkeley gone on a weekend bender through Edith Wharton. (I have no idea how this film missed that AD Oscar.) So Linda retires to the children’s playroom on the top floor to lick her wounds, refusing any and all entreaties to come downstairs and ‘stop people talking’. How easy it would’ve been, given a less acute actress, to miscalculate this scene, and settle for the standard petulant kookiness. Instead, Hepburn infuses Linda with her own understanding — this was, interestingly enough, well into the actress’s ‘box office poison’ phase. It’s probably not a total coincidence that Linda’s setpiece confrontation with her father has all the urgency of a trapped animal recognizing a way out, with a music box and stuffed giraffe for cavalry. She may well be spoiled, she’s very likely being petty, but by God she will concede her right to feel to no-one. It’s one of the most triumphant things I’ve ever seen committed to the screen.
Like any noble warrior, she soon attracts the righteous to her banners. (In a typically sweet touch, Ned leads supper-bearing servants into the room in full Revolutionary-tin-soldier attitude, complete with fife.) Chief in her train are Johnny’s mentors and best buddies, Professor Nick Potter and his wife Susan (Edward Everett Horton, in the role he originated onstage, and Jean Dixon), here fulfilling the obligatory Wisecracking Moral Support role in tandem for both our bewildered leads, blazing the trail of plain common sense in the marble wilderness.
In fact, they very nearly steal the entire film out from under the leads in the process. Horton doing light comedy (”Wife, do we know anyone who smells of violets?”) is one of those things that make you understand why people go batty over cinema to begin with, and Dixon keeps up admirably: “If we told you what was wrong with you,” she informs a distressed Linda the next day, “you wouldn’t believe us.”
What’s wrong with Linda, at this point, can easily be guessed. When Johnny appears to make one last appeal for Linda’s presence downstairs, that he might dutifully fulfill his role as Julia’s future support and mainstay, the charms of the playroom prove too beguiling at last, and the next thing you know he’s flipping Linda off his shoulders in the sheer joy of it all.
A few short scenes later, he’s been shamed downstairs and she’s inquiring of Ned (in another showcase Hepburn moment, with able assistance from Ayres) how it feels to get really, seriously drunk. They’re head-over-heels, both of them, in the grandest sense possible… but neither of them able, in good conscience — if woefully inadequate understanding — to do anything about it. Not least of this movie’s charms is its frank acknowledgement that idealism is no help either, when it comes to dealing with human feelings. Perhaps the ultimate price of individuality is the inability to lie to oneself.
The film skids right out to the edge of unbearable poignancy in exploring this concept. More than one reviewer has commented on the faint sadness, the sense of how narrow the escape, that lingers despite the happy ending. Selfishness from one angle is self-preservation from another, and the final monstrous evil in this Establishment is the failure to appreciate the difference.
But of course the ending is happy — with the help of further bursts of clarity from Ned and the Potters, proving themselves possessed of far better timing than the average rom-com second string — and of course the lovers (literally) sail off into the sunset, leaving security behind in the wake of something far more precious:
“You’ve got no faith in Johnny, have you, Julia? His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well, so it may, what if it should? There’ll be another. Oh, I’ve got all the faith in the world in Johnny. 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!”