Holiday (1938)

Work, it seemed to me even at the threshold of life, is an activity reserved for the dullard. It is the very opposite of creation, which is play.

— Henry Miller, Sexus

You’re a rather strange bird in these parts.

— Johnny Case (Cary Grant), Holiday

Holiday is director George Cukor’s joyous ode to the importance of liberty, misbehaving and finding, or more aptly, recognising one’s true love. It is tremendously moving, satirical and subversive. It brings together a disheartened woman of revolutionary spirit and a career-man who dreams of indolent bliss, their romance kindled in fraught circumstances, and offers a refreshing slant in a romantic-comedy genre frequently hampered by insipid characterisation. All this from a film a mere year shy of its 70th birthday.

In Holiday, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reprise their effervescent double-act after Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Bringing up Baby (1938). They would make one final film together, The Philadelphia Story (1940). A screen duo par excellence; their evenly-matched breakneck-banter still represents the pinnacle of cinematic chemistry.

The slight story focuses on Johnny Case (Grant), a bright, though in status ordinary man, with excellent prospects. After a whirlwind romance he proposes to the glamorous Julia (Doris Nolan), unaware of her family’s vast wealth and position. Inducted into high-society, Johnny is initially bemused but later seems willing to forgo his ambition to abandon his now profitable career and flee abroad. Things are quickly complicated when he finds his soul-mate in Julia’s older sister, Linda (Hepburn), a feisty fun-loving oddity. It is up to her, brother Ned (Lew Ayres), and Johnny’s old friends Nick and Susan Potter (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon), to ensure he realises his dream.

Hepburn’s Linda is a bored, spoilt, and petulant character. She nevertheless possesses a mischievous glee and a zeal for life that seems, when the impact of the repressive environment subsides, to physically rise up and shine out of her eyes. She seduces us into falling for her poor-little-rich-girl routine; fleshing out the stereotype to render it sympathetic. A rabble-rouser, she states, “Almost got arrested trying to help some strikers in Jersey. How was I to know Father was on the Board of Directors?” Her seditious influence extends to her grip on the audience, who are charmed into rooting for this most infectiously passionate of broads. The film celebrates her recalcitrant nature. It views such behaviour with reverence, as if disobedience were, as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism, “. . . man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Linda falls quickly for her sister’s beau and, ill at ease with the transparency of her love for him, asks Ned, “Does it stand out all over me?” Of course, Hepburn’s skill as a performer and the rapport between herself and Grant, means that her affection sends sparks off the screen. During this sequence, the sophistication of her performance is at its most evident. Whilst a lesser actress might struggle to adequately convey the depth of feeling the attraction excites, Hepburn manages to deliver the line with a mixture of trepidation, girlish shyness and, if I’m not mistaken, lip-biting passion. It is the kind of complex emotional response that reflects a reality rarely convincingly replicated onscreen.

Whilst Grant’s Johnny remains largely the naïf comic, Hepburn’s portrayal is almost that of a tragedienne. Despite her inherent optimism, Linda is dreadfully stifled by her stuffy surroundings. Her inability to break-free or effectively counter the pomposity wounds her deeply.

Johnny is less radical and more Epicurean. He is willing to play the game for a time, with the notion in mind that a moderate, hastily acquired, wealth will bring great freedom and the chance to find one’s true-self away from the pressures of conventional society. He has an insouciant, boyish nature. Grant’s characteristically immaculate appearance and gentlemanly manner is slightly ruffled and the oddball shtick rather suits him. His attempt to reconcile his aptitude as an elite charmer with a witty, common touch, fits with Grant’s real life ‘impostor’ status. A working-class son of a tailor’s presser, the Englishman took Hollywood by storm with his carefully constructed persona; which later became, ironically, the unattainable model of the urbane. In his own words, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.” In this context, however, these humble roots shine through.

Taking Johnny for a malleable character his fiancée, Julia, and her father attempt to bend him to their will, with Linda urging him to stick to his path. Partly because if he gives up, then so will she. The family’s attempts to subjugate both Linda and Johnny inevitably bring them together. Johnny comments, “There’s a conspiracy against you and me child…They won’t let you have any fun and they won’t give me time to think.”

All the appealing characters of the piece possess a delicious irreverence. Linda’s brother Ned is a spiralling drunkard whose ferocious distaste for his own kind belies a kind-heart and wise-soul. He is the first to see her feelings for Johnny developing (“He’s hit a spot hasn’t he?”). When Linda asks him what it feels like to get “good and drunk” he replies, “You think clear as crystal. But every move, every sentence is a problem. It gets pretty interesting.” The presence of the down-to-earth Potters serves to remind us that Johnny is a good-egg at heart and will ultimately resist the lure of riches.

The predictability of the storyline is rendered irrelevant as so much of the film’s content surprises and delights. Boasting a script packed full of acerbic gems, Holiday also has a tremendous visual energy; in addition to the cast’s vigorous performances, there are a host of cute gags. Among these: Hepburn wittily comparing her look to that of a toy giraffe; a caustic Punch and Judy show; and the duo’s acrobatics.

To my mind, the main reason to see this film (as one can gauge from the focus of this review) is to witness the dynamism of a great screen pairing. Patrick McGilligan claims that the appeal of Hepburn and Grant lies in the volatility of their union. This is in contrast to that which can be found between Hepburn and, frequent screen partner and real-life love-interest, Spencer Tracy. McGilligan writes, “Tracy and Hepburn tended to get comfortable with each other. Any truce between Cary Grant and Hepburn could be safely assumed as temporary.” This may be part of the reason that the pair endure. However of their films together, the lesser-known Holiday is alone in showing great warmth and co-dependence; thus adding a forgotten extra-dimension to a legendary screen-romance.

The disappointing extras comprise of: a range of subtitle options; a “Cary at Columbia” featurette; and deleted scene photographs.

RATING 9 / 10