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Holiday (1938)

Cover of "Holiday"

You really mustn’t go into Holiday expecting a Bringing Up Baby or a Philadelphia Story; that’s what I expected when I watched this.  Instead of wacky hijinks and poking fun at the stuffy upper-crust, director George Cukor imbues the wealthy with personality, fears, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities; making Holiday more of a dramedy as opposed to a flat-out romance or romantic comedy.  The romance itself feels secondary to the drama revolving around the wealthy Seton clan, and as great as Cary Grant always is, here he’s completely shut out by a bravura performance from Katharine Hepburn.  I wouldn’t say this is my favorite of the Grant/Hepburn films, nor is it my favorite Cukor, but it’s a daring blend of drama and comedy squeezed into a decade where making fun of money was en vogue.

Johnny Case (Grant) is set to marry the beautiful Julia Seton (Doris Nolan).  When Johnny discovers Julia is wealthy, he thinks that will make their lives easier, despite the fact that Julia’s father thinks he might be a gold-digger.  As Johnny becomes wrapped up in the Seton way of life, he gets closer to Julia’s wayward sister Linda (Hepburn) who knows the dark secrets of the Seton household.

This was the second of four movies Hepburn and Grant would work on together, and the most serious one of the three I’ve seen; Sylvia Scarlet eludes me for now.  Rita Hayworth was originally set to play Julia Seton, but was deemed too inexperienced to play the role.  Can you imagine Hayworth, Grant, and Hepburn all in the same movie?  Actress Doris Nolan is pretty, but I never believed she wasn’t the shallow rich girl we all expected her to be.  She’s sweet and personable in the beginning, but she plays the role aloof, so you’re always waiting for those wealthy claws to come out.  I can’t say if Hayworth would have made us believe there was some mystery to the character, but it would have been interesting to see.  Holiday is also filmed in the same set as Notorious!  Boy, that house got a lot of play back in the day.

I’m not sure if anyone would consider Holiday a screwball comedy.  Sure, you have the wealthy opposite the less-than, but there’s nothing to make fun of, nor are there wacky hijinks; the movie is incredibly grounded in reality.  Johnny is a fixed character that never really changes in the grand way the Seton’s do.  He starts the movie as a reckless, impulsive playboy telling his friends about the girl he’s going to marry like he’s done this before.  Grant has perfected this character, and he would play it in other movies better, in my opinion.  Here, he believes he’s “saving” Julia by marrying her because he believes they’re the same financially.  Grant is good, but there’s nothing spectacular about his character or performance.  He’s boring when Julia tells him to be, but he comes to life when he’s around Linda.  He doesn’t have a personality, so much as shapes it to the ladies in his life; and yet, he creates the impetus for the title!  Johnny dreams of taking a holiday (vacation for us Americans), and feels that he wants to understand why he’s working.  He doesn’t want to work to accrue wealth in the idea that one day he’ll live comfortably.  He wants to work hard and enjoy his wealth now.  Holiday wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, and it’s believed that Grant’s reckless (for the time) views of work and money prevented audiences from connecting with him.  I can see that, but seeing as how that seems to be how most people live today, the message is àpropos.

The theme of questioning whether it’s better to amass money or enjoy it isn’t focused on during this time period, and as I mentioned before, I think it was a bold move for Cukor.  The problem is, I don’t believe it pays off.  There’s no denying that the end implies Linda and Johnny will be together.  Both of them will be able to enjoy their money, but really the Seton family has the stronger story that you’ve been following.  When you’re reminded that this is Johnny’s story, you don’t particularly care because the Seton’s are far more troubled than he is.  Their story doesn’t have easy solutions.  Are they going to be okay?  We’re never really sure, but hey, at least Johnny’s happy!

There are a few typical screwball moments where the script wants you to make fun of the Setons.  Johnny enters the house by the back – servant’s – entrance.  When he’s told to ride the elevator up to see Julia, Johnny’s shocked it only goes up one floor; “I could have walked that!”  It’s not a social drama bent on detailing the horrors of the working class or knowing wealthy people, but it does set up that the Setons have had everything handed to them for a long time.  You also get a few moments of them busting out of their self-imposed propriety.  When the patriarch of the Seton family is told about Julia marrying a man named Johnny Case, he loudly shouts “WHAT!” right in the middle of a church service.  It’s a hilarious bit of comedy because Mass is a lot like a movie theater; you don’t want to start screaming during the quietest part.  Speaking of propriety, the script doesn’t make fun of the wealthy, as much as show us how rigid their lifestyle is.  The secrets of the Setons can never be divulged; even money is considered a taboo topic that Julia explains isn’t appropriate to be discussed publicly.  You come to see how close-minded and fearful the Setons are of being “progressive” or “controversial.”

It is their rigid adherence to an outdated way of life that makes their story more compelling than anything Grant’s character does.  You feel as if you’re getting access to an exclusive story that you shouldn’t be privy to.  The Setons all have their own vices from Julia pretending she isn’t shallow, to brother Ned’s (Lew Ayres) drunkenness.  Every character wears a façade, including Linda.  Hepburn doesn’t play the flighty dingbat nor does she play the uptight prude.  Here, you understand that after the loss of Linda’s mother, Linda has felt abandoned.  Her father doesn’t like the room that belonged to Mrs. Seton, and Linda feels there’s no ability to even discuss the past with her father.  The Setons simply accrue wealth as a means of ignoring their deep-rooted problems.  There’s a grand speech Hepburn gives at the end that is beautiful in how revelatory it is about having to hide one’s true feelings.  Hepburn is just astounding in this role.  I didn’t love the movie, so much as I loved her performance in it.  She and Grant have a relaxed chemistry that I noted in my reviews of The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.  When Johnny tells Linda, “I feel like a goat going to be sacrificed” she quips with a plaintive “Baaa.”  The actors make it sound as if it’s off-the-cuff, and it’s hilarious.  My favorite Hepburn line has to be towards the end when Linda proclaims the entrance of “the witch and Dopey.”

Furthermore, the movie establishes a bond between Linda and Julie that doesn’t start as petty or backbiting.  There is a connective, tender relationship established between Julia and Linda that doesn’t feel hokey or contrived; especially since it’s not everyday a movie has two female leads who don’t hate each other.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t retain that till the end.  I didn’t understand why Julia turns on Linda.  It just feels like Julia becomes this spiteful, rich bitch we always knew she was, and it’s an easy way to resolve the plot.  Cukor had the ability to make a genuine sisterly relationship, but forgoes it at the end in favor of quickly wrapping up the narrative.

I can’t end the review without mentioning the fantastic, piercingly hilarious performance from Lew Ayres.  I know Ayres played Dr. Kildare, but I’ve never seen any of his film work previously.  He is perfect as Ned, the eyes and ears of the Seton household.  You know there’s resentment bubbling up in the family, and Ned is the only character willing to say things out loud; yet he does it in a way that’s lyrical.  For instance, take this comment about the deceased matriarch of the Seton clan: “She tried to be a Seton for a while, then gave up and died.”  He gives the insights into the dark family history, but he’s never taken seriously due to his perpetual state of inebriation.  I’d go so far as to consider this an award worthy performance.

Overall, I recommend seeing Holiday, just don’t expect it to be a screwball comedy.  It’s a dark family drama with a dash of screwball here and there.  The performances from Hepburn and Ayres are fantastic.  Grant is good, but the movie never feels as if it’s truly his.  The romance is there, but again I found myself compelled more by the Seton story as opposed to Johnny’s holiday.  It’s a movie worth seeking out, especially for those wanting to see all the Grant/Hepburn pictures.

Ronnie Rating:


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1930s, Comedy, Romance

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

10 thoughts on “Holiday (1938) Leave a comment

  1. What mansion was used to film the New Year’s Eve party at which the engagement was to be announced?

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