Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Lew Ayres
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Genre-defying film pairs charismatic couple Hepburn and Grant in a celebration of nonconformity.
Holiday defies categorization. Having come out during the screwball comedy era—the same year and with the same stars as the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby—it’s often lumped into that category. But it’s not really a comedy, less so a screwball one. Nor is it highly dramatic or romantic. It does have dramatic, romantic, and screwball elements, but it doesn’t sit easily in any category.
The film tells the story of the engagement between hard-working, fun-loving Johnny Case (Cary Grant) and Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), a woman he has met on holiday. When he arrives at her New York mansion and assumes she must be a servant, it’s clear that he knows almost nothing about her. It’s also clear from the beginning that he belongs with her irreverent, nonconformist sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), partly because Johnny and Linda share the same worldview, mostly because they’re Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
Thematically, the shared worldview is most important because the film focuses on competing value systems. On one hand, Linda and Johnny value human connection, art, intellectualism, play, and living life to the fullest. On the other, Julia and Mr. Seton (Henry Kolker) value accomplishment, measured solely in terms of money and position. Johnny shocks his fiancée and her father when he declares that he believes he’s made enough money. They can’t imagine any such thing as “enough money.” One of the flaws in the movie is the one-dimensional portrayal of this rabidly capitalist set of values.
The bigger problem with the film, which is based on a play by Philip Barry, is its staginess. The film never opens up beyond a few locations, with most of the action taking place a single room, the “playroom” in the Setons’ mansion. That room is imbued with thematic significance, representing a humanity that’s lacking from the rest of the mansion. Nevertheless, the film should have left it more often. Also, the screenplay, by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, obliges the characters to speechify in a way that works on the stage but doesn’t on screen.
Holiday doesn’t seem to know what to make of Ned (Lew Ayres), the disreputable son of the Seton family. So often, in films of the 1930s alcoholism is played for comedy. The screenplay tries to squeeze comic moments from the character. However, it seems to me—and not having seen the play, I can’t be sure—that the character was originally steeped in pathos. In the film, Ned became aimless and alcoholic after his father killed his aspiration to be a musician, a pursuit his father deemed worthless. But the screenplay barely touches on the sadness of this situation, instead allowing Ned a few quips typical of the 1930s Hollywood drunk character.
These problems hamper what is otherwise a charming film. Linda Seton is one of Hepburn’s most interesting characters. She’s both witty and naïvely idealistic, a combination not often seen in narratives. Writers too often think that cynicism is a necessary precondition of wit. Grant is perfectly cast as Johnny. Few actors could capture Johnny’s playfulness without seeming childish. Together, Hepburn and Grant make a great couple. I’ve never been a fan of the pairing of Hepburn and Spencer Tracy—I always thought Tracy’s role in all their films together was to contain her and cut her down to size. To me, Grant is the better partner for her. He embraces and enhances her unbounded personality.
With a Philip Barry play as a source, adapted (in part) by Donald Ogden Stewart, with Hepburn and Grant as stars, and with George Cukor as a director, Holiday brings together the team that would later produce The Philadelphia Story. Whatever alchemy makes that film a masterpiece is missing here. However, it’s still an unusual and delightful little film about interesting characters facing off in a clash of ideas.