Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/12/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebHoliday (Dir. George Cukor, 1938)

When you were a child, did you have a secret place — a special kind of ultra-secret-type place — that you generally did not share with adults? Maybe you had a few? If you had siblings maybe you shared one, or with friends and neighbors? But with grown-ups — those overly-serious, sometimes grim sorts of people who seemed to carry the weight of the whole world on their backs — they usually didn’t get it, right?

HOLIDAY is not a film about children or childhood, but about adults still caught up in its eddy. It is a film about people – dreamers and nonconformists – who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else. It’s about finding your place.

Three of the main characters in HOLIDAY – grown-siblings Linda, Ned, and Julia Seton (Katharine Hepburn, Lew Ayres, and Doris Nolan, respectively) — once shared such a private place when they were children — a playroom buried within the heart of a big, stuffy Fifth Ave. mansion, comfortably decorated by their long-since-deceased mother, and stocked with toys, musical instruments, puppets, and even a small trapeze. Now, years later, each sibling deals with their stifled dreams of youth in a different way: Ned drowns his sorrows in a constant stream of alcohol, Julia resents being reminded of the past at all and looks instead to a future of financial security and wealth, and… Linda? Well, she keeps the fire burning, literally and figuratively, in that secret spot, the playroom, where the influence of her dimly-remembered-but-beloved-mother is still strong, and that of her tyrannical financier father is, thankfully, minimal.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Ages before J. D. Salinger and Wes Anderson wove tales of the whimsical and wounded outcasts of New York’s elite there was George Cukor’s sparkling 1938 romantic comedy HOLIDAY, adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman from Philip Barry’s 1928 play. (Hepburn had, incidentally, been an understudy for the role of Linda on Broadway, while Barry would later write his hit play, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, with Hepburn in mind for the lead role, which she, of course, ended up playing.)

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a free-spirited businessman returning home to New York from a winter holiday to tell his friends — the bohemians Prof. Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and his wife Susan (Jean Dixon) — the great news: He met a woman named Julia and he plans to marry her. The only problem is that when he shows up at her house he finds it to be the aforementioned Fifth Ave. monolith – confusing, really, since she had neglected to mention that she came from money… – but he takes it all in stride, even when sparks fly between he and Julia’s nonconformist, spitfire of a sister, Linda. While dipsomaniac brother Ned looks blearily on, Johnny does his best to sell Julia’s stuffed-shirt of a father as he unveils his big plan: to retire young and enjoy himself a little, before returning to work later, when he really knows what he wants out of life. The problem is, not only that father-in-law-to-be is upset, but even Julia doesn’t seem so hot on the idea. Meanwhile, Linda waits in the wings….

HOLIDAY shares many of the characteristics of screwball comedies of the 1930s: the theme of heavy, stilted patriarchy, money, and social pressures squaring off against free-thinking and free-wheeling, middle-class values, and, of course, the war of wills between a headstrong male and female as they careen towards the altar, the tension running through the audience more a question of, not “if,” but “when” and “under what circumstances” will this man take this woman to be his lawfully-wedded… etc., etc. Holiday, in fact, is a perfect example of a strong ending made more memorable merely by staving off plot-resolution until the very last few frames.

HolidayHOLIDAY has even more than many of the best screwball comedies: there is a note of melancholy and even distress which underpins Linda’s and Ned’s precarious positions within the family and New York society, while there is a strong undercurrent of yearning for both Johnny and Linda, two free-spirits struggling to be free, and to be together.

Even so, and as the film’s title would  suggest, there is a carefree and ludic air to the proceedings: Grant and Hepburn are both magnificent (one of their four on-screen pairings), even performing a few athletic tumbles together, while Horton and Dixon lend admirable support as the sort of unflappable, upstanding best friends that everyone wishes they had. Ayres, in a performance which would help land him the part of Dr. Kildare and effect a resurrection of his then-stalled career, is excellent in the challenging role of loving-but-pathetic Ned. Cukor’s direction is sensitive and draws out the tenderness of Linda and Johnny’s plight.

What a movie! What an ending! (Someone please pass me the kleenex….)

***Today, May 12th, is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday!***
***May also marks the 30th birthday of Best Video!***
***Every day is a holiday… at Best Video!***

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