Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
grbrpix@aol.com
Search Index Here




Monday, May 25, 2020

Again Against The Grain


Tension Beneath Holiday Cheer

Are movies meant to be read a same way by everyone? I lately feel myself sliding off the grid on revisit to favorites. A job done fine, like Holiday, invites many interpretations, as would any worthwhile art, and why not? I watch a thing and ask if others had a same reaction as mine. They may be in accord, confused, or think I’m nuts. Holiday came out on Blu-Ray, and long being object of cherish, I wanted it. What came as surprise was how story and characters played wholly different this time. Here is either a mark of a really complex picture, or me no longer able to receive narrative in ways I’m supposed to. A great film evolves with its audience, provided they come back to it from time to time. Maybe a “classic” is best defined this way. I went off rails with My Man Godfrey a few months back, and here goes again with Holiday, which in brief reads for me thus: Johnny Case (Cary Grant) brings heiress Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) home where he will meet her rich-in-banking father (Henry Kolker). Johnny is a free spirit, has wherewithal to parlay stock investment into profit enough to afford a Sun Valley vacation where he met Julia. Now they are engaged, despite Julia knowing next to nothing about Johnny’s background. Their marital prospects are challenged by natural doubts of her father, and a sister, Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn), who by all appearance is emotionally disturbed. That last is where I part most decisively from prevailing views. And spoilers lie ahead, so if you have not seen Holiday, or it’s been awhile, now may be a good time to refresh, then come back and tell me how perverse my interpretation is.


Robert Ames, Mary Astor, and Ann Harding in the 1930 Version of Holiday 




Response to a movie is always personal, should be personal. Why watch otherwise? I like Cary Grant, but do not always trust him. That may be because his screen persona came from whole cloth, having nothing to do, it seemed, with the real Cary Grant. Yes, I want my identification figures to be “themselves,” allowing for endless variant within that self, any great star’s basis for longevity. Trouble is, I could never identify with Cary Grant, even as I’ve always enjoyed him. No Grant could be guileless, not with his looks and charm, so when he acts so, I get suspicious. Where did Holiday money come from that he off-camera invested? We perhaps missed important information for Cukor/Columbia dropping a first reel where Johnny and Julia meet and court one another at the ski resort. Surely more was revealed of Johnny there. Was he perhaps a wife killer enriched by a last victim? Instinct warns me to be wary of Cary (not a bad thing … it enriches “Cary Grant” for me). I wait for him to be irresponsible, spendthrift, maybe caddish. Penny Serenade was early introduction to Grant for me. Also Suspicion. Twice warned then, and at early age. Even Father Goose at the Liberty didn’t fix me. So what does Johnny really want with the Setons, or from them? He walks about their mansion with astonishment, like Robert Williams as “Stew Smith” in Capra’s Platinum Blonde. He does everything but test for echoes and slide down the banister. Johnny had no idea Julia was rich? We may assume he will forgive her for that, or keep the game in play because of it.




Philip Barry wrote Holiday for the stage. There was a 1930 film (included on the Blu-Ray) where Julia was played by Mary Astor, in various stages of undress to make real the contest between her and sister Linda (Ann Harding), at least for men watching. A lot of them, and I know a number who can’t abide Holiday, would project themselves onto 1938 Johnny just long enough to say I’ll take neither sister, then make tracks. Linda as essayed by Hepburn was described by one modern writer as “high-spirited and reclusive.” I’d call her plain unstable, high-spirited in the sense that she is often irrational, as in refusing to attend her sister’s engagement party, reclusive to extent that her family has had long experience having to cover for bad behavior. It is there in dialogue where Julia and Linda finally have it out. A great scene, because we realize how Julia has spent a lifetime tiptoe’ing around “free spirit” that is Linda. What are prospects for Johnny should he settle down with Linda? Give me sane alternative of Julia, plus the job, Dad’s gift of a house, sure-thing cash to see through rest of a Depression, and then some. Now that’s an outcome I can see “Cary Grant” thriving with.




George Cukor Directing The Cast


Holiday mocks the rich, but won't villainize them. Father Seton is polite, reasonable, frankly more understandable to me than is squirrel daughter Linda, or Johnny. I like how he and Julia have quiet talks and identify with each other. When Linda crashes their meditation and jibbers her idea of an engagement party for Julia, you can see a lifetime of coping with her temperament mirrored in their faces. That resignation is beautifully played throughout Holiday by Henry Kolker and Doris Nolan. Will they be relieved to unload Linda on Johnny at the end? Julia by then knows she is better shed of Johnny. Is she right in realizing he’s a flake? I wonder if 1938 audiences saw it her way. Holiday took $733K in domestic rentals, not near expectation for a Columbia “A” of the time, let alone one with names prominent as Grant and Hepburn. Could there have been customer readings that translated to unsatisfactory word-of-mouth? Something queered Holiday, and I won’t accept alibi that it was “too sophisticated.” One writer suggested that ’38 crowds saw Johnny/Cary as a chump for walking away from the Seton’s kind of money, and there's food for thought in that.




So are Linda and Johnny as an alternative really that attractive? And what of Johnny’s best friends, Nick and Susan Potter, as played by Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, reverse snobs against affluence if there ever was, and unspeakably rude in the bargain. A big issue I have with all of Holiday’s “free spirits” is their treatment of family cousins “Seton and Laura Cram.” Casting Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes in these parts is too on-the-nose, as we’re pre-disposed to dislike them. Both Daniell and Barnes were fine actors, if ruthlessly typed. Holiday director George Cukor had applied Daniell to bad-guyness for Camille just two years before, Barnes as recent a threat to happy family life of Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls. And yes, they are stuck-up and to manor born in Holiday, but does that merit a Fascist salute given them by Linda, Johnny, Ned Seton (Lew Ayres), and the Potters when they enter an upstairs room to greet hosts at a party to which they have been invited? Is this how to greet guests in your home? And where does Johnny and the Potters come off joining in such atrocious behavior? They don’t know the Crams, never even met them before. This is where I truly part company with people I’m supposed to embrace in Holiday. And note snide reaction Seton Cram gets for complementing Johnny on his previous and wise investment. A friendly gesture as I see it, altogether rebuked. Johnny, the Potters, and bratty/cracked Linda are largely unsympathetic to me from this point on.




And what is this child retreat to which a sulking Linda goes when the party evades her design? All she needs is a phonograph with “Eroica” on the spindle, and she’d be cousin to N. Bates rather than the more got-it-together Crams. Ned Seton, as essayed by Lew Ayres, is more likeable, insightful as to situations, but less aggressive or nasty about it. Ned is Holiday’s casualty for that, but shades the narrative nicely. Also perceptive is Julia and Mr. Seton downstairs trying to finesse party attendance clearly aware of delicate problem Linda represents. Is her self-isolation an event familiar from previous occasions? Understanding among guests suggest it is. Her sister finally speaks plain when Linda’s outspokenness, read lack of tact, threatens to derail Julia’s engagement. “I think quite often I’ve given in, in order to avoid scenes and upsets …” strikes me as the very words a fed-up person might say to an unstable family member they’ve spent a lifetime making allowance for. This for me is the dramatic highlight of Holiday, but would emphasize again that none of these elements represent flaws in the film. They are, in fact, what gives it majesty, at least for this viewer. Do I read Linda so singly for not liking Katharine Hepburn? No, because I do not dislike her. In fact, having lately watched Summertime again, I believe I finally “get” Hepburn, but that is a story for another post.

14 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

I don't believe anyone can identify with "Cary Grant." "Cary Grant" is a stand alone character. Even Archie Leach couldn't identify with him.

Great post.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Whoa, John! Nice work! Congratulations on giving us a fresh take on this picture. You say "something queered HOLIDAY" at the box-office; I submit that it was Katharine Hepburn, cited as boxoffice poison that year. Columbia was always picking up castoffs from other studios (John Gilbert, Mae West, Judy Canova, Jane Withers, and on and on).

Hepburn's Linda Seton is "unconventional," in sharp contrast to her starchy father and sister. I always thought that Cukor/Columbia succeeded in making Hepburn a sympathetic figure for the first time since THE LITTLE MINISTER four years before. More down-to-earth than the rarefied characters she usually played, and that's why I like Hepburn in HOLIDAY.

You've got me thinking about the "emotionally disturbed" thing. My own candidate for a movie with Hepburn in an "emotionally disturbed" state is BRINGING UP BABY. She's downright dizzy, and oblivious to the turmoil and confusion she leaves in her wake.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Scott -- I've often wondered why "Cary Grant" doesn't run away screaming from some of Kate's character's antics in BRINGING UP BABY. Dizzy? She's downright NUTS.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I've always had issues with HOLIDAY, find its thoughts on nonconformity if not completely smug, then at least a little smuggy (or is that smug-ish?) As to BRINGING UP BABY... yeah, Hepburn, but also a lot of Hawks, who liked his leading ladies a little loonie and seriously stalking.

1:02 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Several of the Tracy-Hepburn pairings were about a too-strong woman being tamed, or at least Educated. And likewise "The Philadelphia Story". And even "The Little Minister", where Kate's an ever-so-cute-and-saucy gypsy wench who toys with a stern yet boyish vicar until he lays down the law (one of the funniest bits in the film is her passionately demanding a man who will rule her, and John Beal trying to oblige).

Then you have the ending of "Pat and Mike", where she fakes helplessness so Spence can fumble to her rescue. That wasn't surrendering to the status quo. That was actively propping it up.

As for "Bringing Up Baby", we've already poked at how she and other screwball heroine foreshadowed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the fantasy of playful fun and sex, who inexplicably makes it her life's work to loosen up a repressed male more or less against his will.

But back to Hepburn the Tamed Shrew. You can argue that even here, Hepburn's silly heiress is being domesticated by Grant. Sure, his mantra is what was eventually mocked as "finding yourself", but it's a step closer to adulthood from hanging out in your childhood playroom and spouting witticisms. And it's an idea that probably resonated a little more strongly in the twenties, when it was assumed the boom would still be booming when you came back from sabbatical. It may even have resonated in the early thirties, when fortunes collapsed and left many with nothing for years spent in pursuit of same (the latter is the moral in "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes" (1945), where Edward G. Robinson's hardworking farmer sees a neighbor's sacrificed-for dream go up in flames.)

No surprise "Holiday" found its audience in the postwar generation. For them the big bad wolf had been banished, all the houses looked like brick, so why not step back a bit and chill rather than adding a second or third layer of masonry? Now that we've lost that unquestioned security, Grant's choices look questionable again.

It is a shame they didn't take a little time on Grant's backstory; I guess for the original Broadway audiences it was progressive enough that the hero didn't inherit his wealth. Contrast to "The Philadelphia Story" by the same author, where the self-made man is quite the opposite despite preparing to marry into high society. He's more stodgy than the genuine gentry and the "intellectual" reporter; that supposedly negates his trumpeted virtues. Does his exit speech play different for you now?

By the time of the "High Society" version, they add a strange scene of Grace Kelly driving Frank Sinatra around and telling him how the rich aren't as rich as they used to be. She -- and the movie -- demand sympathy for this class.

5:28 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Ah … Holiday. Always a problem.

When I first saw the film, I liked "neither" side of the equation. I thought Grant impossible and the family … chilly. And Horton and Dixon are no help.

Then, in the early 1990s, I saw a revival of the play at Circle in the Square in New York and LOVED it. And here's the conundrum: on stage, Holiday is about trying to live life deliberately. What does that mean and how to achieve it? Well, it all depends on our circumstances, and what we mean by deliberately.

I doesn't work on film because Grant and Hepburn (and Horton and Daniell, etc.) bring this "baggage" to it. We "know" who they are, so the question becomes muted or distorted.

The play itself is a pleasant frolic and mediation, the movie is overly invested because we're overly invested in the players.

5:29 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Caught a bit of "Big Bang Theory" this evening -- It's impossible not to, the show being as omnipresent as "I Love Lucy" used to be. Noted that the show's early seasons milked easy laughs from obnoxious supergenius Sheldon being born to a yokelish Texas family.

As time went on, they treated Sheldon's family with a lot more sympathy (especially his mother, who'd appear with some frequency) and addressed what it was to have a brilliant but high-maintenance kid sucking up all the oxygen. They came to the inevitable group-hug episode where Sheldon finally grasped his prank-playing older brother had reason to pee in his shampoo. That became the core of the "Young Sheldon" spinoff: an imperfect but well-meaning family struggling with a demanding, troublesome prodigy.

I doubt the show's writers gave thought to Sheldon's roots beyond laugh lines in the first season or two. The show's long run forced them to dig deep for story ideas, and that obliged them to flesh out the Cooper history in a semi-realistic way (in time, nearly every character's relatives fueled episodes and even story arcs).

Sheldon might be compared to Linda, gifted in some respects but insufferable in others. By the standards of the Setons' level of society she was pretty enough and clever enough to Marry Well, and her antics never crossed the line into scandal. It was worth humoring her, so long as it kept her from eloping with the stableboy or smacking a pedestrian with the Rolls Royce. Julia played by her father's rules, to the point of trying to remake her fiancé to his liking. She thus secured her father's approval, perhaps because she couldn't demand his time and attention the way her flamboyantly troublesome sister could.

And that's my Midnight Rant.

3:33 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Another great, thought provoking post, John!

A friend’s family is doing a rotating “who-picks-the-quarantine-movie-tonight,” and after sitting through all 9 STAR WARS movies (the 13 year old son’s choice) my friend chose BRINING UP BABY, thinking a classic screwball comedy would be a slam dunk. It’s impossible to describe the level to which the 13 year old loathed it AND Hepburn. (They sent me a video of him tearing around the house shouting, “Oh, David, look! Oh David, come back! Oh David, where’s the bone?!”). I’m hesitant to return to it myself now, ditto HOLIDAY and MY MAN GODFREY after your reassessments...

I had a similar reaction upon revisiting THE STERILE CUCKOO. It’s still probably the best work Minnelli ever did, but the character of Pookie Adams is seriously psychotic — I was concerned for Wendell Burton’s safety at points. I had the same reaction to her Sally Bowles during a recent revisit to Cabaret — Sally is really a horrible, selfish person.

Not sure at this point if it’s the actors or the characters, but I too am finding some performances I once loved now come down on the wrong side of just plain annoying. And a movie-watching buddy who has never seen ARTHUR suggested it for our next movie night, and I’m wondering how Dudley Moore’s “charming” drunk will play now...

3:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've always found Hepburn to be cold at best, annoying at worst. For some reason, I never got around to watching "Holiday" on its occasional TCM appearance, and now I know I never will.

As for how "Arthur" would play now... When I saw it on its original release, I thought it was hilarious. I caught it again two years later when it was running endlessly on HBO. I couldn't believe how unfunny it was, particularly when it came to drunk driving. I'm not sure another movie ever dated (at least in my eyes) so quickly.

12:14 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Thinking of a lady friend about my age (retirement) who always hated the Three Stooges because they'd break things and ruin nice homes. Myself, as a kid I felt cheated unless there was major property damage. And I still laugh when Stan and Babe blow up an apartment or preside over mass destruction of cars, pants, etc. But on revisiting "Mad Mad Mad Mad World", I was a bit bothered at being expected to laugh at a couple of harmless schleps having their shiny new gas station destroyed, or Scatman Crothers's truckload of furniture being scattered over the landscape after being forced off the road, or other mayhem inflicted on innocent bystanders. The no-expense-spared effects and stunts are still impressive, but not funny.

If somebody's going to be a comic eccentric or a troublemaker, like W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers, you have to crank everything up to cartoon levels. Margaret Dumont was never a villain per se, but so exaggerated as a symbol of snobbishness that you allowed Groucho to abuse her as you allowed Bugs Bunny to abuse Elmer Fudd even when the latter wasn't a hunter. Fields was generally surrounded by people who made alcoholism look like a sensible response. Even when he was a swindler, his victims were mostly crooked themselves or so unappealing you couldn't muster pity.

It's a tricky business in a feature film, especially as plausibility and "real" characters became the norm. The eccentrics and troublemakers have to use their disruptive powers for good, generally involving young lovers or orphans. Targets had to have it coming. The comic hero's romantic rival usually had to be a hypocrite or worse (Ralph Bellamy in "His Girl Friday" a qualified exception: He was a nice guy; just wildly unsuitable). The banker who held the mortgage had to be an actual crook or sleaze, not just a detached businessman. The rival tenor in "Night at the Opera" isn't just an arrogant egotist -- He physically beats Harpo!

Sometimes moviemakers get careless or lazy. As Mr. Abbott pointed out above, familiar screen faces brought (and continue to bring) baggage, and often that baggage is meant to do the work. When Margaret Dumont appears onscreen, no matter how gracious and innocent she plays it we're going to laugh when the punch bowl in dumped on her. She's the symbol of all rich snobs, and takes lumps all their sins. And when an official star appears, he/she is generally forgiven everything, from creepily stalking in romcoms to other bad behavior. "Arthur" becomes less pleasant as we get further from memories of Dudley Moore's brief apex of personal popularity, which papered over flaws in the character he played. Do the kids today laugh at Bob Hope's egotistical coward, without the WWII generation's image of the beloved comic entertaining the troops?

A last note: In the end, Sally in "Cabaret" isn't meant to be a heroine. She's everything that's wrong in Berlin at that moment in history, combining seductive decadence with denial and fatalism about what's happening around her. And she ultimately doesn't believe she can do anything about it. Cliff falls for her and her city; it's a package deal. When he leaves, he has to leave both.

I had a long digressions about Benny Hill's "The Waiters", but this is more than enough.

4:40 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

What a perceptive analysis. I've often seen clips from HOLIDAY (usually Grant's acrobatics or Ayres' flippant lush). From those, I would have expected a fun screwball comedy. However, from your description, Hepburn's sister clearly dodged a bullet. Grant and Hepburn's characters deserved each other, so this was a win-win. Contrast this with HAPPINESS AHEAD: Josephine Hutchinson is a NICE rich girl, who's on the same wavelength as her kindly dad, John Halliday (neither enjoys or supports the pomposity or status-seeking that goes with money). And they both recognize the worth of working-class Dick Powell and his friends. Money and character don't always travel in tandem.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Just to pick a nit with DBenson, Scatman Crothers isn't in IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. That was Nick Stewart driving the truck piled with furniture.

I've never cared for HOLIDAY, mostly because I went into it expecting another BRINGING UP BABY and it ain't, so I found it all kind of ho-hum.

But I've always adored Katharine Hepburn and I still do.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

If anyone gets a chance to see Mel Brooks talking about having lunch every day at the studio commissary with CARY GRANT/Cary Grant, don't miss it. His experience says tons about the poor man.

11:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts on HOLIDAY:


You have identified precisely why I find myself so out of sympathy with Linda and Johnny and their crowd in “Holiday.” There is a certain sensibility that believes that, if you have the right ideas or the proper perspective, you can act as badly as you want. If you profess a great love of humanity, for example, you can treat individual human beings with complete indifference. The behavior of Johnny and Linda seems to suggest as much, and we’re expected to share in it.

Of course, you can make an argument that Johnny’s desire for an adventurous life is to be preferred to a one in commerce, with its own adventures. You might also argue that Johnny’s essential objection to settling down and working hard is the same one he would make to any kind of life that entailed commitment and the possibility of sacrifice. The movie obviously favors Johnny’s position, on the ground that a life should give expression to what one yearns for. The children’s room that is an upstairs hideaway for Linda and Ned is a metaphor for old dreams that have been crushed by family expectations. It is by no means an invalid approach and even an attractive one, for those who find themselves overburdened by obligations and far from what they might have wanted, once upon a time.

How does a desire for a free-spirited life, though, excuse the contempt with which Linda and Johnny hold her family? Throughout the film, Mr. Seaton and Julia seem always to be considerate of Johnny, if a bit baffled by him. I shouldn’t think, however, that this was a deliberate attempt to indicate that there is perhaps a store of decency on the other side as well. Rather, it was probably meant to demonstrate just how obtuse they were to the finer, more elevated approach to living personified by Linda and Johnny and, thus, even more deserving of the scorn they were shown.

I ought not to take this too seriously, however. “Holiday” is a comedy of manners, after all, and the objects of its derision must be identified. As William Ferry commented, everyone makes out pretty well at the end, in that Johnny and Julia are spared an entirely unsuitable marriage, Johnny’s high-flying ways will not be yoked to more mundane concerns, at least, not to those of the Seatons, and Linda will at last be free of her family, and they of her, if only for a time.

Is it possible, though, that Johnny’s affair with Linda will exhaust its natural capital, and we shall next find him in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” cadging a few coins from Lina McLaidlaw to pay his train fare?

12:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

grbrpix@aol.com
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020