Holiday: The Best Movies of 1938 (#5)

Holiday is an understated comedy from George Cukor starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It has none of the Marxian zaniness of the leads’ other venture of 1938 Bringing Up Baby. It’s quiet and unassuming with undercurrent of frivolity. The actors restrain their well-known comedic impulses to play it as straight as their characters feel. That it is still funny and utterly charming is remarkable, but Cukor’s direction of a stellar cast saves the film from melodramatic dourness and from light farce. It’s a clever combination of the two that could have failed had Cukor not been as good of a director as he was.

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a self-made man, working steadily since he was ten. He worked his way through college doing everything from serving in the cafeteria to collecting garbage. Now he is a junior analyst for a stock brokerage and is on the verge of making a small fortune. He’s also on the verge of marrying the beautiful Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), a woman he met only two week earlier at Lake Placid. They are head over heels in love and Johnny returns to New York to meet her family and ask her father’s permission.

What Johnny doesn’t realize is Julia Seton is the daughter of the uber-wealthy Seton clan, masters of finance and wizards of commerce. He’s initially shocked, but ultimately unfazed. Her wealth doesn’t change a thing in his eyes. Not only doesn’t he want her money, he doesn’t need it. With this impending deal on the horizon he will have plenty of money to do as he wishes, which, unbeknownst to Julia, entails taking a couple years off to find himself, to find out why he’s been working so hard for so many years.

Johnny doesn’t anticipate that Julia’s family doesn’t just come bogged down with money. They are also bogged down by expectation, tradition, and social standing. Julia’s father is slow to warm up to his daughter’s young suitor; he’s impressed by Johnny’s work ethic, but shudders at the idea of his daughter marrying outside of the social registry.

Julia’s sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn), however, loves Johnny. She sees him as a possible savior for her moribund family. His dynamic personality, indisputable charm, crackling sense of humor, and free-spirited nature are great counterpoints against the stuffiness and rigidity of her own family, or, strictly speaking, her father. After Linda meets Johnny, Julia asks her sister what she thinks of him and Linda is ecstatic. “My dear girl,” she cries, “do you realize that life walked into this house this morning? Don’t let him get away!” Linda, with her alcoholic brother Ned (Lew Ayers), works to remove all obstacles to Johnny and Julia’s wedding.

However, Linda doesn’t realize that her family is beyond redemption. All her frantic scheming to get their father to accept Johnny or to break down her sister’s unfair expectations is an effort to keep Johnny in her life, because the only one she can save is herself. Marrying Johnny off to Julia, who increasingly sees him as a project to clean up and seamlessly insert him into their predetermined social landscape, is Linda’s attempt to save the whole family, but Johnny can’t save them. In fact, Julia and her father threaten to crush the spirit and freedom that make Johnny so attractive, urging him, threatening him, prodding him to abandon his plan for a holiday to find himself. They want to install him behind a desk and bog him down with houses and servants and debts. Johnny’s entrance into the family can only destroy him; the forces of the Setons’ calcified souls are too strong.

I’m sure it’s fairly obvious where the characters are headed, but that doesn’t detract from the joy of the movie. We anxiously wait for Julia and her father to be told off and Johnny and Linda to find their ways to each other. For all of its predictability it is a remarkably good movie anchored by some superb performances, especially Grant and Hepburn, but also from Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Nick and Susan, Johnny’s equally free-spirited friends who recognize Johnny’s matrimonial mistake well before anyone else does. So we sit back and watch Johnny struggle with his ill-advised infatuation with an unsuitable partner while the perfect partner is just steps away.

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9 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Pictures

9 responses to “Holiday: The Best Movies of 1938 (#5)

  1. Something tells me Jason, that if you were forced to name your favorite actor of all-time, that Carey Grant would be a good bet. Mind you, I can’t blame you, as his sophistication and screwball prowess allowed him to display the kind of talent few could match, but he also appeared in a large number of very great films. This Cukor film stops short of a masterpiece for me, but it comes close. Your passionate assessment here sizes up it’s worth, and I agree the humor is more reserved than that which defined BRINGING UP BABY, a film that rates ahead of this one.

    Terrific review. Nice choice.

    • You know I never thought about it, but you might be right. If not my favorite, he would rank quite high (though I can’t think of anyone I like better). He made more great movies in many different genres than anyone I can think of. As for “Holiday” I agree that it is short of a masterpiece, but it’s still very good. I don’t know how passionate this essay is though. I had a lot of trouble writing this one (which is why it took so long to post) and I’m still not entirely happy with it. But I finally had to throw in the towel and say enough is enough so I could move on. Your positive words are heartening though.

  2. I remember really liking this film and being impressed by Lew Ayres as the drunken brother as well as by Hepburn and Grant. I’m getting increasingly interested in Cukor at the moment so would really like to see it again before too long. Enjoyed your review and the way you draw out the class tensions here between Cary Grant’s self-made man and the family bogged down in wealth and tradition.

    • Thank you Judy. Does your interest in Cukor mean we will be seeing a series on his films like you have been doing for Wellman? I love how you highlight many of his lesser-known films and it would be great to see something similar for Cukor.

      • Thanks, Jason – I’ve still got some way to go with Wellman, but it is possible I’ll do something similar for another director in the future, not sure on that yet! I am hoping to have a posting up soon about Cukor’s ‘What Price Hollywood’, anyway.

  3. John Greco

    Jason,

    I have not seen this but I have been watching quite a bit of Cary Grant lately, including BRINGING UP BABY which also co-stars Ms. Hepburn. For some reason it always suprises me how good Hepburn is at comedy though she has been in some other classic comedies as well as the ones mentioned. WOMAN OF THE YEAR and ADAM’S RIB are two other great examples. I do need to catch this one.

    • John, thanks for stopping by here. It’s a pleasure to have your thoughts. Grant and Hepburn were a great team in this movie, but they were even better in “Bringing Up Baby.” Hepburn was great at comedy, but she was a great actress; she was great in just about everything. I wish Cary Grant got the same respect for his acting that Hepburn did. He just made it look too easy, I guess.

      • John Greco

        You’re right Jason, Grant just made it look too easy. He was so good at it that it did not look as if he was trying. From what I have read he was a consummate professional and was always prepared but could be quick with the ad-lib.

  4. I prefer the 1930 version of “Holiday” with Ann Harding and Mary Astor.

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