Judge Jesse Ataide has written an entire review using a Bryn Mawr accent.
Our review of The Cary Grant Box Set, published February 13th, 2006, is also available.
"Someone stop me; oh somebody please, just try and stop me!"—Linda Seaton (Katharine Hepburn)
I have it easy. If I was ever asked to select what I thought is the best film to ever come out of classic-era Hollywood there would be no need to waffle in indecision, because for me there is only one single, inevitable answer: Holiday, of course. Known more often than not as "that other film Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn made in 1938," for one reason or another, Holiday has never quite seemed able to escape from the long shadow cast by the canonical, much-loved and much more famous Bringing Up Baby.
And don't get me wrong—Bringing Up Baby is an excellent film, and there are countless films from studio-era Hollywood that I dearly love, but Holiday always seems to loom large in my mind, even if the reasons why are hard for me to articulate. It certainly has something to do with the joy of witnessing two Hollywood icons working at the top of their game, capitalizing on their effortless sexual chemistry, and I love the literary humor playwright Philip Barry gives the script, and how it compliments rather than clashes with the screwball-inspired physical comedy. It also has something to do with my appreciation for the script, which allows big ideas and tough issues to cut the laughs short with a cutting poignancy. And I endlessly marvel at the elegance in which perpetually underrated director George Cukor mixes and balances all of these elements with an effortless grace. Yes, there are plenty of reasons why this film is great, but there's just something that makes Holiday—dare I say it?—sublime.
Facts of the Case
Holiday actually takes place between two holidays. At the beginning of the film, Johnny Case (Cary Grant, North by Northwest) and Julia Seaton (Doris Nolan) are just arriving back from a trip from Lake Placid where in a whirlwind romance they have met, fallen in love and decided to marry. It is only back in New York City that the happy-go-lucky Johnny finds out that Julia is one of "those" Seatons—a member of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York, and it doesn't take long before ideological differences begin to poke holes in Johnny and Julia's starry-eyed romance. However, Julia's sister, the high-spirited Linda (Katherine Hepburn, Long Day's Journey Into Night) thinks Johnny is a refreshing jolt to the stultifying atmosphere of the family's privileged lives, and sets out to vigorously promote the pairing to the sisters' stuffy and money-minded father (Harry Kolker).
As the wedding day approaches, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnny might abandon his idealistic dreams and settle down to a conventional life working at the Seaton family's bank. Will Johnny recognize the better course for his life—and more ideal life partner—before it's too late?
While doing some research for this review, I made an unexpected discovery: it seems Holiday is also the favorite film of my favorite working film critic, Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek. In 1997, for a feature Salon did called "Reel Dreams: Personal Bests," Zacharek wrote a short piece on why the film is so special to her, and I would like to use her opening lines as the springboard to launch my own celebration of this marvelous film:
"There's almost no movie that makes me as wistful as Holiday does, and I can't figure out exactly why. Even after it's over, even after I know disaster's been averted, that Cary Grant didn't futz up and chose the wrong partner, I still feel unsettled, as if the move has somehow cut too close for comfort. It's just that a mantle of sadness hangs over this most stylish of comedies—weightlessly, like a silk web—and afterward, I always feel as if it's quietly drifted onto me, too. Holiday never cheers me up, but it always opens me wide."
I feel inadequate of any kind of elaboration (as is often the case after reading Ms. Zacharek's writing), mostly because she nails so completely my own thoughts and emotional reaction to this film. Perhaps that helps explain why Holiday has never quite received the attention or praise that it deserves—the source of its beauty and emotional resonance always seems to remain elusive. Holiday doesn't make audiences laugh like the other screwball comedies Grant and Hepburn were paired in, and it doesn't hit its audience over the head with its tragedy like latter-period Hepburn and Grant films like Long Day's Journey Into Night and An Affair to Remember. Rather, after about five viewings, I've come to realize that Holiday is deliberately obscure regarding its tone and intentions. On the surface, the film might come off as a remarkably frivolous film, but I'm always surprised at the lump that has formed in the back of my throat as the film barrels towards its conclusion. Zacharek is absolutely right—despite the happy ending, there's something to Holiday that makes one contemplative, if not deeply, indescribably sad.
That's what makes Holiday such a hard sell—it's a tragedy wrapped up in a comedic package. It's readily-apparent refinement—the incredible Seaton family mansion, the upper-class social delicacy and discretion, the amazing gowns—serve as smoke and mirrors that hide the script's vicious fangs, as Holiday sets two overarching American ideologies against each other and allows them to mercilessly rip each other apart. Julia and her father represent the common goal of accumulating great material wealth, and they inevitably lock heads with Linda and Johnny, who dearly hold onto their right to life, liberty, (and most importantly) the pursuit of happiness.
Much of Holiday is dedicated to demonstrating how this clash of life philosophies can trap and destroy all those involved, and the two characters in the film most in danger of being crushed is Linda, and also her younger brother Ned, played with heartbreaking despair by a young Lew Ayres (Johnny Belinda). Linda mentions to Johnny at one point that Ned had been a promising musician before his father had forced him into the family business, and as a result it seems Ned has given up on life, living his life in a constant alcohol-induced haze. So when Ned is unable to break free of his domineering father's grip on his life, turning his back on the escape route Linda offers him, it's a moment of complete emotional devastation. I also marks the point in the film, when characters' futures are in chaos and entire lives are on the verge of being shattered, that it seems Holiday has become something more than a film, and somehow something nameless and vital and real is about to break apart.
Though the film always remains swathed in its polished classic Hollywood patina, the gloves are off and it's delivering savage, unflinching emotional blows, and the only consolation is to witness the only two characters still capable of escaping at the film's close—Linda and Johnny—finally break away once and for all. The kiss between the two during the film's final fadeout not only gives the happy realization that true love has finally conquered, but one is also left with the impression that two vibrant lives have narrowly avoided complete and utter destruction.
Considering how much I love it, and how important of a film I think it is, I have to admit that I'm quite disappointed in how poorly this release of Holiday both looks and sounds, and I wish I had a VCR handy to analyze my much-worn VHS copy of the film to compare. As is, this transfer doesn't seem to be much of a step up in terms from VHS in terms of image quality, as there are obvious scratches and blemishes, and there are several points throughout the film where the image appears to go briefly out of focus. The audio track seems equally mediocre—though admittedly it's not nearly as noticeable as the flawed image quality.
As far as extras go, there is a brief featurette titled "Cary at Columbia," that quickly details the films Grant made for Columbia Studios (including Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings and The Talk of the Town). The other bonus feature is much more interesting—a featurette displaying stills from the initial opening scene set at Lake Placid that was ultimately cut from the film (and ultimately lost). Offered up by George Cukor's estate, it is the first time the images have been presented to the general public, and is exactly the kind of material that can make DVD bonus features so valuable. Other than that, there are throwaway theatrical trailers for It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and Sense and Sensibility.
Zacharek finishes her analysis of this film with a brief anecdote about how several days after watching it for the first time she found herself wandering listlessly around a video store, yearning for another Holiday. Finally, her husband had to tell her simply that "There isn't one."
And to be honest, that about sums it up.
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• "Cary at Columbia" Featurette
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