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If we took a holiday / Took some time to celebrate

There’s nothing on the books that says that a “classic” has to have been liked much when it first came out. In fact, enormous swaths of what we now revere as America’s film heritage are comprised of what were flops on their first outing.

Take, for example, the Cary Grant- Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy Holiday by George Cukor (TCM is running it in the middle of the night this coming Monday–set your DVRs!). Right there, in that one sentence, I’ve probably already sold you on the merits of this picture.

Back in 1938, the studio publicity department tried to sell audiences using a wholly different set of come-ons:

“So daring — so tender — so human — so true — that everyone in love will want to see it!”

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Yup. That wet noodle was the tag line on the poster art for Holiday. A better tag might have read, “The rich are different.” This is a Depression-era screwball, you see, in which “meet cute” meets Marx. Heady arguments about the true role of money and the meaning of life bump up against playful slapstick, and at one point Cary Grant shows his true feelings for the snobbery-set by hailing them with a Nazi salute. Who says screwball wasn’t political?

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Grant plays Johnny Case, the very embodiment of America’s work ethic. A poor boy orphaned at a young age, Johnny has been obliged to work for a living since he was 10 years old. Now, a modestly successful financier, he has fallen head over heels for Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), first daughter of the storied Seton family, one of the nation’s most prominent and stuck-up bunch of richies.

The patriarch of the Seton clan (Henry Kolker) dislikes the idea of his daughter marrying so palpably beneath her station, but Johnny’s unyielding determination and natural charm bring him around. If the Seton family grudgingly accepts Johnny into its fold, no such patience is offered Johnny’s dearest ambition: to “retire young and work old.” Having become a self-made man, he has no interest in the Seton money, but simply wishes to go on an extended holiday while he is still young enough to enjoy life. Later, when he is older and wiser, then he’ll return to work.

This is a wholesale rejection of the Seton’s values. To the Seton clan, Johnny’s ideas are practically communist, a blasphemy against the god of money.

Only Linda (Katharine Hepburn), the self-professed “black sheep” of the Setons, sees things Johnny’s way. Too bad he’s already engaged to her sister…

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Loosely based on the life of Gertrude Sanfred Lejean, a real-life “Linda Seton” whose free-thinking ways made her a proto-feminist, Holiday began life as a 1929 Broadway show by playwright Philip Barry. Two years later it was adapted into its first feature film version by director Edward Griffith–but in the interim, the stock market had crashed, radically changing the context of the story. By 1938, the story’s obvious anti-rich attitudes resonated even deeper with audiences than before, and gave the material a sharper edge than the usual screwball romance offering.

Cukor was in waiting at the MGM lot while his next gig, Gone With the Wind, lumbered slowly into readiness. To bide the time, he was loaned out to Columbia to helm a remake of Holiday. Borrowing talent from other studios was Columbia’s standard operating procedure in those days. Harry Cohn figured, why pay people all the time when you could hire them out on a per-job basis?

Bridging the production to past incarnations of the story, character actor Edward Everett Horton played the same supporting role he had originated in the 1930 film. That role, of Johnny’s friend Nick Potter, had in turn been played onstage by Donald Ogden Stewart, who was hired by the producers as the screenwriter for the 1938 remake.

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Of course, to modern audiences it’s Cary Grant who garners the most attention. He was an up-and-comer freelance actor, lacking a studio to call home. For his costar, Columbia turned to Katharine Hepburn, whose unconventional behavior at RKO had given her a reputation as box office poison. Indeed, Hepburn was as willful and independent as the character of Linda Seton, whom she had understudied during its Broadway run. Hepburn had even used one of her scenes from the stage version of Holiday in her very first screen test. If anyone was to do this right, it was Hepburn, and Columbia’s quick-thinking publicity mavens promoted her appearance with such slogans as “Is It True What They Say About Katharine Hepburn?” They proved their point, and Hepburn successfully shed her old reputation in favor of a new stardom.

Following Holiday, Hepburn bought the rights to another Philip Barry play, so that she could control her next film and negotiate her own terms: these involved reuniting with director George Cukor, costar Cary Grant, and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart all over again to make The Philadelphia Story.

 

6 Responses If we took a holiday / Took some time to celebrate
Posted By Tom S : December 20, 2014 7:10 am

That Horton role is wonderful- normally, it seems like his place as a character actor was as an easily flustered stuffed shirt, which admittedly, he excelled at, but to see him play the center of warmth in a community of delightful outsiders sold the idea of Grant wanting to join that world instantly (though the equally charming Hepburn doesn’t hurt.) It’s not really all that radical a movie- all it suggests is that maybe, occasionally, being the most obsessive money grubber and snob in the world might not be so great- but it also doesn’t really say anything that feels infuriating, the way that Capra movies occasionally lapse into (there’s a strong libertarian streak behind the noncomformists of You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.) This one is like The Good Fairy and Harvey, just a totally irresistible charmer of a thing.

Posted By LD : December 20, 2014 5:27 pm

Grant gets to show off some of his acrobatic skills, as does Hepburn, in the film. I especially like the stunt in the nursery with Hepburn on Grant’s shoulders.

Posted By Emgee : December 20, 2014 8:39 pm

Even from the poster it’s obvious that Grant and Hepburn are made for each other, which makes the movie’s outcome kinda predictable. And why do three grownups still live with their father?
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, even if the “message” ( all work and no play….. etc ) isn’t exactly revolutionary stuff.

Posted By Doug : December 20, 2014 10:29 pm

On my first viewing, it seemed odd to me that Grant was being paired with ‘the wrong sister’-nothing against Doris Nolan,but I didn’t know her, and I still don’t.
But then again, in “Bringing Up Baby” Grant spent 99% of the movie trying to marry someone else.
Case’s idea of Holiday appeals to me, though reality doesn’t often work that way.
Emgee asks, “why do three grownups still live with their father?”
What came to mind is the Shirley Jackson book, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle”.
Their family home was the center of their monied empire-it was probably assumed that they would always live there, even after the old man passes.
This is one of those movies that has sat on my shelf for years-I really should give it a look.

Posted By Debbie Doll : December 21, 2014 1:24 am

Cary Grant is the star of the month, but I don’t understand why TCM isn’t showing “The Bishops Wife”, to me a classic Christmas movie. I enjoy TCM, but would like to know why.. Happy Holidays

Posted By Pamela Porter : December 22, 2014 9:56 pm

For me – Lew Ayres walks away with this film, and that’s hard to do considering the rest of the cast.

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