Welcome to “Throwback Thursdays,” a new film feature at The Stanford Daily. Every Thursday (hopefully), the Arts & Life section will publish reviews highlighting older or more obscure works – sometimes both – that are currently not playing in traditional theaters. This week, we’ll be focusing on George Cukor’s 1938 screwball-comedy “Holiday.”
George Cukor’s “Holiday” is a hysterically funny film. I don’t think I will be able to forget the sight of Katharine Hepburn strumming a banjo and singing “Camptown Races” in her steely patrician voice, or Cary Grant attempting to do a back flip-flop and falling flat on his face. I’ve seen some great films recently, but watching “Holiday,” I had the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long while. Frankly, it’s amazing how witty, sharp and entertaining this 1938 film is nearly 80 years after its debut.
The plot is fairly simple, so despite all the comedic antics, we never lose track of the storyline. Johnny Case (Grant) is an all-American boy. Impoverished in his youth, he worked his way through Harvard and into a managerial positions at one of the top a New York financial firm. Now, he’s courting Julia Seton, heir to a huge Wall Street fortune. And they are madly in love.
Unfortunately, their idyll is shattered when Johnny announces he does not want to spend the rest of his life building up the Seton fortune. Instead, he longs to take an extended holiday and experience the wonders of the world while he is still young. Julia is outraged. She doesn’t understand what Johnny could possibly be thinking. But Linda – Julia’s sister – does. Played magnificently by Hepburn, Linda and Johnny are kindred souls, hard-working risk-takers that are unconcerned with wealth.
“Holiday” is an overlooked gem. By the time it was made, both Grant and Hepburn were acting veterans. Hepburn had been performing onstage for nearly two decades prior, while Grant was already a budding comedy star. These were no cheap comedians. And because they were both such accomplished actors, “Holiday,” for all its zany humor, never seems stupid. We are constantly reminded that these are real people, trying to find love in a cold, bourgeois milieu.
In fact, Grant and Hepburn had even had a chance to develop their on-screen rapport together one year earlier in Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby.” And they would team up again with Cukor years later for the instant-screwball classic “The Philadelphia Story.” “Holiday” is awkwardly situated in-between these two masterpieces. It lacks the auteur razzle-dazzle of a director like Hawks, and it wasn’t an immediate box office hit like “The Philadelphia Story.” But that is no fault of the film’s. “Holiday,” from start to finish, is a riot.
The screwball comedy reached its peak during the Great Depression and the early 1940s. At the time, filmmakers were finally beginning to realize the possibilities of the sound film, and screwball comedies were distinguished by their whimsical, rapid-fire banter. At some points in “Holiday,” the characters talk so fast, using such a sophisticated vocabulary, you may need subtitles to keep up.
The noted film critic Andrew Sarris once referred to the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex,” and “Holiday” is a perfect showcase for this distinctive aspect. The romantic liaisons in “Holiday” never become entrenched in sentimentalism or melodrama, perhaps because the characters are not naïve romantics. Instead, they are aware of the practical role that sex plays in a relationship. And as in many other screwball comedies, the characters subvert traditional gender roles. In refusing to become a breadwinner for Julia, Johnny defies the societal expectations concerning men. Meanwhile, Hepburn’s Linda is an independent woman, bored with the strict social code of high society and equipped with her own agenda. Even after they fall in love, Johnny and Linda continue to be unconventional. There is no talk of their marriage in this film.
Director George Cukor, too, deserves credit for the joys of “Holiday.” His direction isn’t particularly showy, but his quick cutting accentuates the film’s fast-paced dialogue. He showcases the opulent grandeur of the studio sets. And he’s smart enough to highlight the wacky, improvisational quality of Grant’s and Hepburn’s performances without trying to overshadow them. Though long stretches of the film take place on one set, Cukor ensures that the movie never feels stage bound or limited in scope. At least Katharine Hepburn must have been impressed. She personally choose to work with Cukor again when she adapted her hit Broadway play, “The Philadelphia Story.”
“Holiday” has that old, intangible Hollywood charm. Other films may make more philosophical or profound statements on wealth, gender roles and romantic relationships, but this film truly captures that magic that can only be found at the cinema.
“Holiday” can be purchased online or rented for free at Stanford’s own Media & Microtext Center, located in the basement of Green Library. Its call number is ZDVD 26565.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.