Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Holiday (1938)

I approached Holiday with some trepidation. Like The Philadelphia Story it’s based on a Philip Barry play and has a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart. Like The Philadelphia Story it’s directed by George Cukor and stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Given that I found The Philadelphia Story to be a total bore I was understandably not terribly confident about enjoying Holiday. It turns out I was right to be worried.

Cary Grant is Johnny Case and he’s about to be married to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Johnny is a successful businessman. He’s not short of money, but his money is new money. The Setons are old money. Julia has quite a deal of trouble persuading her crusty and very straitlaced father (Edward Seton, played by Henry Kolker) to agree to the marriage.

Julia has a brother, Ned (Lew Ayres). Ned is permanently drunk because he blames his father for stifling his creativity and preventing him from following his dreams. Julia also has a sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda feels just as stifled as Ned although she hasn’t yet given up completely. She has however retreated into neurotic hypochondria. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a remarkably depressing setup for a romantic comedy then you’re dead right.

Given that Linda is played by the movie’s star Katharine Hepburn while Julia  is played by an actress no-one has ever heard of, we naturally never doubt that Johnny will end up marrying Linda rather than Julia.

Even though it’s painfully clear that Johnny and Julia are not only spectacularly ill-matched but actively dislike each other the movie insists on making us wait until the very end before these very obvious facts occur to the characters concerned.

This brings us to an obvious problem. Julia is such an appalling character that we cannot possibly believe that Johnny could ever have been remotely interested in her. Like Edward Seton she’s a cardboard cutout villain whose only purpose in the story is to make Johnny and Linda seem more sympathetic. To me this is lazy writing. Two-dimensional characters are fine in comedy but since the movie seems more interested in being a social satire and a psychological drama than a comedy then I think it’s a valid criticism.

I have to come clean at his point and confess to a rather considerable dislike of Katharine Hepburn. Linda as portrayed by Hepburn strikes me as being a shrill, tiresome hysteric. This dislike of Hepburn may to some extent explain why I found it impossible to like this movie, although in my view it has plenty of other problems.

Cary Grant does his best but the script just doesn’t give him enough to work with. Grant was one of the finest comic actors of all time but when the gags aren’t there in the script there’s little he can do.

The big problem is that there are very few laughs in this movie. Edward Everett Horton provides most of the movie’s very rare amusing moments. A lack of laughs is a pretty serious problem for a comedy, but Holiday is not just unfunny, it’s often perilously close to out-and-misery.

This movie also has a rather stagey feel to it at times. Some of Hepburn’s dialogue is too overwrought and too much like speechifying - you might get away with it on stage but on film it seems clumsy.

It’s worth pointing out that while Holiday is often included on lists of screwball comedies it is most emphatically not a screwball comedy. I’m not even sure it’s a comedy, but it certainly isn’t a screwball comedy. The intention seems to have been to make a romantic comedy with some social comment and some class consciousness and the two latter commodities sink the comedy (as they almost always did). There are so few laughs and there’s so much angst that I think we’re entitled to suspect that director George Cukor was not even attempting comedy in this movie.

Columbia’s Region 4 DVD release is barebones and the transfer is very grainy.

I found Holiday to be an ordeal. It isn’t funny and I didn’t like any of the characters enough to care particularly what happened to them. I can’t recommend this one, even as a rental.

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