When I saw that Holiday (1938) was included in the TCM Film Festival lineup I was convinced that this would be the Bringing Up Baby comedy of the lot. Also directed by George Cukor this film with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn had the promise of a laugh out loud fun romance with a twist of quirkiness. Together I already knew they had a fun chemistry – so what could go wrong? A lot apparently!!!
Dare I say what could have been a lovely journey down the road of love triangles and sibling rivalry instead took a heavy turn towards social messaging, the American caste system and the fancies of wayward youth.
Cary Grant plays Johnny Case, a self-made businessman in his own right. A Harvard man in fact. So when Johnny finds love with a girl he doesn’t realize is quite so rich., nothing really seems like it could go wrong. That is of course until he’s told, that he’s not really part of the Seton “set”. See, eldest daughter Julia Seton is the wife-to-be and while a little rich for his blood, agreed with him on the type of life they should have together. At least at first. And this is of course where the trouble comes in. Johnny has been working for years; since he was 14. And his grown up, well-educated mind has him questioning what all that work is for? So without any harm to anyone, he plans to travel a bit, see things and then go back to work after he learned what he’s working for. While this doesn’t feel like a horrible idea, and one that most of us can relate to, there is a problem. When Johnny was going on his own, this was fine. But with Julia Seton in tow, this is absolutely unacceptable. When Mr. Seton finds out that Johnny and his eldest daughter are thinking of such plans, he steps in. Part of the old-money class, he is used to and contented with fixing situations with money. He could give Johnny a job, them a house, and pretty much oversee the rest of their lives together.
Meanwhile , things are happening in the background. The tyrany of Mr. Seton over his family is strongest since his wife has died and it’s taken the biggest toll Julia’s siblings; Linda ( Katherine Hepburn) and Ned ( Lew Ayers). While Ned drinks himself into an oblivion, Linda locks herself away int the playroom where their mother used to hide out.
With the arrival of Johnny, Linda gets new playmate she didn’t know she needed. And Johnny gets another girl who seems to be on his team. Of course Julia and Linda have the best sisterly relationship and Linda is truly happy about Julia and Johnny getting married in 10 days. Unfortunately with each passing day Johnny bends to another Seton family whim. And Julia seems to be going along with everything. First it’s a party , then it’s the suggestion of a job with her father, then it’s acting like another stuffed shirt. It isn’t until his friends arrive that Johnny realizes how outside of his element he really is. And how much of himself he’s been losing along the way.
When he brings this realization to Julia hoping she will be on his side, he begins to understand that she is too much like her father to go on this life exploration with him. Suddenly the excitement of learning what life is about and figuring out what you’re working for is no longer as attractive as it once was.
When Mr. Seton realizes he may not win against Johnny Case he shares with Julia that he doesn’t understand the younger generation. No one wants to just keep on going doing the things they are supposed to. Perhaps it’s the current social climate we live in that makes this scene hard to watch. Mainly because it’s not that people don’t want to do what they’re “supposed to” it’s that they no longer have the freedom to. At one point life made sense. But now it’s filled with work, that gets you nowhere, and doesn’t bring you any pleasure along the way. This is the life Johnny Case is trying to understand. But by this point in the film, Johnny has committed so much that it may be too late to escape now.
Holiday only gives us glimpses of what Johnny and Linda may do with the life ahead of them. For the most part it’s a story about Johnny staying true to himself and realizing that’s a worthy cause to fight for. A cause he doesn’t need to justify or explain. In the end Julia doesn’t even end up being collateral damage. The experience, however, does impact Linda. Apart from being in love with Johnny, her transformation comes when she realizes she’s been conforming to the old rules too, wondering why they are no longer working and why she’s been so miserable. It’s only Johnny’s conviction to give his soul airtime that allows her to do the same.
Unfortunately, the time between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn on screen is nowhere near enough. And the main story happens mostly after the movie ends. This is not Bringing Up Baby. While an interesting romance choice for the TCM Festival 2019, Holiday plays a little serious, in the beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-club sort of way. Perhaps if Cary Grant wasn’t such a good actor you could relate to his plight a little less. Or if Katherine Hepburn hadn’t looked as if she was fighting back tears of frustration and disappointment for the whole second half of the film, we could swallow the idea that this is a cute, lighthearted romance.
Thankfully we can lean on moments between Grant and Hepburn that are simply priceless. The two actors get along so beautifully with such an understanding chemistry on screen that it’s easy to see they will somehow end up together in the end. And there are moments of whimsy thanks to the inclusion of Edward Everett Horton keeping everyone honest on the personal values spectrum.
While this was an interesting movie to watch, and considered one of Hepburn’s underrated masterpieces, I’m not sure I’d actually recommend this film. That is unless you wanted a historical capture of the social issues in 1938 and 2019, and the disappointment of the older generation in the younger generation. George Cukor’s other two lighter films pairing our stars; The Philadelphia Story, and Bringing Up Baby fare better as true romances and are far more satisfying.