Holiday (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jan 02, 2020
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Holiday (Blu-ray Review)

Director

George Cukor

Release Date(s)

1938 (January 7, 2020)

Studio(s)

Columbia Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1009)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

Holiday (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Holiday, a 1938 adaptation of the 1928 play by Philip Barry, is a comedy of manners about upper class mores and how an outsider breathes fresh air into a stuffy family and challenges its values. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), a free-spirited rising businessman, is about to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), daughter of a wealthy tycoon. At their intimidating and expansive home, he meets his fiancé’s sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), the self-labeled black sheep of the family, and their brother, Ned (Lew Ayres), who copes with their controlling father’s perpetual bullying by keeping himself perpetually drunk.

The theme of Holiday is that wealth alone cannot buy happiness. Julia is a pampered socialite and her father (Henry Kolker) is a man bound by social convention who fails to understand anything but pursuit of ever greater riches. Linda and Johnny are less concerned with mergers and stock prices than with playful acrobatics and impromptu song.

Director George Cukor keeps the action largely within the Seton mansion, opening it up only for a few exterior establishing shots of the home. But by keeping his camera moving, he avoids a stagy, static look. Assuming that Julia works at the stately home, Johnny enters the house to visit her through the servants’ entrance. From there, he is escorted by the butler through several massive rooms to be introduced properly and is obviously surprised at how regal they appear. He soon discovers that this isn’t Linda’s world. Though she lives under that roof, her refuge is the old playroom, a place where happy memories reside. A good part of the film takes place here during a New Year’s Eve party.

Johnny’s success as a fledgling businessman shows enough promise to impress Julia’s father, but he doesn’t know that Johnny’s goal is to earn just enough money to abandon business for a while and spend time enjoying life rather than becoming permanently immersed in finance. This shocks old Mr. Seton, who refuses his consent to their marriage until Julia convinces him that Johnny will come around to his way of thinking. In contrast, Linda is happy for Julia. Linda likes Johnny immediately and empathizes with his attitude about what’s important in life.

Cukor contrasts humorless, starchy upper class types with Johnny’s pals Nick and Susan Potter (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon), a middle class couple who feel out of place among the swells at Julia and Johnny’s lavish engagement party—retreating to Linda’s playroom where much of the action takes place. Here, everyone lets their hair down and speaks their mind freely.

The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is electric and raises Holiday from a satirical look at how wealthy people think and act to a fun romp. They are so natural with each other, and the dialogue often seems spontaneous. Linda and Ned talk about having given up their artistic aspirations because of their father’s disapproval. Linda was a painter, Ned a musician. Now, Ned seems barely alive and Linda seems like a caged animal, longing to get away from her father and his expectations, yet dependent on him. Johnny brings to the Seton house a wild, daring spirit and she comes alive. Cukor neatly balances pathos with comedy.

Grant and Hepburn made Bringing Up Baby the same year as Holiday and both were box office flops. Hepburn was considered “box office poison,” a label that would disappear in 1940 with the success of The Philadelphia Story. Holiday has elements of screwball comedy but is more serious in its exploration of how different individuals regard happiness, and it provides a pleasant showcase for Hepburn and Grant in roles perfectly suited to their personalities.

Holiday is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This new 4K digital restoration with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack was taken from a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative and a 35mm nitrate print, both preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The print is pristine, in keeping with Criterion’s high standards. Stephen Goosson’s art direction is well served by huge sets and details in furnishings, wall coverings, chandeliers, and staircases, all of which reflect affluence. But there’s a grandeur and formality better suited to a bank than a home. By contrast, Linda’s playroom is bright and homey, with large stuffed animals, a tricycle that Johnny actually rides, a set of drums, and even a Punch & Judy puppet theater. Hepburn and Nolan are given the Hollywood glamour treatment. They are perfectly costumed, made up, and lit at all times. Hepburn’s classic cheek bones are nicely highlighted.

Sound is excellent for a film of this vintage. All of the actors speak clearly, even Lew Ayres who speaks with a slight slurring due to his character’s intoxication. Nolan’s speech pattern has traces of affectation that are appropriate for Julia. Hepburn always seems spontaneous and less calculating in what she says. Her candidness contrasts with the rigid stodginess of Mr. Seton. Their manner of speaking also reflects the difference in personalities between Linda and Julia. Julia is always formal, even with Johnny. Linda is always down to earth. A musical interlude when Linda, Johnny, Ned, and the Potters sing Camptown Races in the play room illustrates their common bond as kindred spirits.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include the 1930 version of Holiday, starring Ann Harding, Mary Astor, and Robert Ames; a conversation between filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger and film critic Michael Sragow; audio excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with director George Cukor, recorded in 1970 and 1971; a costume gallery; and a booklet containing a critical essay.

Holiday (1930) – This is the first filmed version of Philip Barry’s 1928 play released by Pathé during the early sound era. Directed by Edward H. Griffith, this pre-code adaptation stars Ann Harding as Linda, Mary Astor as Julia, and Robert Ames as Johnny. Edward Everett Horton plays Nick Potter, a role he would reprise in George Cukor’s 1938 adaptation. The film lacks the breezy, natural quality of the later version as actors are stiff. Ames is certainly no Cary Grant, and it’s hard to see what Julia and Linda see in him.

Conversation with Sragow and Schlensinger – The two Michaels discuss the three versions of the film. Comparing Holiday to The Philadelphia Story, they note that the former is not as flashy or as funny. Performances in the 1930 version were stiff. This was early in the sound era when movies were more static. Dialogue was stilted and performances stage-bound. Barry’s career as a successful playwright is discussed. Katharine Hepburn had established herself as an unusual female romantic lead and is unapologetic about playing the quirky character of Linda Seton. The superb chemistry between Grant and Hepburn is analyzed. Grant created a screen persona for himself over time. His character in Holiday has similarities to his own working class background. Though Cukor is not known as an improvisational director, “he was open to new things.” Cinematographer Franz Planer came from Germany and used subtle camera movement. In the 1938 adaptation, Linda was made the older daughter.

George Cukor Audio Excerpts – With a still photo of George Cukor shown throughout, screenwriter Gavin Lambert interviews the director for the American Film Institute’s oral history series. Cukor refers to the rhythm of the dialogue and speaks highly of Philip Barry’s plays, which displayed a unique form of wit. The acting required class and style, a “kind of gallantry.” Barry presented a dim view of grand people. The film represented a new, casual way of playing a role. Hepburn was strange looking and strange sounding, but she showed deep feeling. She was an original personality. Barry took a serious subject and treated it with impertinence while simultaneously dealing with human problems and solid situations. Cukor speaks about Lew Ayes as a character actor with an air of mischief and sadness. Hepburn acted on Broadway for a time until The Philadelphia Story, also directed by George Cukor, revitalized her film career.

Costume Gallery – Robert Mero Kalloch—known professionally as Kalloch—was one of the most influential costume designers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was chief fashion designer for Columbia Pictures from 1933 to 1941. This feature shows design sketches for gowns worn in Holiday along with still photos of finished wardrobe and Columbia Pictures’ publicity descriptions of costumes.

Booklet – The accordion-style insert booklet contains the critical essay Play Mates by Dana Stevens, a black-and-white still, a list of cast and credits, and information about the restoration.

– Dennis Seuling

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