By BRIAN BELAK
When Holiday (1938) opened to moviegoers in the midst of the Great Depression, it sold rather poorly, and it’s not too difficult to see why. In a time when so many people would give anything for a job and some money to put food on the table, the story of a man who worked his way from the bottom to a lucrative business opportunity, just to turn it down to instead “find himself,” must have seemed absolutely ridiculous.
However, Holiday viewed today, as it can be at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on March 3, is less charged with this social faux pas. Instead, it serves as a curious example of a Hollywood film boldly pushing against dominant societal ideas about work, the American Dream, and wealth. Holiday rightly points out that money is not the key to happiness, even if contemporaneous audiences might have disagreed.
In the film, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is set to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), a rich heiress whom he met on a trip to Lake Placid, N.Y. Although marrying her would provide him with increased social stature and well-paying employment in the family banking firm, Johnny, a grocer’s son who has been working his whole life, secretly desires to take a holiday for a year to figure out his motivation in life, rather than just constantly working. Additionally, Johnny becomes more and more attached to Julia’s sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), who is similarly disillusioned with the world of wealth and business.
Through Johnny, the film suggests that maybe the American Dream isn’t worth pursuing so blindly. Johnny is the perfect personification of the Dream, having worked his way through paying for Harvard (a feat ludicrous to think about now) and into the financially sound world of business. Despite this, Johnny is far from happy because he hasn’t had the chance to stop and think about why he is constantly working. One of the faults of the American Dream is that it doesn’t leave much room for intellectual fulfillment, a fact that Johnny feels rather strongly as his marriage begins to close his chance to figure it out.
If the fact that Hepburn is the top-billed actor and does not play Johnny’s love interest didn’t make it clear that something was afoot, the film makes it obvious when in their first scene together, Grant and Hepburn’s chemistry is immediately much more electric than any interaction between Grant and Dolan. The film opens with Johnny and Julia supposedly madly in love, but there’s little actual evidence to support that claim, no matter how many times the characters repeat it. Instead, Grant and Hepburn’s first lines together are witty zingers from the start, and they work so well that it just becomes frustrating to watch Johnny take so long to realize it for himself.
The pinnacle of this Grant/Hepburn electricity comes during the high society party thrown by Father Seton to announce Johnny and Julia’s engagement. Linda, who wanted to throw a smaller party herself, is hiding in the old playroom of the house when Johnny’s friends, Professor and Mrs. Potter, the only “unimportant” people invited to the party, stumble in, lost. Once Linda’s brother Ned joins, the four of them sing, play games, and generally have much more fun than the “important” people talking business downstairs, and once Johnny comes looking for Linda, he stays as part of the “Fifth Avenue Anti-Stuffed Shirt and Flying Trapeze Club,” which includes, yes, acrobatics from Johnny and Linda.
Although this scene may contained the most concentrated fun, Holiday, which can be rightly classified as a screwball comedy, is full of enjoyable moments that pad the social criticism. Most of these come from Grant, either by himself (a recurring trait of Johnny being to perform flips to showcase his spry freedom) or in conjunction with Hepburn. However, the best character besides Johnny or Linda comes in Ned, who, though once an aspiring musician, has since given up music to work in his father’s firm. Now, he drinks constantly and wanders around the house in a drunken stupor, dispensing surprisingly wise advice to others about how best to pursue their own happiness.
When these screwball moments are combined with the clear critique of the divide between the “important” parts of society and the less wealthy, “unimportant” parts, they turn Holiday into a successful film. The Great Depression is now far enough in the past that Johnny’s attitude on life is no longer offensive, so modern audiences can actually appreciate the combined performance from two of classical Hollywood’s greatest leading actors – Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn – together in one film.
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