Criterion Review: HOLIDAY (1938)

Grant and Hepburn co-star in Cukor’s adaptation of the Barry play about money and expectations

After a whirlwind romance in Lake Placid, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) finds out his fiancee Julia (Doris Nolan) comes from an extremely wealthy family. Julia’s elder sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn) approves of the match, but their father… that’s a different story. Holiday, so named for Johnny’s plan to make enough money to take a long break from work, and not the holiday season (although the action occurs in the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day), was the second pairing of Grant and Hepburn after Bringing Up Baby.

George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, The Women) directs the duo in this second film adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1928 play. Barry would later write plays The Animal Kingdom and The Philadelphia Story, both of which would be adapted for screen; the latter would re-team Hepburn and Grant with Cukor in 1940. The 1938 version of Holiday is less melodramatic than the 1930 film (also included in the recent Criterion package).

Class differences are made more distinct in Cukor’s film, with Johnny walking through the servants entrance of Julia’s grand Manhattan home because he assumes she works there. The set decoration verges on ostentatious in the grand rooms, although there’s a quaintness to the decor in Linda’s preferred territory, the former nursery.

Edward Everett Horton — who plays the same character in both films — is here part of a middle-class professorial couple (matched with Jean Dixon in her last film role). The Potters are friends of Johnny who appreciate his humor and support his dreams. Their characters seem tailor-made for the audience to empathize with, as they appear out of place at a lavish engagement party. The Potters offer a lightness of wit as well as giving the work a more grounded feeling.

Hepburn and Grant are well-matched in Holiday. We see the growing attraction between Johnny and Linda, although she is protective of her younger sister. Julia prioritizes their dad’s approval and the appearances of things while Linda’s voice and person continue to be stifled and limited by their controlling father. Linda holds high hopes for their brother Ned (Lew Ayres), who is so under their father’s thumb he turns to drink. “Unlike me, Linda always hopes,” Ned warily tells Johnny.

The Criterion BluRay package offers opportunity to further appreciate two young artists at the top of their game while acknowledging the behind-the-scenes work which led to Holiday. Add the fact that the less familiar 1930 version is part of the special features, as well! It offers for quite a contrast to Cukor’s film, especially as Mary Astor plays Julia as smarter and more conniving than Nolan’s duller take on the role. The 1938 film remains memorable for its strong cast, pointed wit, and disparagement of the obscenely wealthy.

The Criterion BluRay is packed with special features, including:

  • the first film adaptation from 1930, starring Mary Astor and Ann Harding as the rich sisters, which sticks closer to the original source material
  • Audio interview from 1971 & -2 with director Cukor. He speaks to Gavin Lambert about Barry writing the play in more affluent times (his film version was made in the later years of the Depression) and recalls Hepburn auditioning for A Bill of Divorcement with a scene from the play. Audio quality of this interview is somewhat difficult to make out.
  • A gallery of Kalloch’s costume designs for the Cukor film, including original drawings and final styles
  • A conversation between filmmaker Michael Schlesinger and critic Michael Sragow which compares the 1938 film and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story. They discuss Grant’s personal parallels to the character of Johnny Case, Cukor’s direction style and choices, the character depth added through the screenwriter’s changes, as well as the production design and cinematography.
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