Some things will automatically cheer me up, no matter what. Like a movie starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Bringing Up Baby leaves me in splits, The Philadelphia Story gives me the warm fuzzies, but I’m always in the mood for George Cukor’s Holiday.
A Philip Barry play re-tooled for the Depression, Holiday is the story of handsome Midas-in-the-making Johnny Case (Cary Grant) who tumbles head over heels for chance-met blonde ice-queen Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). The timing couldn’t be better for Johnny – he’s just about to strike it rich and then he’s off on that extended holiday around the world he’s been dreaming about his whole life. No work, all play, for the first time ever. What could be better than to share his good fortune with the most beautiful girl he’s ever met?
A spontaneous engagement later, he follows her back to NYC where he makes the discovery that his lady love is New York royalty and has a block-long mansion as well as eccentric family members to prove it. These include her father Edward (Henry Kolker), brother Ned (Lew Ayres) and sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn).
From the moment Johnny meets Linda, it’s clear they both march to the same drum beat. Linda is somewhat of a “madwoman in the attic” figure – her need for the warmth and affection that vanished from her world upon her mother’s death makes her the outsider in a family rigidly invested in wealth and its appearances. She literally creates a world of her own up in what used to be the nursery, where all the happy memories live, leaving the oppressive unhappiness of upper-crust living downstairs with her sister and father.
Her occasional partner in hi-jinks is her brother Ned, a gentle young man with sad eyes who spends his days soaking in alcohol. He’s the only person in the household willing to indulge Linda in her little games and plans – perhaps because she’s the only person who remembers that he was once something more than the son of the house, bending dutifully to his father’s thumb. Ned’s sadness doesn’t stem from the fact that he can no longer do what he loves the most, because he actually can; it stems from his recognition of himself as a coward, lacking the courage to stand up for his dreams in the face of adversity. He’s frequently exhorted to remember that he’s the Seton heir, but it’s clear that the prized Seton drive and will have been pretty much divvied up between the Seton girls. All he’s left with is the perspicacity that eludes his sisters.
In any other movie, the character of Julia would be written as a cipher that basically serves to underpin the awesomeness of Linda. In Holiday, Julia demands to be her own person. She wants to be a high society hostess: it is the role that she was born to play. The things that Ned ignores while wallowing in his drunken self-loathing and Linda disdains on principle with passion, are the very things that make Julia happy. Life has a certain rhythm to it and she likes it. She doesn’t see why she ought to give up her dreams and desires for ersatz ideas about life and liberty that sound like a load of rubbish to her.
Although Holiday is typically billed as the story of what happened to Johnny Case when he fell in love, the majority of the movie is a discreet clash of wills between the two sisters. Julia goes through her entire arsenal of tricks to c0nvince Johnny that her dreams are ultimately more worth the achieving than his – and the sheer beauty of it is, she does it in the guise of the perfect wife figure. Linda, on the other hand, is wild, mannish and unpredictable and isn’t really a “proper” sort of girl – but everything she does up until the climax is geared towards giving Johnny what he wants, willing to live out her dreams through him and Julia.
That kind of nuance in character is so amazingly rare, even all these years later, that it strikes me anew every time I watch Holiday. Julie the Conformist, willing to stomp all over her fiance’s dreams to get what she wants; Linda the Nonconformist, willing to live life second-hand so that the man of her dreams can have everything he wants, including her beloved little sister.
And then there’s Johnny, a working stiff, who comes up with a plan for early retirement that must have sounded outrageous in 1938. Eighty years later, Johnny Case would have been written about as a man who did something admirable with his life.
It would be easy to see Holiday as a movie that looks down upon wealth and mocks the manners of the upper crust – but it’s so much more satisfying when viewed as a film about the individual’s right to dream. Linda and Johnny each have dreams that frighten and excite them in equal amounts. Linda both longs for a life that celebrates the little things and doubts her ability to live such a thing. Johnny’s holiday is the beacon that guides his life, but a life without restriction and focus is something entirely beyond his ken. They lack the kind of conviction that Julia seems able to tap at will because they each desire something outside of their experience.
And yet they’re willing to close their eyes and make that jump. They’ll count the cost when they reach the bottom of that cliff because they hope the fall itself will be priceless. It’s all this and a ton of other things besides that makes Holiday so, so good!