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Holiday (1938)

Before Spencer Tracy became Katherine Hepburn's favorite leading man, there was Cary Grant. Hepburn and Tracy made nine films together, starting with 1942's Woman of the Year, but Hepburn's four films with Grant remain memorable favorites, even if the financial disappointments of two of them — Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (both 1938) — led to Hepburn's withdrawal from Hollywood for Broadway, eventually returning to star in the triumphant The Philadelphia Story in 1940. Oddly enough, Holiday — no great smash with moviegoers — assembled many of the same elements that The Philadelphia Story would rely on just two years later, including Hepburn and Grant, as well as director George Cukor and playwright Philip Barry, and while Columbia's ill-advised marketing campaign tried to mock Hepburn's "poisonous" reputation ("Is what they're saying about Katherine Hepburn true?"), the picture is nonetheless a delight for fans of golden-age filmmaking. Grant stars as bachelor Johnny Case, an up-and-coming financier who falls for wealthy Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). The two plan a quick wedding, but first Johnny must win the approval of her father, railroad baron Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). Johnny finds himself overwhelmed by the Seton family's palatial Fifth Avenue home, and he's only too happy to marry into wealth, but he may not be the best fit for the Seton clan, or at least some of them. In fact, after closing a recent business deal, he plans to go on a "holiday," one that may last a couple of years so that he can find out why he's working, rather than just drumming up profits for his employer. Understandably, Johnny's plans don't sit well with his future father-in-law, while Julia intends to humor her fiancé and his adventurous dreams. But he finds two unexpected allies in Julia's sister Linda (Hepburn) and brother Ned (Lew Ayers), who have come to find their family's wealth a burden, their home a virtual prison. In fact, Linda seems more excited about her sister's nuptials than she is, but a gala New Year's Eve party at the Seton mansion forces Johnny and Linda to wonder if, in fact, they aren't the ones destined to be together.

*          *          *

With its easygoing, character-driven charm and barely a pratfall in sight, contemporary movie fans might wonder if Holiday had trouble living up to the sublime anarchy of Bringing Up Baby. However, considering that the definitive screwball classic didn't set the box-office on fire that year either, one has to look back a bit further — Stage Door (1937) was one of Katherine Hepburn's few successes of the decade, while The Awful Truth (1937) both launched Cary Grant's career and nearly sunk it, forcing him as an independent player in Tinseltown to look for another big hit, and fast. Both stars would survive 1938 (Grant headed off to make Gunga Din, while Hepburn launched The Philadelphia Story on stage), and if we're a bit mystified that today's bona fide classics were considered turkeys in their own time, we can at least be grateful that film scholarship and home video have allowed them to be preserved for later generations. While far from screwball, Holiday is a comedy — as with The Philadelphia Story, playwright Philip Barry concerns himself with an individual who may be in love with the wrong person, and closer to the right one than anyone realizes. The material could have been handled capably by any of the great directors of the era, from Frank Capra to George Stevens, and in fact mines a common theme for Depression-era audiences, allowing them a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy — and even a vicarious invitation via a "common" character — only to discover that rich folks have the same problems as the rest of us, if not more so. The theme remained popular from Capra's Platinum Blonde (1931) all the way up to Stevens' Talk of the Town (1942), and superior examples are not hard to identify (in fact, short of musicals and Shirley Temple films, this sub-genre may have been the most popular staple of the decade). Cary Grant is superb in this outing — "personality functioning," as Katharine Hepburn once famously described him — buttressing his youthful charm with a handful of tumbling tricks, while Hepburn offers a definitive performance as the disillusioned heiress, winning best support from Lew Ayers as the dissipated musician Ned, whose cynicism is as deep as a fresh bottle of champagne. Holiday may not be one of the arch-examples of 1930s filmmaking, but it isn't a footnote either, thanks to a small, deliberate script and George Cukor's direction, merging the best of American stage and screen. Sony's DVD release features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a restored print maintained by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with crisp, legible monaural audio. Extras include Cary Grant: The Columbia Years (7 min.) and bonus trailers. Keep-case.
—JJB



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