Holiday (1938)
Director: George Cukor. Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, Henry Kolker, Henry Daniell, Binnie Barnes. Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman (based on the play by Philip Barry).

Photo © 1938 Columbia Pictures
I have not had a good week. I wouldn't even say I have had a great year. Beyond that, I would certainly say the movies have not had a great year—and why is it, we cinephiles frequently ask ourselves, that a coincidence like this never really feels like a coincidence? Has the drought at the multiplexes made 2003 rougher than it already was (which I'm not even going to get into), or—as I like to believe in my more romantic moments, blending my own life's ups and downs with those of the medium I love—have those yearly slings and arrows only felt so wearying because there have been no good films to cushion the impact a little?

Chicken, egg, chicken, egg. I'm sure I'll never get to the bottom of this personal riddle, and yet my basic thesis that there must be some connection was only reinforced last week when I lucked into a rare theatrical screening of a glorious print of a wonderful old film. It's one of those banalities that gets endlessly repeated because really, it's just true: a great movie can really lift the spirits, despite all the practical, external odds against it doing so.

The film in question was Holiday, a wondrous 1938 collaboration among those famous friends Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and George Cukor that nonetheless gets shockingly little attention and exposure. Much like Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn and Grant's other co-starring vehicle from the same year, Holiday fizzled at the box office. Hepburn reteamed with the same costar, director, playwright, and screenwriter two years later for her career-reviving smash The Philadelphia Story, but the wild enthusiasm for that project somehow never translated into a deserved second chance for Holiday. In fact, Holiday already was a second chance, since it had been filmed before and with considerably greater box-office success in 1930, with the now-forgotten Ann Harding nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award as Linda Seton, the role Hepburn inherits in the remake.

Harding's Holiday only exists these days as one ailing print housed in the Library of Congress and is rarely if ever trotted out for public viewing. The Hepburn-Grant version is more accessible, but not as much as you'd think: the programmers at Turner Classic Movies seem to like it, and yet video copies can be tough to locate, even for rental, DVDs are nonexistent as near as I can tell, and the movie often gets ousted from rep-house retrospectives of Hepburn's and Grant's personal portfolios in favor of more celebrated titles. Even Sylvia Scarlett, an even worse flop for the Hepburn-Grant-Cukor trio and much disliked by the actors themselves, stumbled into a cult-classic status that Holiday never really achieved: it remains, I'd say, the best Hepburn picture that her fans may not have seen, aside from that one incandescent shot of she and Grant in elegant white-tie regalia, striding swanlike over the back of a velvet couch.

What all this means is that to see Holiday at all these days, particularly on the big screen, is itself a sort of triumph over adversity. And what a triumph it is! The film is spellbinding without being a mystery, ravishing without being ornate, heartachy despite being a lovely comedy, and full of surprise gestures and unexpected flights of feeling and fancy that are unique even among the superior class of romantic '30s films to which it rightfully belongs. The focal character is Grant's Johnny Case, and yes, he is a dashing and puckish romantic clown with the cleftiest of clefted chins. Still, though, without Alfred Hitchcock or Clifford Odets anywhere in sight, Grant explores new dimensions of his familiar persona in this part (and in 1938, his persona wasn't all that familiar anyway; Hepburn, after all, despite her "box-office poison" reputation, is still billed first). Johnny is a laugher and a prankster, but there's a strong and swift-acting business acumen lurking just beneath the devil-may-care surface. He's in love with love, but there is gravity in that love: he is offended, even angered, when people do wrong by romantic ideals, and a few of his line readings genuinely bark and bristle in the face of generically familiar obstacles like obstreperous fathers-in-law and waspish relatives. Neither the film nor the character really depart from the known terrain of romantic comedy, but it feels like there's more at stake in Holiday than a film of this type always suggests, which is largely the result of Grant's swaggering, scintillating, but strongly backboned performance.

Meanwhile, Hepburn is flexing and sharpening her character just as deftly as Grant does his, but without losing any of that soft luminosity that Cukor was always so good at discovering in her hard-angled face. As Linda Seton, she is not the Grant character's initial love interest; these two meet because Grant's Johnny is engaged to Hepburn's sister Julia, well played by an actress named Doris Nolan whom I'd frankly never heard of. It may feel like something of a foregone conclusion that Johnny's affections will eventually be withdrawn from Julia and redirected toward Linda, but for a long time the reasons and logic by which this transfer will happen simply aren't clear. Barry's play and the resultant script refuse to compromise in any of the familiar areas: Nolan's Julia sours a little but she isn't inscrutable or indefensible; Hepburn's Linda is too loyal to and defensive of her sister, sometimes extravagantly so, to comfortably intrude on Julia's amorous bliss; Grant's Johnny is too pragmatic and driven, and too subliminally desirous of approval, to toss all other cares to the wind and ride off with the woman who's easier, who's more like him, who better understands his distinctive blend of confidence and abandon.

A lesser movie would invent some deus ex machina plot device to rearrange these characters where the final scene needs to find them. Holiday, enormously to its credit, never really does that. The characters all keep behaving according to their definitive patterns—laughing, debating, sobbing, drinking, somersaulting, kicking each other playfully in the behinds—and suddenly, at an invisible moment, a corner gets turned. Behavior is rather elaborate in this story, to include willful self-seclusions, impetuous disappearances, and public backflips. And the dialogue is such finely spun silver, glittering in its jokes but chilly, sometimes, in its sad ring, that these obvious pleasures alone seem like more than enough for one film, or for three. But Holiday, and this is where Cukor comes in, manages by some sorcerous trick to foster another, ineffable level, a dimension that feels like pure feeling, quiet but tangible epiphanies, where the real action is really happening. A single scene in Holiday might comprise a puppet-show, an acrobatic exhibit (Grant and Hepburn are gloriously athletic), and a whole host of comic experts in the cast, including the perennial Edward Everett Horton and the touching Jean Dixon, firing off those great jests and jousts that none of us dumb louts can ever think of at the right, comparable moments in real life...and yet, with all this commotion and carrying-on, we realize that what the scene has really been about is a sea-change, a silent transmission, a feeling deep-hidden in Hepburn or Grant that passed, say, from curiosity to fascination, from flirtation to longing.

How does this happen? How are we made to feel it? Poignant, careful framings that measure the characters finely against the spaces (marginal, grand, intimate, echoey) they inhabit. Good sonic judgment that maintains a notable silence when most comedies would supply a fracas or a high, peppy glissando. Sleek, simple outfits that are tailored exactly right and then forgotten about—this isn't an MGM movie. All of this used to be called good direction. At rare moments, when a Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), a Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys), or a Lukas Moodysson (Together) emerges, it still is. Some directors still remind us that humanism, naughty nostalgic word though it is, is still a style, and a fine one at that.

By whatever magical process, Holiday tells us a story that isn't what we expect, because its methods for reaching a guessable conclusion are so creative, so boisterous, so deeply and manifestly felt by everyone involved. Why didn't audiences in 1938 want to see this? Perhaps a film about wealthy people was a turn-off after a near-decade of economic debacle, but that didn't stop many another Hollywood lark from sailing footloose and fancy-free into the public's favor. Besides, Johnny's and Linda's and Julia's relation to the wealth they have is sad and ambivalent and illuminating, without the film growing didactic or asking in some embarrassing way that we shed tears for the so-called idle rich. Holiday cuts through the tough interrelations of money, family, and feeling with a trenchancy that many, more dogmatic movies regularly fail to do; it certainly makes Kaufman and Hart's beloved You Can't Take It With You, which inspired that year's Oscar winner as Best Picture, seem just as thin and flyaway as (admit it) you probably already suspected it was.

That, and Holiday is funny, an absolute gas. And it's visually lovely. And it's touching and compassionate. What else do we want out of movies? What else do we want out of life? Boy am I feeling better, and without feeling manhandled by the clumsy, unformed giddiness of Gumpish minds or the ungainly, audience-tested soothsayings of Something's Gotta Give. Holiday is a holiday, and it arrived for me at just the right time—but truly, is there ever a wrong time for something this right? A

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Art Direction: Stephen Goosson & Lionel Banks

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