Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman (based on the play by Philip Barry)
Stars: Katharine Hepburn (Linda Seton), Cary Grant (Johnny Case), Doris Nolan (Julia Seton), Lew Ayres (Ned Seton), Edward Everett Horton (Professor Nick Potter), Henry Kolker (Edward Seton), Binnie Barnes (Mrs. Laura Cram), Jean Dixon (Mrs. Susan Elliott Potter), Henry Daniell (Seton Cram)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1938
Country: U.S.
Holiday Criterion Collection Blu-ray

George Cukor’s Holiday was the third of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn’s four screen collaborations between 1935 and 1940. Their previous film, Howard Hawks’s fantastically hilarious screwball farce Bringing Up Baby (1938), had opened just a few months prior, and while Holiday is likewise a romantic comedy, it is a decidedly different kind of film. Based on the 1928 stageplay by Philip Barry, it had already been adapted to the screen in 1930 by director Edward H. Griffith with Ann Harding, Mary Astor, and Robert Ames. Hepburn was the driving force behind the remake, as she had recently bought out her contract at RKO (where Bringing Up Baby was her last film) and convinced Harry Cohn at Columbia that it would make a good project. Cohn was able to put together an impressive package that included Cukor (who had previously directed Hepburn’s Oscar-winning performance in 1933’s Little Women), Grant, and screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart (who would win an Oscar two years later for adapting another Barry play, The Philadelphia Story, also starring Hepburn and Grant) and Sidney Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

In other words, you would be hard-pressed to put together a better roster of classical Hollywood talent in front of and behind the camera, and it shows in Holiday, which is a consistently delightful and entertaining comedy of manners that takes as it primary goal the skewering of the American tendency to amass obscene amounts of wealth for its own sake. As we are currently in an era that is witness to the greatest gap between the rich and the poor since just before the collapse of the stock market in 1929 (not incidentally, the time when Barry wrote his play), there is something terribly current about Holiday’s depiction of the über-wealthy’s obsession with money and status as the only criteria that matter in judging a person’s character and their complete dissociation from anyone not in their rarefied class. The film finds its most compelling visual metaphor in the massive Manhattan home of the fiction Seton family, which resembles both a museum and a mausoleum and acts primarily as an absurdist marble-coated retreat from the rest of the world. When Grant’s character, an up-and-coming businessman named Johnny Case whose primary desire is to quickly make money so he can then take a “holiday” and find himself, first steps foot inside its hallowed walls, he says he is “overcome” by it, which reminds us that such spaces are designed not to be livable, per se, but to be impressive—monuments to wealth accumulated, the very definition of conspicuous consumption.

Johnny is in the Seton home because he has recently become engaged to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), the younger daughter of the family patriarch, Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). Johnny met Julia while skiing in Lake Placid, and until he arrives at her family’s palatial digs, he had no idea that she was so incredibly wealthy and came from such a notable family. And, while Johnny has the potential for great monetary success, his interest is decidedly more philosophical and humane—he wants to live, not just accumulate (as he puts it, “It’s been my idea to make a few thousands early in the game and then quit for as long as it lasts and try to find out who I am and what goes on now, while I’m young and feel good all the time”). His zest for life and unconventional approach to the American dream is reinforced by the fact that his best friends (and unofficial surrogate parents) are an oddball philosophy professor (Edward Everett Horton, who played the same role in the 1930 film version) and his wife (Jean Dixon). Johnny is introduced to Julia’s siblings: her comically morose, alcoholic brother Ned (Lew Ayres) and her unconventional older sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda has worked to carve out her own space within the monotonous wealth of her family, which is represented by the warm and cozy room she maintains upstairs, which used to be her and her siblings’ playroom. It is an actual living space, rather than an edifice of wealth, and it is not surprising that the characters continually return there for the most important dramatic moments.

Of course, anyone can see right away that Linda is a much better match for Johnny than Julia, who continually insists that he reorder his priorities and change his ways to better align with those of her father, who demands nothing less. Linda, on the other hand, respects and admires Johnny’s refusal to tow the line (or at least his reluctance to), and rightly sees him as a much needed counterbalance to her family’s otherwise slanted priorities, which leave little room for the kinds of fun and physicality that both Linda and Johnny love (one scene finds them exchanging somersaults, and in another sequence Grant humorously rides a large tricycle around the house). In short, she sees in him a soulmate, and it takes the entire movie for him to figure that out and for the plot mechanics to maneuver them to that point.

In that sense, Holiday is not as strong a film as some of the other Hepburn-Grant collaborations, although it certainly has its charms and its moments of great humor. Cukor clearly relishes staging the comedy, and he lets his stars do their thing as best they can (Doris Nolan, whose career gravitated to television in the early 1950s, has the rather thankless job of playing the love interest you want to go away). Holiday features one of Hepburn’s finest and most memorable performances; it is so iconic, in fact, that film scholar James Naremore devoted an entire chapter to it in his book Acting in the Cinema, where he wrote, “Holiday seems particularly well-suited to Hepburn’s bravura style, not only because it contains a number of gently comic and even ‘screwball’ scenes, but also because it subtly valorizes the art of acting.” Indeed.

Holiday Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Holiday (1930), directed by Edward H. Griffith
  • Video conversation between filmmaker and distributor Michael Schlesinger and film critic Michael Sragow
  • Audio excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with director George Cukor
  • Costume gallery
  • Essay by critic Dana Stevens
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 13, 2020

    The high-definition presentation of Holiday on Criterion’s Blu-ray derives from a new 4K restoration undertaken by Sony Pictures Entertainment. The 4K scan, which marks the film’s high-definition debut on home video, was made from a 35mm duplicate negative and a 35mm nitrate print, which are seamlessly combined. The one thing you will notice right away is grain—the image is awash in a very strong sheen of film grain that I found surprising, even for a film of its vintage. The grain gives the image a strong celluloid appearance, and while it is definitely “soft” by cotemporary digital standards, the image still looks wonderful and maintains a lot of fine detail. The image is also very clean, with little in the way of dust or dirt or wear. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred from the original optical soundtrack negative, is clear and fine for its age. In terms of supplements, we get an entire feature film: the original 1930 version of Holiday directed by Edward H. Griffith. I was expecting that the presentation of the 1930s version would be okay at best, but I found it to be quite impressive—not quite on par with the transfer of Cukor’s film, but extremely good nonetheless (the liner notes make no mention of where the transfer came from, but I would guess the two versions were transferred at the same time). While there is no audio commentary, Criterion’s disc does include an expansive and informative 35-minute video conversation between filmmaker and distributor Michael Schlesinger and film critic Michael Sragow about the film. We also get 21 minutes of excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with director George Cukor that was recorded in 1970 and ’71 and a gallery of costume design sketches by the notable fashion designer Robert Mero Kalloch III (best known by the mononym Kalloch), who was the chief costume designer at Columbia in the 1930s.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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