Holiday (1938)

I've got two pieces of business before I start describing this movie in detail. The first is that this is a remake of a 1930 film of the same name, with both versions being based on a play. I'm not certain which order we'll wind up running the reviews, but - just to be upfront - I watched and am writing up the remake first.

The second piece of business I want stated upfront is that this movie rules, and you should watch it. The jokes are hilarious, the performances are fantastic, the characters are extremely likeable, and the politics hold up. But more on that (a lot more, in fact) later. While I don't think knowing more is going to seriously impact the fun of seeing it play out, consider this your mandatory spoiler warning, in case you want to track down and watch an eighty-five-year-old romantic comedy before learning more.

The movie opens with Johnny (played by Cary Grant) returning from a vacation. He meets a couple friends and reveals he met a woman and they're planning to get married. He knows almost nothing about her and heads to an address she gave him. To his surprise, it's a mansion, and the woman, Julia (played by Doris Nolan) is the daughter of a wealthy banker. Johnny meets and wins the approval of her alcoholic brother, Ned, and her free-spirited sister, Linda. The fact that Linda is played by Katherine Hepburn should be a pretty good hint as to where this is all headed.

The first obstacle Johnny and Julia are trying to overcome is to win her father's approval. He's understandably suspicious of Johnny, who multiple characters initially assume is primarily after Julia's wealth. But it quickly becomes apparent that not only is Johnny not interested in their money or status, these are basically drawbacks for him. He's in the middle of a business deal of his own and hopes to use the profits to take some time off and find himself. Julia, much to his dismay, wants him to follow in her father's footsteps and become successful, according to the more traditional sense of the word.

It should be noted that her siblings don't share her or her father's ambitions, though Ned is more or less trapped in the family business. He wanted to be a musician, a dream that was denied to him, and drinks to console himself. Meanwhile, Linda just wants to explore the world and perhaps make it a better place. Spiritually, they're basically bohemians and feel far more at ease with Johnny and his friends than with their extended family and their father's associates.

Despite not entirely seeing eye-to-eye, Julia's father agrees to the wedding and plans a massive New Year's party to announce the news. This creates a great deal of friction, because prior to this Linda got her sister to promise she'd let her plan a small New Year's get-together with only close friends, to be held in the family's old playroom, a space Linda associates with her late mother and the happiest moments of her childhood. Julia, either not realizing how deeply her sister cares about this party or simply not taking Linda's feelings seriously, embraces the chance to have her engagement revealed at a lavish celebration. Johnny, of course, is entirely uncomfortable, as are his friends, and one by one they make their way to the playroom for a small, impromptu celebration in line with what Linda wanted. This is eventually interrupted by her father and Julia, who demand everyone make their way downstairs for the big announcement, which only creates more friction.

The engagement is eventually called off once it becomes apparent to Johnny that he's going to be forced to take a job at the bank and live a life he doesn't want. By this time, Linda's known she's in love with him for a while, though she hid those feelings out of love of her sister. But after Julia and Johnny break up, Linda realizes her sister is relieved, freeing her to go after him. She catches up with Johnny as he's getting ready to go on a trip with his friends and joins the group. The movie ends with her and Johnny together.

Earlier I promised politics, and it's time I delivered. Fragments of the subject may have been apparent from the synopsis, but I really can't stress enough that this movie is pretty clear on its opinions of capitalism, the pursuit of wealth, and those who look down on anyone refusing to conform to those ideals.

The movie goes so far as to pit these different philosophies as competing definitions of what America stands for. Johnny's outlook is directly called un-American for his seeming lack of ambition. Meanwhile, a pair of minor characters embodying all the worst aspects of a society driven by money and status are compared with Nazis, and a character comments that shifting laws to further facilitate the accumulation of wealth would push America in that (fascistic) direction. It's all played for laughs (which it gets, I'd add), but the implication is both serious and clear: there are two visions of America, freedom and capitalism. The movie leaves no doubt which side it falls on.

The movie's holiday setting amplifies this conflict. To be clear, this is far more a New Year's movie than a Christmas one (though by now I hope we're all on the same page about New Year's being part of the Christmas holidays). At a couple points, the family patriarch outright talks about his distrust of new ideas, which all but spells out the thematic contest between the old and new. In this case, the "new" is a more artistic, progressive outlook, while the old is an era fixated on money and conformity.

All of this plays into larger thematic trends in holiday media. Prior to World War II, the bulk of movies looking at Christmas and New Year's looked at the time as an opportunity for progressive advancement towards a new and presumably better time. I've rarely seen that theme as explicitly stated as it was here, though I should also mention there were hints of nostalgia in the mix, as well. Linda's love of the family room and memories of her mother, for instance, imply that the ideals they embody aren't entirely new. Likewise, the movie ambiguously implies the family's late grandfather may have been a much freer spirit than the current patriarch. Still, the movie is crystal clear that the main conflict is between a desire to progress forward and an attachment to money and the past.

The real-world tragedy here is that it's the old world that would win out, at least for a while. Despite the defeat of Nazism, the war and subsequent shift towards nationalism in the US would mean less tolerance for those refusing to subscribe to cultural norms, a fact that would be all too clear to the movie's screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, who'd go on to be blacklisted in 1950 for being a communist.

Sorry to drift into such a dark direction while discussing a movie this joyful and entertaining. And that's worth reiterating: this is an absolute pleasure to watch. The jokes remain funny and the underlying message worthwhile. Hepburn and Grant give delightful performances, as does the supporting cast (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon are particularly fun as Johnny's friends). This is directed by George Cukor, who made numerous notable films, including Gaslight and The Women (sidenote: if you've never seen The Women, track it down as soon as possible). 

If you're going to nitpick, the movie doesn't do a particularly good job covering the fact it's not filming in winter. There are a handful of lines of dialogue about a lack of snow, but the foliage in the opening sequence looks like it was more likely shot sometime in summer. Regardless, Holiday is a fantastic film and yet another reminder that Hollywood was making some truly fantastic movies in the 1930s. This one is definitely worth seeing.