Holiday (1938)(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 12.5.2006)
One of the many false myths about the glory days of Hollywood is what a perfect co-starring team Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were. Although recent biographers have claimed that both stars were less than devoted heterosexuals, some sparks do fly between the two, but the sad truth is that most of their nine movies together stink. While Adam's Rib is mostly satisfying and there are a few moments of pleasure in Pat and Mike, the rest offer stodgy characters, predictable plots, and conservative filmmaking techniques. Modern viewers cringe at the woman's-place-is-in-the-home message of Woman of the Year, laugh at the supposedly progressive racial attitudes of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, and are just bored to death by the likes of Keeper of the Flame and The Sea of Grass.
Now, Hepburn and Cary Grant -- that's a real team. The pair first teamed in 1935 for George Cukor's notorious flop Sylvia Scarlett, in which con man Grant finds himself strangely drawn to a young man played by Hepburn in drag. Seen in our more enlightened age, Sylvia Scarlett (not yet on DVD) is a fascinating mess. Hepburn and Grant followed with another failure, Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. Now rightly regarded as the greatest screwball comedy of all time, it was hardly seen as such by 1938 audiences, who just didn't get the fast-paced silliness. Grant and Hepburn teamed for the fourth and final time in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story, Cukor's smooth adaptation of Philip Barry's sophisticated stage comedy.
Between Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, the pair made Holiday. Although previously available in a set with Grant's other Columbia movies, Holiday has recently been released as a single disc, becoming the last major Grant movie to be released on DVD (still missing for Hepburn is the rights-entangled The African Queen). While better than Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday is vastly inferior to the Grant and Hepburn's best two collaborations.
Adapted from Barry's 1930 play and directed by Cukor, Holiday is the story of the impact the poor-but-promising Johnny Case (Grant) has on the wealthy Manhattan family the Setons. Johnny meets Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) while visiting Lake Placid, his first vacation ever, and they become engaged. At first reluctant to embrace the outsider, Edward Seton (Henry Kolker) soon wants to take Johnny into the family's banking firm. After all, he has to be better than his weak, alcoholic son Ned (Lew Ayres). Then there is Linda Seton (Hepburn), whose free-spirited adventurousness is a perfect match for Johnny.
A major problem with Holiday is that, while billed as a comedy, there are only a few chuckles, most coming from Edward Everett Horton as Johnny's eccentric professor friend. Grant livens things up a bit with a few cartwheels and backflips, an homage to his acrobatic show biz beginnings. The rest of Holiday is very low key.
Until the end of World War II, Hollywood was fascinated by the social differences between the rich and the rest of us with common folks usually coming off much better. Screenwriters Sidney Buchman and Donald Ogden Stewart -- both blacklisted during the McCarthy era -- clearly suggest that the Setons and their ilk are moribund and that Johnny and Linda had better get away while they can. That's all there is to it.
Another problem is that the odds are stacked against Julia from the beginning because Nolan is much less vivacious than Hepburn, although Nolan actually resembles Barbara Hutton, the heiress wife Grant would acquire four years later. Hepburn, who can be a tad prim herself, sparkles here, displaying a quick range of emotions, from suspicion to delight, when Linda first sees and sizes up Johnny. The most reliable movie star ever, Grant is always good with the notable exception of his few costumers. He is the twentieth century incarnate, the man we all long to be. The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant makes Holiday a passable entertainment, despite its flaws.
Remastered by the archivists at UCLA, Holiday looks good for the most part with a stray line here and there and a fuzzy medium shot of Hepburn from an obviously inferior source. The extras include the 7-minute "Cary at Columbia," consisting of clips from Holiday and the other four movies Grant made at Columbia: The Awful Truth, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, and The Talk of the Town, a very impressive lot. The talking heads, Grant biographer Marc Eliot and Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker, only point out the obvious. Much more interesting are eleven stills from the opening Lake Placid scene that Cukor rightly decided to jettison. -- Michael Adams