Holiday‘s poster asks, “If you had a million…which sister would you pick to spend it with?” A conflicted Cary Grant tries to choose between Katharine Hepburn in one corner and Doris Nolan in the other.
It’s a great tagline, but that’s not really the plot of this movie. (But I’d watch that film!)
Holiday is actually the tale of a hardworking young man with unconventional ideas who falls for a super-rich, very conventional woman who happens to have a free-spirited sister. We know how this will go.
First, some backstory. This was the second film adaptation of a play written by Philip Barry. “Holiday” premiered on Broadway in 1928, and the play was turned into a movie, also called Holiday, in 1930.
That version starred Ann Harding as Linda (Hepburn’s role), Mary Astor as Julia (Nolan’s role), and Robert Ames as Johnny (Grant’s role). Fun fact: Harding was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for this film.
Anyway, Columbia bought the rights and re-adapted the play for this 1938 version. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Linda, but Katharine Hepburn was not a sure thing.
She had just been labelled “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners Association after some less than successful films, including one of my all-time favorites, Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Beyond her popularity, though, Columbia’s president Harry Cohn really wanted Irene Dunne in the role. He hoped to reunite Miss Dunne with Grant, with whom she had starred in The Awful Truth (1937). But director George Cukor wanted Hepburn, and he got his way.
Cukor worked splendidly with Hepburn. He directed her first movie, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and they would go on to make seven more movies together, including Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952).
Fun fact: Ginger Rogers was an option for the part of Linda, and Joan Bennett was reportedly considered for the role of Julia. The studio also tested Rita Hayworth for the part, though it eventually went to Doris Nolan. This would be Nolan’s most famous role.
The casting of Hepburn as Linda connected several neat little dots: first, Hepburn had been an understudy for Linda for six months when the original play was on Broadway in 1928. And she’d performed a scene from the play for her first screen test. It evidently worked, because after the test she was cast in her first movie, A Bill of Divorcement (1932).
Second, Philip Barry, who wrote the play, would go on to write “The Philadelphia Story” with Hepburn in mind as Tracy Lord.
After finishing Holiday, Hepburn performed in the stage version of “The Philadelphia Story” before using the film rights to engineer a successful comeback in Hollywood. The Philadelphia Story (1940) was a big hit and helped wipe away the “box office poison” label from Hepburn’s name.
Third, Donald Ogden Stewart adapted Barry’s play “Holiday” for the 1938 film version, and he would go on to write three more Hepburn films, The Philadelphia Story, Keeper of the Flame (1942) and Without Love (1945).
But Stewart and Hepburn had known each other for years even before Holiday; Stewart played the role of Nick Potter in the original “Holiday” on Broadway, the same production that featured Hepburn as an understudy! Small world.
And fourth, Hepburn as Linda made this her third film with Cary Grant. They’d already made Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), and after Holiday they would make their fourth and final film together, The Philadelphia Story (1940), which, as you’ll recall, was based on the play by Philip Barry, adapted by Stewart, and directed by Cukor! Whew!
To the film! Fun fact: other titles considered for Holiday were Unconventional Linda and Vacation Bound. You’ll see why.
The movie opens with Johnny Case (Grant) returning to New York after a vacation at Lake Placid. Fun fact: Cukor did shoot some scenes of Grant and Nolan in “Lake Placid” (actually Bishop, CA), but decided to scrap them. So instead the movie starts with Johnny’s return.
Jean Dixon plays Susan Potter, and Edward Everett Horton, plays her husband Nick, a professor. Fun fact: this was Dixon’s last film role because she retired from the screen after finishing the movie. Another fun fact: Horton is reprising his role as Nick after playing the part in the 1930 version of Holiday. You’ll recall that Nick is the same role that screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart played in the stage version. This movie is full of odd connections.
The Potters are deeply concerned and spout dire predictions when they learn that Johnny has no idea about his fiancée’s family or financial state or anything, really. They warn him that he’ll get hooked paying for the lazy sister and the sick father and it will all end badly!
But he ignores them and even does some flippity flops in the hallway as he heads off to see Julia, his love! You can watch the opening scene here.
His cab arrives at the address Julia gave him, which is odd because it’s an enormous mansion. Johnny adorably assumes that Julia works there as a secretary or something, so he goes around to the servants’ entrance.
He asks for Julia, and receives shocked looks in return. Miss Julia lives there, yes, but usually her guests go to the main door! The butler quickly shrugs into his jacket and leads Johnny out of the enormous, gleaming kitchen.
Look to the right of the fridge and coatrack in the image on the left: doesn’t that look like a modern Kitchen Aid mixer? It probably is an ancestor, at least, since I discovered that Kitchen Aid’s first stand mixer came on the market in 1919! The more you know.
Anyway, Johnny is confused and overwhelmed at the size of this gargantuan house. He calls it a museum, and it feels like one. There’s even an elevator to silently speed guests between the four floors.
Fun fact: the movie’s art directors Steven Goosson and Lionel Banks were nominated for an Oscar, but Carl J. Weyl won for the spectacular Technicolor display of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
You can watch her arrival here:
Julia has a thing for conical shaped clothing, apparently. Even Johnny asks her what in the world that big fur cone is! It’s the oddest muff I’ve ever seen. Costumes were designed by Robert Kalloch, Columbia’s resident designer.
Anyway, Johnny asks Julia for an explanation of this enormous house, and she explains that she’s one of “those Setons,” a blue-blooded aristocrat whose grandfather was basically a robber baron, and whose father has increased the family’s wealth through his work at his bank.
But this makes me question his basic observational and deductive skills. The marks of extreme wealth are all over Julia in her clothes and behavior, so how did Johnny really think she was a poor secretary when they met?
Anyway, Julia tells Johnny that she must hurry to church, so off they go in the elevator. But Julia’s older sister Linda (Hepburn), a rather eccentric, amusing young lady, interrupts their private moment.
She is delighted to meet Johnny, especially when she learns that he’s engaged to Julia! Linda adores her sister and is thrilled that Julia has found such a nice, funny young man who’s outside of their typical social circle. You can watch their meeting here.
Off Julia goes to church where she plans to tell her father that she is engaged. She’s afraid he won’t be pleased, but he can’t yell at her in church! Though he almost does when she breaks the news:
That’s Julia’s brother, Ned (Lew Ayres), with the bandaid on his head. He’s an alcoholic who drinks to deal with life as the sole son to an overpowering, demanding father. We’ll learn later that Ned is a talented musician who wanted to pursue that path, but his father made him take a job at the bank, instead.
Julia’s father, Edward (Henry Kolker) is highly displeased that his daughter has gotten engaged to a man he’s never met. When he learns that Johnny works at an investment firm, he sends Ned and Julia home and seeks out one of his friends and fellow churchgoers who happens to be the president of Johnny’s firm. He wants to check up on this young man.
Meanwhile, Johnny returns to the Seton mansion. The butler directs him to the fourth floor “playroom” where Linda is waiting (we don’t know why she didn’t have to go to church with her siblings).
Johnny is pleasantly surprised to find that the playroom is quite different from the rest of the house. It actually feels homey and lived-in. Linda explains that the room was their mother’s idea, and that before she died she spent as much time there as her children.
Linda begins that traditional fierce sister interview to make sure that Johnny is right for her sister. She disarms him with a tour of their old toys, including her giraffe. She claims that it looks like her.
Then Linda and Johnny have an astonishingly honest conversation for two people who have just met. Linda tells Johnny that she’s miserable and stuck and tired of this life of meaningless luxury where money is God. But she uses humor as a coping mechanism, so it’s not a depressing speech.
She says that she’d wanted to be an actress, then a nurse, but Father wouldn’t let her. Another time she participated in a strike, but it turned out that Father was on the board of the company and he quickly put a stop to her activities.
She’s lost, and she confesses that “The trouble with me is I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or John L. Lewis.” So instead she’s stuck in this household ruled by a father who doesn’t understand her, or anything that clashes with his own worldview.
Johnny returns the honesty by telling Linda about his unusual life plan. Johnny started working at the age of ten to help his family make ends meet. He worked his way through Harvard and got a plum job at the investment firm. That trip to Lake Placid was the first holiday he’d ever had! He just turned thirty, and he’s tired. He’s about to reach a point financially when he could take a break, so he’s decided that he’s going to “retire young, work old.”
He wants to take some time to live and discover what’s important, as he says, “Come back to work and work when I know what I’m working for.” It’s unusual, and potentially troublesome when one recalls that this film was released during the Great Depression, when many people would have loved a job. But anyway, that’s how Johnny feels.
Linda loves Johnny’s plan. She doesn’t like her father’s endless drive for money and more money and even more, so she’s wholeheartedly supportive of Johnny’s “make enough money so I stop and go live” plan. But he hasn’t told Julia yet. Linda assures him that she will be delighted, too. You can watch the scene here.
Then Ned and Julia join them in the playroom. Ned and Linda start teasingly coaching Johnny on how to impress their father. Is there a judge in his family tree? Who was his mother? Linda tells him to drop some names, and she demonstrates how it’s done: she ratchets up her normal high-society accent and sings about the very important people she saw at “Mrs. So-and-So’s cockfight last Tuesday.”
When Johnny lets slip that he can do a back flip, Linda begs him to show them, but Julia puts a stop to it. They have to go meet Father, after all, and Johnny really must change his necktie! Remember this, it’s a telling moment.
As the sisters go downstairs to meet Father, Linda tells Julia how much she likes Johnny, and how perfect he is for her. Then she asks, very intensely and almost tearfully, if she can throw them an engagement party. She wants to do something small with just their friends up in the playroom. Casual, intimate, low key. Julia agrees.
But Johnny holds his own. And later that evening, Mr. Seton finally agrees to the engagement. He and Julia have a special bond, and it seems he can’t refuse her. Father suggests throwing a fancy New Year’s Eve party to announce the engagement, and Julia seems on board, even though she’d already agreed to let Linda throw one…
Cut to exactly the opposite of Linda’s dream. Father and Julia brushed her casual party aside in favor of formalities, white ties, and engraved invitations. Johnny seems to be enjoying it, but Ned is completely drunk already, and Linda is refusing to leave the playroom.
When Susan and Nick arrive, they almost turn right around and leave. There’s a funny scene when Nick’s dress shoe gets caught in his galoshes, so he hops around in his sock until he can get the butler’s attention. It just emphasizes how out of place the Potters are in this swanky, super-rich world.
Rather than hang around with the upper crust, they get in the elevator and randomly push a button, which happily takes them to the playroom. When Linda learns that they are Johnny’s friends, she ushers them in delightedly. Ned soon joins them. And it becomes the party Linda had wanted to have all along!
Let’s pause for a look at Linda’s evening dress. I love gowns like this that are conservative in the front and then have a fabulous surprise, like that slit, in the back. It’s hard to tell from the image, but the top is a different fabric from the skirt. And just look at that fabulous triple strand diamond necklace! It overpowers the brooch anchoring that odd scarf adornment on her left shoulder.
Linda’s dress is a great contrast to Julia’s golden, chic gown with its bare shoulders and shimmering fabric. Linda’s is stylish, yes, but different from most of the gowns we see at the party. Much like Linda herself! Fun fact: Linda’s dress is more similar to Susan Potter’s gown than anyone else’s at the party. Significant.
Another fun fact: jewelry for the film was designed by Paul Flato, a famous jeweler based in New York who counted many Hollywood stars among his clientele, including Miss Hepburn. He’d opened a store on Sunset Boulevard in 1937, which increased his Hollywood presence and led to many of his pieces appearing on screen, as well as a part as a jeweler in Hired Wife (1940) and several other uncredited cameos. (This book on Flato and his designs looks amazing!)
Anyway, Johnny is sent to fetch Linda, as people are starting to wonder why she isn’t at the party. But he stays and has a wonderful time with his friends. There’s a puppet show and champagne and even some acrobatics. Linda stands on Johnny’s shoulders…
It’s hard to tell if it’s really Katharine Hepburn, but it might be. It is most likely Cary Grant, though, as he was a trained acrobat. In fact, he first came to America from England as part of an acrobatic troupe! You can watch their acrobatics here, starting at 0:25 in.
It’s completely shocking to Father. He calls it “UnAmerican.” Fun fact: during this scene, Father is positioned in front of the roaring fire, which in some shots make him look as though he himself is on fire! A bit like the devil, perhaps?
Johnny’s plan is unacceptable to Julia, too. After all, she’s always talking about Johnny’s “potential” and his “bright future,” so she can’t contemplate giving all that up! She was being broad-minded to marry someone outside of her social class, but if he’s not going to be a financial success, then what has he got?
Johnny is supremely disappointed by Julia’s reaction.
Julia and Father skedaddle, leaving Johnny and Linda to welcome in the New Year, alone.
Johnny returns to the party. You can watch this quiet, tender scene here.
It’s clear to Linda and even to drunk Ned that she’s in love with Johnny. But there’s nothing for it. She loves Julia more, and she’d never do anything to hurt her. Linda hurries to the party just as Father announces Johnny and Julia’s engagement. But Johnny leaves as soon as Father makes his speech, leaving Julia understandably upset.
Julia is actually more humiliated than sad, though, which Linda doesn’t realize. It seems that Linda doesn’t see her sister for who she really is…
Linda gazes into the darkness at Johnny’s escaping back. What ever will happen now? And how stunning is Katharine Hepburn? There’s never been anyone else quite like her.
Cut to the Potter’s apartment several days later. Linda is searching for Johnny, intent that he return to Julia.
Susan and Nick tell her that he’s been at Lake Placid but returned today, and is talking to Julia now. Johnny is sailing to Europe with the Potters tonight, and he’s hoping Julia will come with him. Linda is sure that she will, but the Potters have their doubts. They see Julia for the conventional socialite that she is; they know she’s happy with her life and doesn’t want to strike out on a new, strange one with Johnny.
Linda can’t believe it. She returns home and finds Julia getting ready for a fancy dinner party. She begs her sister to reconsider and not to let Johnny go. But Julia is firm. Johnny refused Father’s generous offer of a job at the bank, and he’s still stuck on that foolish “retire young” dream. So their engagement is off.I’m distracted by Julia’s immense perfume cabinet. Beautiful! She chooses a crystal bottle as she coldly tells Linda that unless Johnny comes to his senses, she doesn’t want to marry him.
Linda’s simple coat contrasts perfectly with Julia’s fussy evening gown for this conversation, right?
Anyway, Johnny returns to the house to tell Julia that he’s decided to compromise. He’ll take the job at the bank, but with the understanding that it’s just for a year or two, after which he still wants to take an extended holiday. He hopes that by then Julia and her father will understand.
But when Father starts planning their honeymoon, including strategic visits to important banking contacts, and then starts discussing their house and arranging for their servants, Johnny gets worried. But Julia is thrilled!
And that’s what finally does it! Julia loves the life her Father is arranging for them, but Johnny knows that if they start like this, they will never be able to walk away from it. And he realizes that Julia will never want to.
He ends it for good and leaves. Linda begs her sister to go after him, but Julia says she is relieved. She confesses that she doesn’t love Johnny, after all. That gives Linda the opening she hadn’t even dared hope for! Off she goes, after poignantly promising Ned to come back for him one day.
And that’s where our Holiday ends, and where theirs begins!
Holiday is an interesting film. At some points, I find myself agreeing with Father when he states that Linda and Johnny are “talking like seventeen-year-olds” full of impractical idealism. But sometimes I’m totally on their side. And occasionally Linda bugs me. If you want to get out so much, get out, lady! You’re smart and financially set, so leave that house and go do something interesting! But in kinder moments I realize that she needed a good reason to escape, and a healthy boost of self-confidence to make it happen.
Fun fact: Barry loosely based Linda’s character on Gertrude Sanford Legendre, an heiress of extremely good stock who led a fabulously unconventional life. She was a big game hunter, explorer, and the mother of two daughters.
Legendre worked for the OSS as a spy during WWII, and she was the first American woman captured on the western front. She managed to escape after six months of imprisonment.
It’s fun to think of Miss Linda Seton going on to do wonderful or just eccentric things after the fade to black!
This movie wasn’t a popular hit, but critics enjoyed it, and most praised Hepburn’s performance. One review in Variety claimed that Hepburn “carries her role magnificently. It will probably be rated her best dramatic exhibit, human, warm, spirited, and completely honest and persuasive.”
Another review in Variety noted that “Miss Hepburn, after a whirl at historical drama and a wild farce in her recent picture assignments, is back in her best form and type of role in ‘Holiday,’ which is modern drama. Her acting is delightful and shaded with fine feeling and understanding throughout. Cary Grant, who has come through a series of frothy roles, plays this one straight. Cukor brings out the best from all the players.”
The New York Times review found Hepburn a little too focused: “We can’t get over our feeling that her intensity is apt to grate on a man, even on so sanguinary a temperament as Cary Grant’s Johnny Case…Anyway, Mr. Grant steals the show. He turns cartwheels for one thing, immaculately wears a patient, pained expression, and he tells the Setons where to go. It gives one a vicarious contempt for Fifth Avenue millions. Very comforting while it lasts.”
I love that last line–it is “comforting while it lasts” to turn down Fifth Avenue millions in favor of “life!” Here is an article from The New Yorker that explores similar ideas by looking at art and the Great Depression.
Variety Excerpt: “Holiday.” Daily Variety. 16 May 1938. 35. 19: 61.