' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Holiday (1938)

Friday, February 21, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Holiday (1938)

At the end of last year, legions of United Auto Workers walked off the job at General Motors in the face of the longtime auto manufacturer making the sort of changes typical to corporations in our shifting economic and industrial landscape. That landscape has changed over the years, but it hasn’t changed that much, which is why in the late 1930s GM workers went on strike too, suggesting the worker as eternally pitted against the company, no matter who’s in charge. I mention all this not because George Cukor’s “Holiday” vaguely addresses the GM strike of its time but because explicitly does; when pressed for his philosophy, Johnny Case (Cary Grant), idealistic eager beaver, explains he asks himself what General Motors would do and then does the opposite. I swear, it sounds like something Elizabeth Warren would say on the stump. And if a title like “Holiday” suggests a bunch of people at a seaside resort or ski chalet, it’s quite the opposite, more the 1938 version of finding yourself, which is what Johnny Case yearns to do. It’s what Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn) yearns to do too, and is why they are not opposites attracting, as rom com couples often are, but more like two people whose brains are on scan and trying to find the right frequency which just so happens to be the same one.

That the frequency takes so long to find is for the same reason Johnny meets Linda in the first place – that is, he’s become engaged to her sister, Julia (Doris Nolan). Before we see them in each other’s company, however, “Holiday” shrewdly shows us Johnny meeting with his friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan (Jean Dixon), at their regular, nothing-fancy-here apartment, underlining his status as a good-minded regular fella, deliberately demonstrating where Johnny comes from so as to juxtapose what he’s getting himself into by marrying Julia. She’s the daughter of a wealthy banker, Edward (Henry Kolker), residing in a tony Park Avenue mansion, an idea we know Johnny can’t quite fathom because he shows up not by knocking on the front door but the servant’s entrance, guided by the confused help into the spacious hall where Johnny momentarily. These are different sides of the coin and what winds up coming between them is the so-called Playroom, splitting the difference between both worlds, a kind of rec room as cozy study, designed by Linda and Julia’s departed mother to bring warmth to a place where so much architectural overkill brought chill. Not coincidentally, the playroom is where Linda spends most of her time, often in the company of her brother, Ned Jr. (Lew Ayres), one who tries drinking his reality away.

Ned is not quite a “Days of Wine and Roses” drunk but neither he is Nick Charles; he’s more the emblem of what happens when your dreams fade, still demonstrating an ability to read what’s happening and how Linda feels but unable to deal with or get himself out of his current predicament. And because he’s been conscripted into his father’s company, he evokes what might happen to Johnny if he goes the same route, a route his fiancĂ© and future father-in-law make gradually clear they want him to take in lieu of his expressed desire to become willfully unemployed and seek some unassailable life truths. Grant modulates ever so slightly in these moments, the boyish enthusiasm he effuses throughout, which gives life to the acrobat moves that otherwise might have felt forced, is tamped down, the fire going right out of his eyes.

Linda, meanwhile, though she has not allowed herself to become officially dragged down in her father’s corporate interests a la Ned Jr. has become emotionally adrift anyway, which is why her father and sister talk behind her back like she’s a problem. It dampens her spirit but doesn’t douse it, which is how Hepburn plays it, bummed out but still looking for brawl. That she wiles away most of her days – even parties – inside the playroom might denote a longing for the past but also evinces, well, not an alternate reality, exactly, but the reality she yearns to create for herself, and creation is paramount in the playroom. Not for nothing do Johnny’s friends find themselves almost ineffably drawn here when they are invited for a party, like a tractor beam, away from the hoity-toity hobnobbers, trying to nudge Johnny and Linda together not just out of love but what they see as this duo’s obvious intrinsic embrace of a nonconformist lifestyle.

Looking back through the prism of time, “Holiday” might initially appear out of touch. Who are these people to be complaining not about having money but what to go and do with it during The Great Depression? The juxtaposition, though, of Johnny wanting to strike out on his own and make a new way of living with his fiancĂ© and father-in-law insisting he settle in and maintain the status quo intrinsically resembles the same questions facing America in the moment, whether to start again or go back to the same banks that made everything go bust. And I wish, I so desperately wish, that we, here, right now, were making movies, movies with, say, Julia Roberts and George Clooney, that were as light on their feet as this one even as they addressed the heavy stuff.

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