Movies as therapy: “Holiday” (1938)

17 October 2010

I can’t describe this evening as gracefully as my Dear Friend does here, but let’s just say that sometimes a night of comfort food (baked ziti), a bottle of red, lots of conversation, and a great old movie comprise the panacea for those mid-semester doldrums.  But this is no ordinary doldrum.  She and I spend a lot of our time fretting about integrating work and our intellectual lives in ways that feel true and honest.  Sometimes it seems my Dear Friend is the only person who hasn’t become one of the Pod People — one of those unblinking Panglosses who claims that our university is the best of all possible worlds.  How perfect, then, that our mostly accidental choice of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in “Holiday” would discover likeminded souls. 

Johnny Case (Grant) has fallen in love overnight with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) while on a ski vacation, and has returned to New York to meet her family and whisk her off to be married.  He’s surprised to learn, then, that she hails from that Seton family — owners of a mansion and a social reputation and a whole lotta stultification.  This is bad news for Johnny, because he’s ready to take a holiday from work — and the only person in the Seton family who really gets it is Julia’s older sister Linda (Hepburn), who loves her sister so much that she’s willing to grill Johnny to make sure he’s a good man:

Linda:  “How does your garden grow, Case?  Is life wonderful where you are?” 

Johnny:  “It can be.”

Linda:  “But it hasn’t been?”

Johnny:  “Well, I don’t call what I’ve been doing living.”

Linda:  “And what do you recommend for yourself, doctor?”

Johnny:  “A holiday!”

Linda:  “For how long?”

Johnny:  “As long as I need.”

Linda:  “You mean just to play?”

Johnny:  “No.  No, I’ve been working since I was 10.  I want to find out why I’m working.  The answer can’t just be to pay bills, to pile up more money. …”

Linda:  “Yes, but what is the answer?”

Johnny:  “Well I don’t know.  That’s what I intend to find out.  The world’s changing out there.  …I want to find out where I stand, how I fit into the picture, what it’s all going to mean to me.  I can’t find that out sitting behind some desk in an office, so as soon as I’ve got some money together I’m going to knock off for a while.”

Linda:  “Quit?”

Johnny:  “Quit!  I want to save part of my life for myself.  There’s a catch to it, though: it’s got to be part of the young part — you know, retire young, work old.  Come back to work when I know what I’m working for.  Does that make sense to you?

Linda:  “That makes a lot of sense.”

It does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?  Such that it doesn’t really matter that the movie feels a bit stage-y at times (it was based on a stage play).  The action — i.e., the talking — takes place mostly in a few rooms.  But it’s not all talking.  Grant shows off the physical aplomb that initially brought him to the U.S. as a tumbler with a troupe of acrobats:  he flips furniture, does a tumbling run with a backflip, and charms us just as utterly as he does Katharine Hepburn’s Linda — and in bad suits, too.  His charm is all the more impressive when we meet the full Seton family, most grimly realized in Linda and Julia’s louche, drunken brother Ned (Lew Ayres), who drinks to blot out the tedium.  No wonder Linda is so disgusted when her sister proves herself to be too much a Seton to deserve Johnny:  Julia refuses to marry him unless he abandons his cockeyed ideas about a holiday from work, for she wants him to be a “success” just like her long line of business tycoons.

And did I mention the hats?  Okay, this movie doesn’t crackle as pristinely as “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) would a couple of years later, but that film has the same cooks in the kitchen:  director George Cukor with screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, based on plays by Philip Barry — but who cares if a movie proves to balm your nerves the way “Holiday” does on a Friday night?  And with that, my grading woes were forgotten.

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