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Blu-ray Review: George Cukor’s Holiday on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release stands tall as what one, specific genius of the medium was able to do with a fair-to-middling play.

4.5

Holiday

George Cukor’s 1938 masterpiece Holiday seems to have emerged from a happy and completely natural accord between talent and circumstances. Peel back a few layers and, like many established classics of Hollywood’s classical period, the truth is strange, and not at all neat.

The basic outline of the story is a wrinkle on the old conflict between restless, proto-hippie, free-spirit types and the maw of American aristocracy that threatens to devour them. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), having emerged from blue-collar stock and engineered an untenable balance between the shrewdly ambitious and the purposefully lackadaisical, has found himself engaged to be married into one of the richest old-money families in the country, the Setons. The family estate gives the film the perfect opportunity to indicate unfathomable American wealth, a yawning fortress tucked into the row of 5th Avenue’s Gilded Age townhouses. Holiday exploits the opportunity for all its tactile pleasures, almost unto itself grounding the fulcrum of its drama: The palace is a mausoleum, sure, but it’s also a very, very nice mausoleum—an architectural and interior design honey trap of the highest order.

These battle lines intersect within Johnny’s very soul, and his outward, competing angels are made manifest in his fiancée, Julia (Doris Nolan), and her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Julia is a deluxe wife in training, more than prepared for a life of meticulously managed leisure earned by the industry of Johnny’s business acumen. Linda, at the other end of the spectrum, is frequently charged with childishness, but it’s better to say that she dreams of actualizing a child’s pleasure long past the demarcation of adulthood. The prospect of marriage to Julia doesn’t come across as unappealing, but, serendipitously, and with some delayed reaction, Johnny and Linda provoke in each other a latent tendency to peaceful disobedience.

The very nature of the story’s pronounced dichotomy all but expressly circumscribes a path to victory for the free spirits, while the film’s romantic-comedy side implies a dual victory, a rhyming one, wherein the couple the audience was hoping for from the outset unites as the final music rises and Holiday blissfully fades out. A director and cast need not be especially clever or energetic to carry this tidy narrative to term, as Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 film Holiday—the first to bring Philip Barry’s play to the screen—amply demonstrates, but the ways that Cukor distinguishes his adaptation are self-evident.

The simplest way to explain the Cukor effect is by way of infusion, on a single, spectacular, and crucial set: Linda’s playroom. Already a visual and spatial centerpiece of the play, it’s transformed here into a Cukorian dynamo, a zone of thrilling provocation and mystery not to be found anywhere else in pictures. As a concept, it’s merely “important,” a crucial apparatus to put asunder the Setons’ pretty mausoleum and the far more animated life of Linda’s mind.

To be clear, the playroom would be a boon even to the most mediocre talent. In Cukor’s hands, it becomes a living space, a key component to the director’s entire vision. The ostensible “nonconformity versus responsibility” drama, while served dutifully, takes second seat behind a much larger artwork that breathes through its actors, and pushes energy currents through different rooms, and the meaning imbued by the dreams and plans projected therein.

Setting aside for a moment that Cukor was the one director cherished most by prestige-hungry moguls like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, or that he would sustain what seemed to be an indefatigable commitment to picture-making for five very busy decades, Cukor’s ingenuity had a lot to do with being someone who could apparently do it all. And as he would prove time and again, his polyvalent set of talents were crucial not only during the transition from one project to another (famously, at this point, he was already ramping up pre-production on Gone With the Wind, for Selznick), but in uniting the disparate elements of one project.

This kind of talent wasn’t mislaid when Cukor directed Holiday, as the project wasn’t entirely without potential pitfalls. Barry’s play often goads directors to make sure things resonate all the way to the nosebleed seats, with such bald enticements for audience goodwill as Linda hollering, “Oh, someone please, try and stop me!” A not-insignificant portion of the material depends on champagne-flute-shattering high notes like this, and Cukor is too shrewd a popular entertainer to declare himself an enemy of such gambits.

Other thorny matters include Grant’s performance. Hard as it may be for us to believe, while there could be no doubt that Grant was a lead actor by 1937 and 1938, it remained evident that the studios still weren’t entirely sure who he was or what he could do. That uncertainty somehow both feeds the dilemma that is Johnny and threatens to render it into a flattened absurdity all at the same time. Grant was an icon of impeccable style and poise, as well as the greatest dancer in non-musical cinema after Buster Keaton. His efforts early in Holiday to evince both romantic charm and devil-may-care absent-mindedness, with intimations of some deeper register of antisocial angst, are as strained as that cocktail of character traits sounds. A lock of unruly hair that falls across his forehead is made to work harder than it ought to, in order to sell Johnny as a nincompoop suffering from chronic distraction who nevertheless would bring home a rich fiancée during a casual skiing excursion.

Cukor—and Grant—make it abundantly clear that they don’t see Johnny as a problem that’s meant to be solved. Crucially, these early scenes are funny and evocative and have certain earmarks of Cukorian dexterity—a slight compression of scene choreography so that exposition and stagecraft resemble a strange game of undisclosed rules; a sprinkling of absurd non sequiturs intended only to be half-heard, not unlike the ones in Howard Hawks pictures.

Further, Johnny’s flightiness is sublimated to Linda, and, to a lesser (but still oddly moving) degree, Lew Ayres’s junior Seton man of the house, Ned. Ever after, threats of strained seriousness are either attacked or ignored, not only by Cukor or his highly adept screenwriters, Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but by a robust esprit de corps that’s the result of a cast and crew brought together under the charge that no job is too small or thorny conceptual wrinkle too big. It’s this unity that lends Holiday its glow, its larger-than-life-ness, which is larger even than a star picture led by Hepburn and Grant That it’s also very funny, highly empathetic even to the losing side of its love arithmetic, and, in its way, an unspeakably sad elegy for the kind of privileged rebellion only possible in Hollywood pictures, it’s just the right kind of explosive ordnance you should aim directly at your heart, and fire.

Image/Sound

If the best black-and-white cinema from the 1930s had a reputation for being the silvery shimmer of dreamscapes, part of that was thanks to George Cukor’s impeccable aesthetic sense; you need only flip through a few random shots from Camille, Dinner at Eight, and Romeo and Juliet for evidence. Holiday is a little bit of a different kettle of fish, as oneiric visions of swooning romance just aren’t on the menu here. Rather, the countless images of patrician elegance, needing to suggest the very best that the very fattest stacks of Upper East Side cash could buy, needs to be positioned as the obverse side—but not alien to—the cockeyed snap of Linda’s playroom, a more deeply intimate cut into the flesh of American dreaming.

Under Cukor, Franz Planer’s monochrome cinematography is expertly tuned to every nuance, without undue exuberance, from the Setons’ cavernous antechambers to the cozy bookshelves in the background of the playroom. The new 4K restoration of Holiday honors the sophisticated lighting and compositions of Planer and Cukor’s design, helping to bring under one, smooth draught of Columbia monochrome, one of the deceptively light odes to the bittersweetness of ephemeral love and desire ever to emerge from that studio or any other.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack is relegated to backup. In a scene that’s by all reasonable metrics the heart of Holiday, Johnny and Linda look out over the New Years’ Eve revelers on the Seton lawn, happenstance making the celebration a private one for just these two. The soundtrack keeps the background rumble low, far-off sounding, yet perfectly clear, the better to steal a kiss, even more the better to demur an illicit romantic overture. In a Cukor picture where the quietest asides mean the most, the Blu-ray’s attention to the nuances of each layer of sound are no less significant than the picture, and Criterion’s uncompressed monaural track for the 4K restoration must be acquitted on all charges, by any jury in the world.

Extras

There’s a line from Cukor’s 1952 film Pat and Mike that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use in a review for quite a long time: “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is ‘cherce’.” Such is what Criterion has given us on the Holiday disc for supplements. Not to discount too steeply the value in the videotaped conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger, or the vintage audio clips of Cukor discussing Holiday, but the real prize hog on the disc is Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 adaptation of the Philip Barry play.

The 1930 Holiday, which earned Ann Harding her only Oscar nomination, is perfectly dreadful in ways only prestige adaptations of theatrical properties can be, within that volatile period when talking pictures were the newest wonders offered by technology. Griffith’s direction is honor-bound and correct, if you will only evaluate the film as a means to convey the Barry play to cinema audiences who happen to need some coaxing to believe that actors can enunciate their lines, and be heard, in the same instance—the magic of the movies.

Otherwise, the film is as laborious and punishing as one might expect; in particular, Robert Ames’s Johnny Case is totally unconvincing. Ames, who, sadly, would exit this life in 1931 by way of acute alcoholism, makes a totally neutral Johnny—dutifully amplifying dialogue requiring emphasis but never for an instance suggesting an agent of liberation, for himself or anyone else. Elsewhere, Griffith’s direction is strictly without urgency, pushing the actors (leading the charge, as she often would, was the grand Mary Astor) only to hit their taped marks and speak with correct diction into microphones hidden in ornate vases.

Overall

Never mind the box sets: Here’s a slender, yet unquestionably crucial, presentation of one of the greatest films to emerge from any decade of American cinema, without qualification.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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