movienotes: holiday (1938)

Doris Nolan (Julia Seton), Cary Grant (Johnny Case) and
Katherine Hepburn (Linda Seton) in a publicity shot for Holiday (1938).

On Monday, when Hanna and I were both home sick from work and self-medicating by streaming video through our Netflix account I suggested we watch a Katherine Hepburn film and Hanna found us the 1938 Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn romantic comedy Holiday.

In a nutshell, this is a classic "man engaged to wrong woman eventually finds the right woman who's been under his nose the whole time."  Thirty-year-old self-made businessman Johnny Case (Grant) becomes hastily engaged to Julia Seton (Julia Nolan) the daughter of a wealthy banking magnate while on vacation at Lake Placid. When he turns up at his intended's house mansion to meet the family of his future bride he finds Julia's black sheep elder sister, Linda, with whom he experience an immediate rapport.  The remainder of the movie is spent waiting for Johnny to realize that Julia's vision of their future life together (in which he will follow in her father's footsteps) and his own dream of quitting business and traveling the world are incompatible. And that (surprise, surprise!) Linda's rebellious desire to escape the family fortune and see the world might suit him much better.

If I ever end up, in a future life, becoming an historian of American cinema, I can imagine quite happily building my scholarly career with a close analysis of 1930s and 40s romantic comedies and dramas, particularly those written around the characters played by actors such as Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn.  These films fascinate me with their willingness to ask, through plot and character exposition, what it means for men and women to form egalitarian relationships (see for example All About Eve and Woman of the Year). They also openly explore issues of money, work, and class in a way that modern romantic comedies and dramas mostly fail to do.  In most television and films today, characters' lifestyles and purported wagework rarely match up in reality. In Holiday, we are looking at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, yes, but the question of money and values is front-and-center within the plot in what I thought were some fascinating ways.

In Jennifer Pozner's book on reality television, Reality Bites Back, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, she observes that much of reality TV involves the double-edged sword of American culture's obsession with wealth: we are encouraged to ridicule and despise the rich while simultaneously coveting what they have and the lives they lead.  In Holiday, the main character, Johnny Case, essentially spends the entire film deciding between two relationships with money and work life. He is on the verge of closing a business deal that could either secure him a job at his future father-in-law's bank (where he could make even more money and be the type of businessman his fiancee desires him to be) OR he could take "early retirement" and use the money to travel and explore the world while he still has the energy (as he puts it) to do so, and to discover what he wants from life.  He's been working, he tells Mr. Seton, since he was ten years old, and he wants a change.

While this fantasy of a Grand Tour is, essentially, the sort of life of leisure open to men of Mr. Seton's wealth, Seton himself despises the idea as positively un-American, a childish attitude that his daughter needs to school out of the future son-in-law. When one is wealthy, it seems, the only acceptable way to use that wealth is to use it to create more

Linda, despite the fact she is also the daughter of Mr. Seton, has rejected this attitude toward money. Instead, she encourages Johnny (and, at first, her sister with whom she vicariously identifies) to escape the family and travel.  In a way, she plays a proto manic pixie dream girl (a common role for Hepburn, although seldom with as little independent agency as she has in Holiday). We see Linda almost entirely within the confines of the former children's play room -- the only place in the Seton mansion she says she feels at home. In the play room, she and her younger brother Ned (who has retreated into the helpless infancy of an alcoholic) invite Johnny and his middle-class friends to join them in reliving the antics of their youth: gymnastics, music, puppet theater. Linda's separation from the adult world of her father and younger sister is in part self-imposed, but it also seems she has been typecast as a permanent dependent: there are frequent allusions to "doctor's orders" and "headaches" and "rest."  Elder sister, in this instance, has not become a parent in the absence of her mother (who has long since died) but has rather retreated to childhood.

Linda and Johnny finally do escape the Setons and (as the viewer anticipated from the opening moments of the film) run away together to see the world. We are left, at the end, to imagine for ourselves how their lives played out from there -- one assumes in a very "un-American," Bohemian fashion. Though Linda has promised to return one day to rescue, in turn, her brother from his stultifying fate.  Father and daughter (Julia), it seems, are left to enjoy their shallow, yet unimpeachably American (read: earned not inherited), riches.


  1. Your piece really makes me want to check this film out but I have a terror of embarrassment/frustration comedy though (I couldn't make it through Bringing up Baby for example) Is it like that?

    Sometimes it's a fine line between fascinating and horrifying with older films especially melodramas and romances.

  2. Good question, soirore. It's hard to predict what other folks are going to find embarrassing and/or frustrating so I hesitate to render a verdict.

    However, if you found Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby cringe-inducing, this might not be the film for you. I'd say her character in Holiday isn't as well developed. here. Linda is a young woman trapped in adolescence, essentially. In her former playroom in her father's house. She's rejected (it's implied) growing up if growing up equals the life of the society wife (which her younger sister Julia is embracing). Johnny then comes along and offers her a glimpse of another kind of adulthood. So Linda rescues herself by attaching herself to Johnny -- first by trying to bring him into the family and, when that threatens to change him, encouraging him to break away from Julia's plans for him.

    There's a lot to cringe at, yes. This certainly doesn't have the depth of some of Hepburn's later work (Woman of the Year for example, however problematic some of its narrative claims about women, work and relationships). If I was looking for a completely satisfying romance, I probably wouldn't pick this. But if I was looking for an interesting example of 1930s depictions of romance and attitudes toward work and money, with humor, good acting and charm thrown in, it's definitely worth checking out.