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New Year, New Work

Holiday (1938)

Hepburn & Grant in HOLIDAY (1938) | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

When I started divinity school this past year, I was struck by how many of my classmates were starting over from jobs in business, law, or other more stable professions than, you know, believing in God. People usually don’t come to divinity school to make money, and while it wasn’t my second career, as it was for many, I missed my comfortable, decidedly above minimum wage university job when I went back to school. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for my classmates who had given up entire careers, all for the sake of a degree they weren’t entirely sure what to do with. Divinity school attracts as many, if not more doubters than believers. Over the course of my first year I realized that was the point. Coming from professions where they had to ignore pressing spiritual challenges in their lives for the sake of continuing on in their work, seminary offered a chance to be more holistically themselves, a place where they didn’t have to compartmentalize any aspects of their identity for the sake of their career. It wasn’t about what seminary offered, it was about what their former jobs denied. 

Nothing about these transitions feel simple or easy. There’s a privilege many of my classmates and I have in being able to drop thousands of dollars and set aside three years of our lives in pursuit of a more spiritually fulfilling career. And even bearing that in mind, most of us know that the burnout rates for any jobs we might pursue are still high. Finding the balance between doing something meaningful and doing something stable is a constant tightrope act, and one that increasingly feels like it has no real conclusion. As a result, whenever I watch something about the perils of wealth, I often find myself yelling, “If you had an ounce of self awareness you’d donate all of your money to charity and get a job doing something useful like driving a city bus!” Seminary hasn’t cured me of my desire to watch a high caliber actress playing an enthralling, slightly dysfunctional, high society socialite with her own strong moral code—but it has made me more skeptical of these kinds of stories. 

It’s hard to explain my affection for George Cukor’s Holiday. The film has the rickety framing of a fake-deep movie that masks a surprisingly enjoyable core. Cukor’s fable about the perils of wealth centers on a young, rags-to-riches financier, Johnny Case (Cary Grant), who gets engaged to Julia (Doris Nolan), daughter of thinly-veiled Rockefeller stand-ins, the Setons—only to find himself falling for Julia’s sharp, dissatisfied sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). The conflict centers around Johnny’s own moral quandary: he’s been working all his life and, having accumulated a certain amount of wealth, wants to take a holiday and find something worth working for. Julia and her robber baron father find Johnny’s plan outrageous, while Linda—who is despondently unhappy within her family’s frigid and absurdly wealthy lifestyle—identifies with Johnny’s desire to start a new chapter in his life. 

At its worst, Holiday is full of rich people talking about how being rich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And yet there’s something persistently charming about the movie. Part of that, of course, is due to Grant and Hepburn. They have a delightful chemistry as always, throwing each other bits and responding with brisk, unselfish speed, even when the screenplay feels a bit stilted. Holiday is a sweet movie—a warm cup of unnecessarily decadent hot cocoa topped with airy 1930s screwball whipped cream. 

Holiday | Columbia Pictures

Which isn’t to say there isn’t much about Holiday that rings hollow for me now. The idea of amassing the amount of wealth Johnny does, enough to take an indefinite holiday in search for meaning in one’s labor, is an unthinkable luxury in a world with mountains of student loans, wage stagnation, and shitty (or nonexistent) health insurance. And then there’s the increasingly angry specter of climate change, reminding us that we do not have a future to take for granted, that whatever meaning is to be found in our work must be found right the fuck now. So whenever Hepburn or Grant get up on a soapbox to talk about the life they want, I can’t help but think about how impossible it feels to have any amount of time to not be working in one way or another. 

Though if Holiday hurts for being read through today’s lens, it also benefits from it. The lasting spark of Holiday is that it’s in on the absurd joke of capitalism. It’s too simple to say that the movie’s comedy lampoons the wealthy; rather it lampoons the mindlessness of wealth, framing the idea of striving for its accumulation as nonsensical. Grant plays Johnny as a sometimes grating idealist, posturing as a man of the people with big, moralistic dreams for himself. Wisely though, Grant doesn’t paint Johnny as judgmental, restricting his idealism to the freedom and meaning he wants from his own life. Wealth is never really tempting in Holiday, just excessive. 

What I find fascinating about Holiday is its focus on the obscenity of the rich. As Johnny is drawn into the Seton family and surrounded by markers of their wealth, most of his time is just spent laughing uncomfortably. The only actually liveable part of their mausoleum-like mansion is the playroom, the space in which Johnny first encounters Linda, Julia’s foil. The room is filled with toys, instruments (a relic of their alcoholic brother Ned’s former music career), a fireplace, cheerful wallpaper. It’s the only place Johnny is comfortable, bursting, appropriately, with the importance of play. It’s also a room for truth telling, where Hepburn and Grant indulge in their best banter and where the dynamics of money are talked about openly (“How funny you are to talk about it,” Julia remarks to Johnny, once he grasps the full extent of the family’s wealth.) The playroom is where relationships are formed and people come to understand each other—unlike the rest of the house, where the only thing talked about is whether they have the potential to make more money. 

In contrast to the Setons, Nick and Susan Potter—a pair of professorial, implied socialists— form Johnny’s family of choice. Played with relish by character actors Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, the Potters side eye and snark together throughout the film, poking holes in the rich veneer of the Setons while also providing an example of an ideal marriage: affectionate, equal, and honest. As opposed to the Setons’ snobbish gatekeeping, the Potters are quick to adopt Linda and her brother Ned into their clan once they find them to be kindred spirits. Nick and Susan live out an ideal future, independent from social conventions and fulfilled in their relationships and vocations. Overall, they make an excellent case for cutting ties with repressive family members and running off to France. 

If the Potters are the vision Johnny has of cutting himself loose, Ned (Lew Ayres), Linda and Julia’s brother, represents the consequences of staying put. Ayres’ performance is the most haunting aspect of Holiday, the one part of the Seton family not dressed up absurdly (though Ayres’ carries on with a wonderfully dry humor.) Ned’s alcoholism isn’t played for laughs, but instead viewed with horror or silence by his family. Pressured into the family business despite being a promising musician, he confesses that he drinks as a sort of protection from the life he leads. When Linda is confronted with her own unattainable feelings for Johnny, she asks Ned about getting drunk, seeking to get in on the protection. Ayres and Hepburn play the scene to a perfect melancholy, Ayres describing the artificial happiness he gets from drinking while Hepburn weighs the potential horrors of it. “How long can you keep it up?” she asks. “A long while, as long as you’ll last,” Ned replies nonchalantly.

Ned is the character that hits home most to me now. Along with second careers, substance use disorders in one form or another are a common theme in my seminary. When asked to tell our stories about how we ended up in the class, many linked their religious practices with their journeys towards sobriety. I thought of those stories during my most recent rewatch of Holiday, realizing that alcoholic Ned is the one who actually names the stakes of the game. When Julia insists that “There’s no such thrill in the world as making money!” Ned identifies that thrill’s casualties. At the New Year’s party where Johnny and Julia are to announce their engagement, Ned, between highballs, recounts their mother’s life married to her father, one of pressured child birth to produce a son to take on the family business. “Drink to mother Johnny—she tried to be a Seton for a while and then gave up and died.” “You’re talking through your head, Ned,” Johnny says. “But I’m not,” Ned darkly insists.

Holiday understands that money itself isn’t some darkly moral force in the world—the relentless pressure to produce is. The Setons’ mother died, likely as a result of the pressure to produce a satisfactory child. The pressure on Ned to produce money as a condition of his family’s acceptance drives him to alcoholism. The pressure put on Johnny by Julia to continue producing wealth for wealth’s sake, well-intentioned as it is, threatens to stunt his own self-actualization. Julia constantly tries to change Johnny—prompting him to wear the right tie, to wear his hair the right way, to understand that her family’s way of doing things is ideal—trying to convince him that the profound unhappiness of her two siblings is not in his future.

At best Holiday’s politics are champagne socialism, anti-capitalism produced by a director whose other films (The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady) are more than happy to live in the intriguing palaces of the rich, even if they don’t flat out endorse them. And Cukor’s film never acknowledges that, while Johnny and Linda can remove themselves from the Setons’ web, the same cannot be said for the company workers whose stocks are traded, fighting tooth and nail for a fraction of the money Johnny accumulates before the film even starts. 

Still, I don’t think these shortcomings invalidate Johnny’s choice. Holiday’s focus is on the suffocation of working without any end in sight, on accumulating and producing for the sake of a mythic capitalist thrill. Generating wealth is not inherently a good thing. Not only does the focus on work above all else fuck us up a bunch, it’s also not so great for the planet. The only thing hollow about Johnny’s choice is that it stops short of scaling the ideology behind it up to a societal level. If we were to take Johnny’s choice to leave behind the pursuit of money and turn it into social policy, it might look something like New Zealand’s choice to prioritize well-being over economic growth. Ultimately, Holiday critiques the American Dream not by exposing it’s dark underbelly or it’s faulty promises, but by showing someone who actually achieves the dream, only to say “You know, actually, this is kind of the worst.”

Johnny doesn’t start his time off by striking out on his own—he starts it with the Potters, surrounded by friends, by a support network. His reuniting with Linda feels less like a romantic climax, and more like the beginning of a partnership. In many ways the conclusion is the most real part of the movie, not for its happy ending, but because the work of making meaning cannot be done alone. In Linda and the Potters, Johnny chooses a future where acceptance is not contingent on what he is able to produce. While not everyone has the ability to escape a capitalistic hellscape as easily as Linda and Johnny do, our ability to provide a community where one is able to find that acceptance still feels within the realm of possibility. Or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself to get through seminary—and to justify watching Holiday at the start of every new year.