It is true that people go insane on vacation, but they also go insane before and after vacation. The faintest hint of a change of pace promises something so intangibly special that the only logical reaction is to act out. As a self-professed leisure enthusiast, I have long been fascinated by this, in both fiction and in life: the glimmer in the eye of the vacation-goer who knows not how to return.
Consider this the entry point for George Cukor’s Holiday (1938), a remake of a film of the same title directed by Edward H. Griffith that came out eight years before Cukor’s, both of which are adaptations of a Philip Barry play from 1928. All three iterations tell a similar story of a man returned from holiday with a glint of mischief and a heart full of love. This is Johnny Case (Cary Grant), a crushstruck free-thinker who believes he’s met his life’s match, Julia (Doris Nolan), while vacationing in none other than scenic Lake Placid. Hey man, the Adirondacks will make you do crazy things.
Like all beautiful, glamorous women, Julia comes with some baggage, emotional and otherwise, in the form of her family: the Setons. The Setons are not “regular” New Yorkers by any means, and they don’t promise to be regular in-laws to Johnny. They are rich beyond measure, with a stern, stiff-lipped father Edward (Henry Kolker), drunk baby brother Ned (Lew Ayres), and enthusiastic weirdo Linda (Katharine Hepburn), who presents, in her very presence, a problem.
Holiday was neither the first nor the last Hepburn and Grant pairing, but here it feels as if they’ve invented a new type of relationship, one marked not only by fizzling flirtation or witty repartee, but also infused with loss. Though typically defined as a screwball comedy, Holiday is altogether sad, at times, unbearably tragic. There are somersaults and real-life marionettes, sure, but mostly there is longing, regret, shame. It’s called Holiday because of its vacation prologue and vacation epilogue, sure, but it’s also called Holiday because that’s what Linda so desperately desires: an escape.
Like in The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn plays a socialite, though here she is belittled and coddled. The nut to crack in Holiday is that this is not, perhaps, an adult romance or even a screwball comedy, so much as it is a children’s movie. “A softer Succession,” I wondered, even, a similar story of siblings crushed under the weight of family legacy and capitalism, who in their desperation and loneliness revert to something altogether childish.
This is the magic, though, of a film like Holiday, that we as adults care what these kid-like contemporaries decide to do. As an adult, a vacation is something taken or needed. It’s prescribed like medicine. But kids don’t need vacation in the way adults do: the stakes are lower and stranger. To them, a holiday is a chance to go someplace––to be someone––different.
They’re all kids playing dress-up at the heart of Holiday, the film’s opening bringing Johnny home from vacation to see his friends, the older, dotty Potter couple. Nick the Professor (Edward Everett Horton, reprising his role from the 1930 adaptation of the film) and Susan (Jean Dixon) treat Johnny with firm, loving skepticism. He’s their friend, of course, but a free thinker, always risky if not outright dangerous. Upon Johnny’s announcement that he’s to be married soon, they strong-arm him to the couch. They interrogate him as though he was a child who came home with dirty knees. He describes the supposed love-of-his-life as “the perfect playmate.”
Grant is perfect for this, the dreamiest combination of childlike wonder and mature handsomeness. He’s a performer with a light touch: light delivery, light on his feet, eyes agleam with mischief. A few months ago I watched him in The Awful Truth, a movie that predates Holiday by just one year. There, a younger Grant presents a much more wizened hunk: the tired husband looking for new life in a loveless (or so he thinks) relationship. In Holiday, Grant plays Johnny like a man who’s never once encountered hopelessness. He is free of wry idleness, intent to make his life as good as possible, no matter how unconventional.
It’s with this sense of childlike wonder that Johnny goes to see Julia, his betrothed, at her home in upper Manhattan. “I guess she must work here,” he muses, taking in as much of her family manor as his eyes can muster.
Johnny enters through the servants’ corners, who mistake him, briefly, for the “ice cream man” (only in spirit, alas) and is shuttled to the main part of the Seton household, a barren, ornate mansion with little room for sitting and even less room for enjoyment. There, he (and we) meet Ned—moping and hungover with a band-aid across his face like a kid who bonked himself. He does not want to go to church. He does not want to go anywhere. He wants a drink and he wants it in his bedroom. If they had TV back then, I’m sure Ned would want that also.
The Seton house is both real and not: a home with an elevator, a place in which you could get lost. For Johnny, it tests the limits of his imagination. He finds himself lost and beguiled, stumbling over statues and getting lost in the great ceilings. A house like this, with all its baroque garishness, is not a practical place; it is not a tangible place. It is not a den of comfort nor infused with personality. In fact, almost every element of specificity has been stripped from the Seton house. Johnny is impressed nonetheless. I would be impressed by it; maybe you would too. These rooms are staggering in a fantastical sense. They do not offer a regular person any truth.
That Julia, drenched in furs, emerges from one of the Seton house’s many doors, crooning and satisfied, should be the first of a handful of red flags about her. She likes this life. She indulges in it. “You must all be so rich!” Johnny observes, to which Julia demurs, “Well, we…We aren’t exactly poor.” Though Johnny and Julia fancy themselves rich in love, there’s much that has yet to be worked out. Julia imagines Johnny will take a job working for her father; Johnny imagines himself working-class for the foreseeable. “I just hate the thought of sitting down with another man and being practical about you,” he bemoans. For the Setons, love is not a matter of feeling, but a negotiation of contracts. This, too, is fantastical, though it may sound distractingly logical. It is the old world, old money. It is the type of marriage from the regency era, from before we were able to dictate our fates.
If Julia thrives in the house and Ned suffers, there must be some in-between, some compromise, some great conflict of what wealth provides and what it strips, and therein lies Linda—Hepburn’s twitchy heiress—the problem coming from inside the house. Like Johnny, Linda is free-spirited, impulsive. Like the rest of her family, she is comfortable and content with her status.
Hepburn is prone to high status characters, but here she bounces between high and low, ecstatic and miserable, knowing and confused. She wields what power she has onscreen not towards an alpha female so much as she weaponizes her knowingness into pathos. The worst thing to ever happen to Linda is for Johnny Case to walk into her home, to remind her that there exists a world and a life outside of everything she’s ever known. She treats him with a wry side-eye: she knows the family is wealthy and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Julia may be in love with Johnny the person, but Linda falls instantly for Johnny the idea. “I think I like this man,” she announces with a broad smile. And Linda isn’t ready to share him with her sister.
Like all great movies, or at least When Harry Met Sally…, there is a New Year’s Eve scene that sets the course of fate for the film’s primary characters: Johnny Case and the (tragic) Seton children. Linda tries in vain to throw her sister an engagement party—something small, something tasteful, something familiar—in the children’s old playroom, only to be vetoed by their father for a big year-end fête. An engagement isn’t really a family affair for the Setons, anyway. It’s a business decision.
In lieu of hobnobbing with the coastal elites, Linda retreats to the playroom alongside Johnny’s friends Professor Nick and Susan, a place where all four odd ducks can finally talk like people. They play, they laugh, they make games. There’s a puppet show to be put on and tumbling to do. The orbit of the playroom is wholly unique to Holiday, a world within a world, an escape in and of itself. The holiday in question is Johnny’s vacation—two of them, really; the one where he met Julia and the one he hopes to embark on prior to working for Mr. Seton––but it’s also, at heart, the playroom. A place where time doesn’t pass, where adults cannot come in, where everything made of ego and money is sacrificed at the door.
It’s a privilege to have a playroom in the first place, a privilege to have a space dedicated to toys and frivolity. I am hard-pressed to say I feel sympathy for the Seton children, when mostly I am overwhelmed with pity. I do not root for Johnny and Linda to fall in love because I can see they desire each other as much as I know they are using one another—for an escape, for fulfillment, to grant a wish not yet heard. Like a pouting toddler, Linda is not able to articulate her wants in an adult way. She has no sense of herself. She only knows she is unsatisfied, but that is the whole world.
It stunned me a little to see how much of Holiday is set in the playroom, how much the story tries to escape itself. The undeniable vortex of play eventually pulls in everybody except Mr. Seton and Julia who try, a little, to see what the appeal is to all these amiable weirdos. Once the party within the party is broken up, though, only two children remain sequestered from the rest: Linda and Ned.
It’s here that Hepburn does her finest work in Holiday. The spark is not in her chemistry with Grant (that comes elsewhere) nor her undeniable glamor (though it rocks), but in her ability to sink so deep within herself the second that the evening turns south. Shimmering in jewels and tear-dappled eyes, she settles onto the couch beside Ned, two sadsacks sinking into the sofa with their Auld Lang Syne drinks. “What’s it like to get drunk, Ned?” Linda asks. “It’s…how drunk?” Ned groans.
Linda doesn’t want to be drunk: she only wants to feel not like herself. “Well, to begin with, It brings you to life,” Ned explains. “And after a while, you begin to know all about it. You feel, I don’t know, important.”
Hepburn clutches the champagne glass as though it were an award, a hairbrush into which she might recite a speech. She is holding on for dear life, hoping that when she wakes up at the dawn of a new year, another version of herself will crawl out of bed.
Ned educates Linda on the game of drunkenness, the ways in which liquor makes the world both clear and blurry. “Every sentence is a problem,” Ned purrs. “That gets pretty interesting.”
“You get beaten though, don’t you?” Linda says.
“Sure, but that’s good too,” Ned says.
Linda’s thousand-yard stare and ever-softening voice betray a breakdown on the horizon. When Ned finally sees through her wimpy interrogation, he asks what’s wrong, a brother taking notice, and she moans, “Nothing.”
“I know,” he agrees.
She is in love with Johnny, and Ned knows, and though he wishes her luck (“I don’t want any luck!” Linda wails), they both know it may all be for naught. It is ultimately nothing that Linda loves Johnny, and that Johnny might even love her back. These people of such extreme wealth have not been taught to value relationships. There is no monetary value to love and Linda doesn’t know what to make of something priceless. It drives her to drink, to misery, to truth.
Holiday ends well because that’s mostly how it went back then; entertainment sought to make us feel, on the whole, good about ourselves and what life promised us. Julia and Johnny can’t make a go of it, but he plans to travel anyway. Johnny Case will see the world, whether anyone likes it or not. Professor Nick and Susan go to see him off. (Imagine—being academics, and you have a friend more daffy than you.) He has made his peace. He is ready to move on. He is dancing and tumbling and falling over himself, at first out of joy and then because Linda is there to go off with him.
Holiday ends well because it can’t not. A free spirit is not a free spirit politically so much as it is a person fighting off the tethers of an old industrial society. But Johnny Case is not a Commie, nor is Linda, and soon they will find themselves back from holiday and forced to reckon with what they have done. Would Julia forgive such a thing? We like to think so, because it is easy. A lover is an object to her: she can always get a new one.
Holiday ends well the way every vacation ends well, sunburnt and weather-worn, sleepy and contented. The holiday is real only within itself; upon returning to everyday life, it’s as though it was all a dream, the details fuzzy and hardly worth remembering. These characters need a happy ending for reasons they can’t quite articulate. They know it is important, necessary, to have this time to figure out who they are and how they love. There’s a reason the film starts and ends with a holiday, the horrible in-between of life taking up the majority of the dramatics. The vacation ends; the weekend is over. Sooner or later you have to come back.