Holiday (1938): Cukor on Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn

During the extended preparations of the script and casting of Gone With the Wind (GWTW), which took years, George Cukor was assigned to direct Philip Barry’s Broadway play, Holiday, at Columbia. Selznick hoped was that by the time Cukor finished Holiday, they would have a wonderful script. Holiday was a pleasant distraction from the frantic activities of GWTW. It was fun to work on a picture that had a definite shooting schedule–with a beginning, middle, and end.

Cukor directed two of Phillip Barry’s best plays, Holiday in 1938, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and The Philadelphia Story, in 1940, also with Hepburn and Grant. Both plays were directed in the theater by Arthur Hopkins. The first famous director he had met, Cukor was an admirer of Hopkins.

When Holiday was produced on Broadway in l928, Hope Williams played the role of Linda Seton. Her understudy was Hepburn, then an unknown and inexperienced actress. For two years, she marked time offstage, but her chance to perform never materialized. Ironically, Hepburn used a scene from this play in her screen test for Bill of Divorcement.

When Hepburn learned that Columbia had acquired the rights to Holiday, she began a personal campaign to win the role, as her film career at this point was in trouble. After Bringing Up Baby, an artistic success but commercial failure, Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theater Owners Association of America, published a list of stars who were “box office poison.” Hepburn headed a roster, which included other “Cukor girls,” Garbo and Kay Francis. Brandt’s slur, published in a trade paper, was picked up by the national press and received a lot of publicity. It also caused considerable damage to the status of these stars at their studios.

But Columbia was a relatively small studio, and Hepburn had little difficulty in persuading its boss, Harry Cohn, to cast her as Linda Seton. She also persuaded Cohn to borrow Cukor as director and cast Cary Grant as co-star. In fact, in advertising the film, vice-president Jack Cohn used the “box-office poison” label as a selling point. “Is it true what they say about Hepburn” he provocatively asked in a public message, feeling sure this time he had the makings of high quality and commercially viable film.

Like all good comedies, Barry’s could be played seriously as well. Cukor relished at taking a serious subject and treating it with “impertinence and gaiety.” His fluent adaptation actually improved on the play, creating a new genre: comedy-drama. Cukor held that true comedies spring from painful realities. Without the tragic underlayer, the comedy becomes trivialized. “I believe in the detached approach for comedy,” he told Lambert, “If you really look at anything, there’s always a comic note, and a painful note too. One brings the other to life.”

Cukor also understood that directing a screen comedy was different from a stage one: “On stage, you can play for laughs and wait for them, but on the screen, you have to get the laughs without playing for them.”

When the play was originally written, the stock market was booming, and wealth and prosperity were in abundance. Barry’s view of the rich was that of an outsider; they were seen through Johnny’s eyes. For Barry, there was nothing ostentatious about the wealthy people’s way of life. They owned grand houses, but they didn’t flaunt them; everything was understated.

Holiday completed shooting on April 20, and opened in New York, at Radio City Music Hall, on June 15. Despite favorable critical reaction, the film failed with Depression audiences, for whom selling peanuts was a reality, not a joke. Linda, the little rich girl, who stays in her childhood nursery and denounces the filthy rich, was more appropriate for audiences of earlier times. Nonetheless, it was personally gratifying for Cukor that Barry regarded his movie version as “a brilliant and beautiful piece of work.”