Holiday (1938): Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor Collaborate in Making Terrific Serio-Comedy

During the extended preparations of the script and casting of the epic Gone With the Wind, which took years, George Cukor was assigned to direct Philip Barry’s Broadway play, Holiday, at Columbia.

Producer David O. 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 Barry’s best plays, Holiday in l938, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and The Philadelphia Story, in l940, also with Hepburn and Grant. Both plays were directed in the theater by Arthur Hopkins, whom Cukor admired; Hopkins was the first big director he had met.

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.

However, 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.

Once again, Hepburn was perfectly cast in a role that seemed tailor made. Linda Seton, a rebellious society girl from Park Avenue, falls in love with her sister’s fiance, Johnny Case (Cary Grant), a boy from the slums with a knack for making money. When Johnny decides to take a holiday to explore the world, Julia (Doris Nolan) is horrified, but he finds a kindred spirit in Linda. “I’ve got all the faith in the world in Johnny,” Linda proudly declares, “Whatever he does is all right with me. If he wants to sit on his tail, he can sit on his tail. If he wants to come back and sell peanuts, how I’ll believe in those peanuts!”

Hepburn delivered her lines with conviction, eloquence, and commanding authority. Linda, in fact, became an archetypal Hepburn heroine: a tomboy rebel endowed with intelligence and individuality. One of Hepburn’s most accomplished characterizations, the role touched all aspects of her complex personality, her toughness as well as vulnerability.

To be effective, Barry’s work required a particular kind of acting, lightly stylized but not affected. His witty dialogue seemed realistic, but it was not; the words had a distinctive rhythm. Hepburn understood Barry’s lyric quality, accentuating the rhythm of his lines with a kind of “singsong” voice. It was a technique Hepburn would refine to perfection in Philadelphia Story.

Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman’s brilliant script was faithful to the play, forwarding its story almost entirely with dialogue–most of it Barry’s own. To update and enrich the story, Stewart introduced some satirical allusions.

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.” Both Barry and Cukor excelled in nuance. Barry was a subtle writer, but full of surprises. In his plays, the characters are rarely what they seem to be; each reacts in unexpected ways, underlying the difference between appearance and reality. The surface closeness of the two sisters actually hides mutual dislike, which neither of them is aware of. And when Julia realizes that Johnny is going to walk out on her, she’s not crushed, but relieved. Cukor handled these transitions with tremendous ease and delicacy, giving the film a fresh, endearing quality.

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.

It was interesting for Cukor to present a young man who wanted to enjoy life, instead of just conforming to it. Johnny is initially patronizing toward Linda, but then realizes she’s the one for him. In his second film with Cukor, Cary Grant gave a dazzling performance. In his knockout scene, which he did in perfect English and with restraint, Grant tells the rich where to go, dashing off with a disdain of conventionality. Grant’s smooth performance later made him one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men.

Holiday completed shooting on April 20, and opened in NY, 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. But it was personally gratifying for Cukor that Barry regarded his movie as “a brilliant and beautiful piece of work.”

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