Sunday, December 4, 2011

HOLIDAY | 1938 | aka The 5th Avenue Anti-Stuffed Shirt and Flying Trapeze Club

“I never could decide whether I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or John L. Lewis."
(Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton in HOLIDAY)

I had to look up that quote because I wanted to be sure I got the order right.  I was pretty sure she listed those people in chronological order, because that made sense organizationally and it sounded good when said aloud.  Still, I felt compelled to diligently confirm the facts before I posted the quote on a blog that no one reads, where errors go undetected and/or can be quietly corrected.

While searching, I discovered this article ("It Happened One Decade: What the Great Depression Did to Culture," The New Yorker, September 21, 2009 by Caleb Crain) containing the fantastic idea that the sharp dialog of screwball was an application of "the hardboiled style of crime stories to the softhearted subject matter of a couple falling in love".  

Even then, folks were embarrassed to write rom-coms and were compelled to toughen 'em up a bit.  

Sometimes a sense of shame can be beneficial. 

It might actually be tied with necessity as the mother of invention.  

Actually, when it comes to the arts, shame probably beat necessity with a TKO for the title.

But that's a tangent.  Actually this whole post will be a grab-bag of tangents.  As much as I adore this film, I'm not going to nail this post.  Which kind of breaks my heart.  Did I mention that I adore this film?  I do.  Adore it.

I had intended to write a simple, fluffy little thing about a screwball set during the holidays to kick-off the season, but now realize that starting with HOLIDAY might be a mistake.  
It's more of a late holiday season movie.  Partly because there's a key party scene that takes place on New Years Eve, and also because the tone of the film just isn't busting with anticipatory and celebratory goodwill.  Instead it feels like that bubble between the December 26th and January 1st, that window of time when the holiday decorations look precisely the same as they did on the 23rd, and have lost none of their enthusiasm, and yet they feel a bit world-weary somehow.  A really fantastic and enjoyable phenomenon, but not really right as a seasonal starter.

Plus, finding the article in the New Yorker has put my focus back on the actual non-holiday essence of the film.  The title isn't only referring to the setting of the film, nor is it only referring to the holiday in Placid where Johnny Case (Cary Grant) meets Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), it is most significantly referring to the holiday Johnny wants to take from work.  That's the holiday that ruins one romance, but ultimately lands him with the best, most appropriate mate (as all screwballs aim to do for their leads).

Johnny is a smart, athletic, self-made (as much as any one individual actually can be), capable of making money, as well as conducting himself appropriately among all classes; economically and socially mobile, one version of the American Dream is in the palm of his hands.  He's just not sure the goal of life is to "pay bills and to pile up more money" and he wants to take the time to figure out what he wants his life to be about.

Referring to my screwball hymnal, Screwball Comedy:  A Genre of Madcap Romance, it makes reference to a 1938 article in Time Magazine that defined the chief problem of HOLIDAY as "The prospect of having too much money."  Although that is certainly a screwball dilemma to have, I'm not sure that's quite right (but I need to read the actual article before totally ripping that theory apart).

The thing is, Johnny seems fine with having money.  When he learns that his fiance is one of those Seton's he says that he wishes he'd known earlier because he'd have proposed to her in two days instead of ten, and he equates discovering her wealth as discovering she could play piano ("I'd be delighted, wouldn't I?").  Plus he's set to earn millions from a deal of his own construction, so he's definitely not anti-money, he's just wise enough to know it's not the end all be all.

And that is how Linda Seton comes to be the correct pairing for Johnny.  She knows the limitations of money, she's had it all her life.  She saw wealth go from a positive freeing thing when her Grandfather earned it, to becoming a limiting and constrictive thing when her father labored to preserve it.

If I haven't sucked all the fun out of it, you should watch this film at some point between Christmas and New Year's. It's a nice prompt by way of getting your priorities sorted out and re-established for the fresh batch of 365 days coming down the pike.  Also, thanks to the state of our world economy, the comedy and concerns of this film don't feel at all dated.

Screwball Checklist:

Comic anti-hero struggling to identify and/or earn the best, most appropriate partner?
Johnny isn't an anti-hero in that he is failing or flailing, he's an anti-hero in that he's rejecting the status quo.  He has the ability to be a full-speed ahead hero, but choses to be something different.  Better, actually.

Class conflict?
The film makes it very tempting to draw the lines of the conflict along lines of education.  Johnny has an academic couple as his best friends and a sort of moral center, and their presence keeps him from being absorbed by the two Seton's preoccupied with status and propriety.  It seems the class conflict here is really about values.  It feels like opportunities are fairly equal among this cast of characters, but each made different choices based on what they value in life.  Julia Seton and her father are classy people because of what they have, while Johnny, Linda Seton and Ned Seton and Johnny's academic friends are classy people because of what they do.

Urban setting?
NYC.  As per usual.  Though this one sticks nearly exclusively to the 5th Avenue Seton mansion, and the contrast between the grand museum-like rooms and the cozy childhood playroom.  

Value placed on child-like outlook?
See childhood playroom.  This is where true natures are revealed, and where the "Fifth Avenue Anti-Stuffed and Flying Trapeze Club" is formed.  'nuff said.

Art & Fart?
In this case, this is probably best put as High and Low Comedy because the lowest HOLIDAY goes is pratfalls.  It travels no where near anything farty.  Still, behavior is absolutely used to define classes.  In this cast there are characters who are playful, do acrobatics, play music, sing songs, and drink, and then there are those that don't.  Guess which batch are our heroes? 

Baseline dissatisfaction with the status-quo?
This is the core conflict of the movie.  Johnny Case, Linda Seton and Ned Seton see the opportunity money affords as sacred, they just don't worship the dollar.

Released: 1938
Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman (based on a play by Philip Barry)
Director: George Cukor
Producer: Everett Riskin
Leads: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, Lew Ayres, Doris Nolan, Henry Kolker
Genre:  Rom-Com, Screwball
Plot Summary and reviews of HOLIDAY @ Rotten Tomatoes