Sunday, January 11, 2015

Holiday (Columbia, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1938 Holiday would on paper seem to be a much better movie — Barry’s play was adapted this time around by Sidney Buchman and Donald Ogden Stewart, two Leftist writers whose politics showed in the much nastier “spin” they put on the character of the father, Edward Seton (veteran character actor Henry Kolker); the director was George Cukor and the stars were Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton, Cary Grant as Johnny Case and Lew Ayres as Ned Seton — all far better actors than the ones who played their parts for Edward Griffith in 1930. I’d seen this one before in the 1980’s and regarded it as the weakest of the four collaborations between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, partly because I didn’t think very much of the plot and partly because Cukor seemed to be directing under water; the film became less interesting in its own right than as the beta version of the 1940 masterpiece The Philadelphia Story, which reunited Hepburn, Grant, Cukor, Barry and Stewart (along with a more famous Stewart than writer Donald Ogden: James Stewart, who played the second male lead and won the Academy Award for Best Actor even though Grant had the leading male role — MGM, which produced The Philadelphia Story, promoted Stewart instead of Grant because Stewart was under contract to them while Grant was a free-lancer) and was both a great movie and a blockbuster hit. Katharine Hepburn had been interested in Holiday for a decade before she filmed it; in 1928 she had understudied Hope Williams as Linda in the original Broadway production, and in 1932, auditioning at RKO for the female lead in a film based on the play A Bill of Divorcement, while all the other actresses up for the role were shooting screen tests of scenes from A Bill of Divorcement, Hepburn thought she’d stand out if she shot a test of a scene from Holiday instead. During pre-production for the 1938 version George Cukor scored a copy of Hepburn’s screen test and showed it to her — and she responded, “I’m terrible! I look so awful I wonder why you hired me!” Where the 1938 version suffers by comparison is not only the hiring of a weak and uninteresting actress, Doris Lloyd (who’s billed fourth, after Hepburn, Grant and Ayres — Mary Astor had been billed second in the same role in 1930!), as Julia.

The 1930 version is actually more evenly cast, and there’s real suspense whether Robert Ames will accept his future father-in-law’s offer to help him get started in business and assume all the responsibilities attendant thereto or run off to Paris either on his own, with his scapegrace friends the Potters (who, though Edward Everett Horton repeated his role from 1930 and Jean Dixon played his wife, were socially demoted in the 1938 version from one-percenters to college professors on the ground that Stewart and Buchman thought audiences would find it easier to relate to Johnny’s friends if they did not have money themselves) and/or with Linda. In the 1938 Holiday it’s all too obvious from the get-go that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are going to end up together; precisely because the two of them are so much more charismatic than the rest of the cast that there’s no sense the outcome is uncertain and that Johnny might indeed end up sacrificing his free-spirit ideals the way Jason Robards does at the end of A Thousand Clowns (1964), though in that film it’s to preserve not his engagement but his right to parent his son. What’s most interesting about Holiday is how forbidding Hepburn’s performance is; she made this film after Harry Brandt of the Associated Exhibitors had put her on his infamous list of stars he considered “Box-Office Poison” (Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Fred Astaire also made his list) and she and her original studio, RKO, had parted company following the box-office failure of Howard Hawks’ comedy Bringing Up Baby (today it’s hailed as a masterpiece, but in 1938 it did well in New York City but flopped dismally in the rural areas that still dominated much of the U.S. film market) and Hepburn’s furious refusal to take on a cracker-barrel soap opera called Mother Carey’s Chickens as her next film. At the time she was dating the super-rich Howard Hughes, and he put up the money for her to buy her way out of her RKO contract. Harry Cohn, president of Columbia and a man who delighted in making stars of people who’d burned out at other studios — in 1934 he’d had a huge success with opera diva (in both senses) Grace Moore in the film One Night of Love after MGM had fired her for being overweight — grabbed the chance to sign Hepburn for one film and gave her everything she wanted: her favorite director, Cukor; her favorite co-star, Grant; and a play she’d longed to perform in for a decade.

What seems especially odd about this is that at a time in Hepburn’s career with so much hostility against her from both theatre owners and audience members (David O. Selznick seriously considered casting her as Scarlett O’Hara but ultimately rejected her partly because 1939 audiences hated her and partly because he didn’t think Hepburn was sexy enough to be believable as Scarlett), instead of seeking out a part in which she could express lovability and soften her image, she opened her performance in the same serious, defiant mode she’d begun her film career with in A Bill of Divorcement. Selznick’s comment on that film — that instead of inviting the audience to like her she came out with a chip on her shoulder and dared them to — applies to Holiday as well. Holiday ended up as another flop on Hepburn’s résumé — 1970’s film historian Marjorie Rosen thought Depression audiences felt that anyone who’d turn down the sort of job Johnny Case was being offered was too irresponsible to bother with — and it didn’t help that Harry Cohn decided to use the “Box-Office Poison” label in his ad campaign, essentially challenging audiences to see the film in defiance of Harry Brandt’s label. Not surprisingly, this backfired big-time; when roller-derby star Wes Anderson was worried that too many people were forsaking roller-derby matches to attend movies, he took a billboard right across from Harry Cohn’s “Do you think Katharine Hepburn is box-office poison? See her in Holiday!” with his own billboard, “Wes Anderson thinks it’s true.” Nonetheless, Hepburn retained enough confidence not only in her own judgment but in Philip Barry as a suitable writer for her that (with another infusion of Howard Hughes’ money) she commissioned a new play from him for a Broadway production, ensured that she would own the movie rights (so no studio could buy the play and make it with someone else in the lead) and came up with The Philadelphia Story, a blockbuster hit on both stage and screen and the renaissance of Katharine Hepburn’s status as a movie star.