Sunday, January 11, 2015

Holiday (Pathé, 1930)

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

Last night I thought I’d do something that Charles and I used to do fairly often in our movie-watching but now do only rarely: run two versions of the same story consecutively on the same night. This time our story was Philip Barry’s play Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1928 and in some ways is a 1960’s story in 1920’s garb: on a vacation in Lake Placid 10 days before the main action begins, socialite and heiress Julia Seton meets and instantly falls in love with Johnny Case. Case is a young man who came from humble origins, worked his way through Harvard and just masterminded a merger between two utility companies that will make him a bundle and pave the way for a potentially major career in finance. He doesn’t realize that Julia comes from a family with major money until he shows up at the address she’s given him where she lives — and realizes it’s a palatial mansion. Julia’s father, Edward Seton, is the son of a self-made man but he’s picked up such an insufferable set of conventions about not only being a hereditary millionaire himself but insisting that his children — he’s got three, all grown, daughters Julia and Linda and son Ned — marry only people who already have money and social connections. Meanwhile, Johnny is rethinking the path he’s been on all his life and is thinking seriously of using his earnings from the utility merger to take off for a few years and have a “holiday,” a break from earning a living and building a career to give himself a chance to figure out what he really wants to do with his life.

Julia is aghast at her husband-to-be coming up with such a plan, and her dad is even more viciously negative about it, but her sister Linda thinks it’s a wonderful idea: Linda has been searching for an opportunity to rebel against what she calls “the reverence for riches,” and though she doesn’t explicitly set out to take Johnny away from her sister, that’s duly what happens at the end, with Linda accompanying Johnny on a steamship to Paris for his “holiday” and Julia left back home at the Seton manse with her dad, presumably to wait for a more stable, more grounded and less free-spirited man with an appropriate bank balance and social pedigree. There are also interesting supporting characters, including the third Seton offspring, son Ned, who’s being groomed to take over the family business (whatever it is) but lives his days in an alcoholic haze and cares about little but getting genteelly drunk (sometimes not-so-genteelly drunk) and avoiding as many responsibilities as he can. There’s also a pair of distant cousins, Seton Cram and his wife (Charles wondered why “Seton” would be the last name of some of the characters and the first name of another, but it was common among well-to-do families at the time to give their kids as a first name the maiden name of a woman who’d married into the family — which is how Cole Porter got his first name; his maternal grandfather was someone named J. D. Cole), who are additional enforcers of the social and monetary rules by which the Setons in general, and dad and Julia in particular, live. Holiday began life as a Broadway play that premiered November 26, 1928 and ran for 229 performances — not a blockbuster but a solid hit — and in the normal order of things it was bought by a movie studio (Pathé, in the last throes of its existence as an independent company — the founding branch in France would survive but the U.S. division would soon get absorbed by RKO), though in the nearly two years between the debut of the play and the release of the film on July 9, 1930 the Great Depression started, and all of a sudden the conflicts driving this story — particularly the whole idea of a man on his way to a fortune being willing to walk away from both it and the love of a glamorous and rich woman — must have seemed excessively out of date.

Pathé originally bought this as a vehicle for the musical star Ina Claire, but her nine-month contract with them expired before it could be filmed and Ann Harding, of all unlikely people, stepped into the role — not of Julia, at which she would probably have been quite good, but of Linda, the free spirit who doesn’t know she’s a free spirit and yearns to rebel against her dad’s idea of a proper lifestyle. Pathé cast Mary Astor as Julia and put solid actors in the men’s roles: Robert Ames (fresh from his triumph in Gloria Swanson’s first talkie, The Trespasser) as Johnny; Monroe Owsley as Ned (the only actor from the Broadway production to repeat his role in the movie); Edward Everett Horton and Hedda Hopper as Johnny’s socialite friends Nick and Susan Potter; Hallam Cooley as Seton Cram and William Holden — no, not that William Holden but a middle-aged character actor who also appeared in Dance, Fools, Dance with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable (the later, and far more famous, William Holden was originally named “Beedle”!) — as the self-important father, Edward Seton. The play was adapted by screenwriter Horace Jackson and directed by Edward H. Griffith, who had nowhere nearly as illustrious career as his famous namesake D. W. but was a solid craftsman who made a number of very interesting films, of which this is definitely one. The 1930 Holiday really seems like the beta version of a screwball comedy, though Griffith’s pacing is just a bit too slow and ponderous for it to take off and fly in the way similarly class-conscious stories did later in the 1930’s. But the basic plot is sturdy enough to work, the acting is certainly competent (and Mary Astor better than that!) even though Edward Everett Horton practically steals the movie with his down-to-earth characterization, and there are haunting plot devices like the playroom Linda Seton has kept as it was when her mom died and regards as an oasis of sanity and fun in her otherwise museum-like manse — where Linda and Johnny dance to a Regina music-box recording of Sol P. Levy’s “That Naughty Waltz.” (The Regina, which we’ve already seen in operation in Ken Maynard’s contemporary Western Smoking Guns from 1934, was a giant music box whose songs were programmed on discs, so you could have it play different songs the way you could with a record player. Indeed, as record players developed and threatened to put the Regina company out of business, Regina responded with a machine that could at least theoretically play both.)

The second-act climax (even if you didn’t know in advance that this movie was based on a stage play you could tell just by looking at it where the original curtains fell!) takes place on New Year’s Eve (thus adding Holiday to the oddly short list of movies — Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Horn Blows at Midnight, and Woody Allen’s recent and utterly marvelous Whatever Works — in which key sequences take place on New Year’s Eve), where Linda has wanted to celebrate her sister’s engagement with a handful of people in the playroom, and her dad has taken over the event and invited virtually the entire Social Register for a thoroughly dull event enlivened only by a society-style dance band and Ned’s alcoholic commentary on the whole drab affair. Holiday is also a transitional film in the history of talkies; the actors deliver their lines relatively naturalistically and without those … horrendous … pauses … that … make a lot of films from 1928 and 1929 almost totally unwatchable today, but the actors are still facing front and center, treating the camera as if they were on a stage and it were the audience, and director Griffith does surprisingly little of the shot-reverse shot angling and cutting that became standard for long dialogue sequences in the mid-1930’s. It also didn’t much help that the print we were watching was a download from that was in poor shape technically; the soundtrack was relatively clear but the picture often cut off the tops of people’s heads in long shots and in one scene, set inside a car, the image washed out so that we were essentially seeing little bits of people’s features in a sea of off-white. Ironically, when we screened the 1938 version — a recent recording from Turner Classic Movies (which showed this film twice in the last two weeks, as part of their December “Star of the Month” tribute to Cary Grant and more recently as part of a birthday celebration for Lew Ayres) — we noticed it carried a UCLA film preservation credit; we can only hope somebody steps in with a grant to restore the 1930 version as well!