A young man in love with a girl from a rich family finds his unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentr... Read allA young man in love with a girl from a rich family finds his unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentric sister and long-suffering brother.A young man in love with a girl from a rich family finds his unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentric sister and long-suffering brother.
This is clearly the belief of patriarch Edward Seton (Kolker, in a fine performance) who rules his family with a stuffy firmness that insists on the privileges and connections that only wealth can provide. Daughter Julia (Nolan) goes along, floating on the prosperous family carpet in what amounts to a carefree life. But crucially for plot development, she's also more natural without Dad's stuffiness. The other daughter Linda (Hepburn), however, is something of a rebel and has retreated into her dead mother's room where she finds needed warmth and solace. Meanwhile, brother Ned (Ayres) has retreated into drink now that his musical talents have been frustrated by the overbearing father. It may not exactly be a happy household, still there are the consolations of servants, mansion, and glitter to keep things together.
Into this mix comes catalyst Johnny (Grant). Right away we know he's a man of the people even though he's completed a brilliant financial deal connecting him to Julia's elite social circle. Soon after meeting the two become engaged. But now Johnny has to come to the mansion, meet the family, and pass Dad's tyrannical muster. The trouble is that once Johnny bridles at Dad's strictly mercenary values, Julia is pressed into making a choice between maintaining her accustomed life-style by sticking with Dad's side or risking a less predictable future with the more free-spirited Johnny. Complicating the mix is the other daughter, Linda, who has been living vicariously through the more sociable Julia. However, once Johnny arrives, we discover that Linda is something of a latent free spirit, waiting to break out from her self-imposed isolation. Naturally, she is drawn to Johnny, but at the same time she must remain loyal to her sister, while Johnny is torn between the two sisters since each represents a side of his own make-up.
What's interesting about these characters is that each has a side that has gone undeveloped until they begin interacting with one another and the mercenary values that the family patriarch represents. In effect, each must come to terms with what money means in his or her life before becoming the person each really is. It's this sorting through process that makes up the story's provocative subtext. And it's to director Cukor's and writer Stewart's credit that the various contretemps are treated in such amusing and humane fashion. Tellingly, the only character treated in unsympathetic fashion is the snobbish cousin Seton (the expert Henry Daniell in a typical frosty role). Note that it's he who makes the implied slur on the politics of the New Deal.
Though the film doesn't deal explicitly with the politics of the time, the implications are there nonetheless. Depression times were hard. Ordinary people were suffering. Concern in the arts often took the form of praising the virtues of the common person (Ma Joad's little speech in Grapes of Wrath). Now none of the main characters here are clock-punchers, but clearly Johnny represents certain "down to earth" values identified with working people and thus indirectly with the New Deal's concern with their plight. Thus Johnny suggests the intrusion of New Deal values within the insulated walls of established wealth, and I expect audiences of the time happily understood this. On the other hand, old man Seton comes across as fossilized traditional wealth that's even forgotten what money is for. Thus displacing folks like him at the top of the heap is no loss. Rather the rise of the Johnny's of the financial world represents a return of wealth to the needs of a fulfilling life instead of simply amassing money and status for their own sake.
At the same time, I don't think it's an accident that Johnny's best friend is a professor (Horton). Roosevelt's celebrated Brain Trust advising him on economic recovery was made up of academics recruited at the time in unprecedented numbers. In fact, there was something of an unspoken alliance between ordinary people and academics against the entrenched power of old wealth seen as having brought about the economic collapse. Following this line, the movie can be viewed as suggesting that the economy of the late 1930's has split into two sides. On one side are the reformed capitalists, the New Dealers, represented by Johnny (remember, he's quite good at finance), and on the other by the anti-New Dealers, such as old man Seton, jealously guarding their traditional prerogatives. So when the pivotal Linda finally abandons her sanctuary for the wider world and Johnny, the movie is indicating that a new opportunity (The New Deal) has emerged out of an old past (The Anti-New Deal) that can liberate those free spirits bold enough to seize the chance. I expect audiences of the time approved.
None of this effort at a deeper look is meant to imply that the movie can't be enjoyed for its own sake apart from the issues of the time. All in all, Holiday remains a fine piece of slickly amusing entertainment and Hollywood craftsmanship that holds up quite well despite the years. But I do think a subtext emerges that's worth examining for those underlying values that remain relevant to our own financially stressed times.
- Mar 23, 2009