Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and another installment in our series of posts comparing the Pre-Code and Under-the-code versions of several classic films. This time we’re covering Holiday, based on Philip Barry’s 1928 play, which was first adapted for the screen in 1930 by Pathé Exchange and remade eight years later by Columbia.
The premise of the 1930 film is as follows, taken from the TCM entry: “Wealthy Julia Seton (Mary Astor) meets Johnny Case (Robert Ames) at Lake Placid and takes him home, introducing him to her family as her future husband. A poor, struggling young lawyer, Johnny is greeted with kindly tolerance by old Seton (William Holden — not the one you’re thinking of though) and his children, Linda (Ann Harding) and Ned (Monroe Owsley). Seton finally agrees to Julia’s plans and arranges an engagement party; but Linda gives a party of her own at which Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan Potter (Hedda Hopper) are the honored guests. Johnny reveals that he has invested in the stock market and plans to quit work after marriage. When Seton learns of this announcement, he is furious, but Linda, who is taken with Johnny, supports him. Johnny and Julia separate, and he plans to go to Europe with Nick and Susan, but he changes his mind and agrees to work for 3 years before going on holiday. However, he revolts at the idea of Seton’s planning his life, and Linda, pleased by his assertion of personal freedom, joins him aboard the steamer.”
The initial Holiday will seem to many contemporary critics static and stagey, because after all, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation of a 1928 stage play. However, for a film of 1930, the camera is more mobile than anticipated, and with an understanding of what else was being produced in 1931 — by major studios, no less — this film comes more innovatively photographed. So in the context of its own time, the film isn’t “stagey”. That noted, even I have to agree with the many modern viewers who wish that there was more life in the machinations of the camera, and more importantly, a more cinematically-wise rhythm in the film’s playing. The pacing of the entire production is slower than slow, and never does Edward H. Griffith’s direction enhance the presented drama with the kind of excitement that a knowledgable firm hand can give.
Of course, this lack of pulse is also a function of the material itself, which, like a lot of Barry’s works (with the notable exception of The Philadelphia Story) is quieter in action, but heavy on character-centered dialogue. Thematically, while the playwrights’ works take a look at modern ideas of love and individual joy, Holiday is one of the less sexually poised of his primary texts. Instead, the premise concerns the relationship between money and happiness, with some who find happiness in money and others who only want money as means of exploring other sources of happiness. Originally performed during the height of 1920s opulence, it wouldn’t have made as viable a story in the mid ’30s, during the height of the depression, when people like Seton and Julia wouldn’t have been allowed any moral complexity. Fortunately, the 1930 film, shot before the effects of the crash were fully felt, is able to make Linda particularly complicated, and Astor’s performance is probably the most exciting thing about the initial adaptation.
The story doesn’t change much in 1938, but Julia and the uppercrust Seton’s don’t have the multi-dimensionality that Barry and the first film afforded them. (And Astor is much stronger than Doris Nolan, who plays Julia in the remake.) Aside from the more clear cut renderings of protagonist vs. antagonist, the story is nearly identical, with a lot of dialogue replicated. (And Edward Everett Horton even takes on the same role he had in the original!) Naturally, the 1938 film, directed by the marvelous George Cukor, does a more explicit attempt at expanding the action and locations used. The more expansive script works in favor of the viewing audience, who needs a little more to look at then people talking to/at one another. Furthermore, the film plays with a rapid pace, never dragging or stalling — despite some extended beats — like its predecessor.
Where the 1938 film is most improved over the original is the casting of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as the couple for whom we root, as the chemistry they share is palpable and vibrant. In tandem with Cukor’s direction, their performance style imbues the drama with the life needed to explore its primary themes. Yet while the presence of these two stars makes the ’38 film the clear better of the two celluloid adaptations (perhaps the only work in this series in which I have an unqualified preference for the remake over its Pre-Code template), Ann Harding of the original film is also miraculous. She’s such an honest, down-to-earth performer, even in moments of drama that were likely intended to play with theatrical histrionics. Through everything, Harding finds a way to make it play with realism. She’s an ideal Barry heroine and she can even muster chemistry with the forgettable Robert Ames. And because of Astor’s superiority over Nolan, the relationship between the two sisters is more believable and multi-faceted.
Yet, if you’re only going to watch one Holiday (because the two films aren’t different enough to suggest that a mildly curious reader explore both), the 1938 one will offer more delights and be more readily accessible to current aesthetic sensibilities.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!