Holiday (1938) was Katharine Hepburn’s first film based on a Philip Barry play and followed her roles in the ensemble hit Stage Door and the overlooked (and eventual classic), Bringing Up Baby, both from 1937. These films came in the midst of Hepburn’s “Box Office Poison” period when in the spring of 1938, Hepburn (along with Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Mae West) was listed by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theater Owners of America, as being among the stars whose films guaranteed poor box-office sales. Holiday also had the misfortune of getting overshadowed by Hepburn’s “comeback” effort, the most-famous Philip Barry play, The Philadelphia Story, a successful 1939 Broadway stage hit and a popular film in 1940, earning The Great Kate her third Academy Award nomination. Holiday doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Philadelphia Story, but it comes tantalizingly close.
(Virtually) Spoiler-Free Synopsis: Holiday concerns free spirit and nonconformist Johnny Case (Cary Grant). Johnny comes from a humble family in Baltimore but has the potential to become a successful businessman. However, he feels that there is more to life than earning money. He meets Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) at a Lake Placid ski resort just before Christmas. The two begin a whirlwind romance and plan to marry the following January. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Julia is from a wealthy and influential east coast family. Julia brings Johnny to the family’s stately mansion to meet her family. Her father, Edward is a chronically straight-laced businessman who is so organized and controlling that he owns the tobacco plantation the cigars he smokes come from. Julia’s brother, Ned (Lew Ayres; who's great here), is a heavy drinker disinterested in his duly-appointed position at the family investment firm. And then there's Linda (Hepburn), Julia’s elder sister who acts as madcap and carefree as Johnny, but who has a sad, tragic aspect to her. The Seton children’s mother, who was the heart of the family, died some years before. The movie chronicles Johnny’s attempts at convincing Julia and her father that he needs to explore life before sacrificing his freedom for a successful, but stultifying business career.
What makes Holiday (aka: “Unconventional Linda”; so the film is about her!) so rewarding is Katharine Hepburn’s performance as the idealistic, romantic Linda. She’s clearly the black sheep of the family. She has romantic ideals, but doesn’t possess the will to go through with them. She’s occasionally melodramatic and melancholy but also possesses a quick wit, trading humorous barbs with Johnny--the amusing “sheep and goat” routine typifies their great rapport. Linda and Johnny also share the same negative view of money worship (Linda: “Don’t you know that money is our God?”). Yet underneath it all, Linda suffers from emotional problems, which are explained away by Edward and Julia as Linda having one of her “headaches”, an excuse used when her proposed engagement party for Johnny and Julia’s engagement is rejected in favor of the formal affair her father organizes. Linda has preserved the family’s upstairs play room, where she reflects on those long-lost days. Linda's internal suffering is effectively and sympathetically realized by Hepburn. She is nostalgic, the playroom is preserved like a shrine. It is was once the center for family activity: her late mother played piano, Ned began work on his concerto and Linda painted. The room ceased to flourish after the Seton matriarch’s death.
Hepburn’s role is similar to a number of her 1930s performances (Alice Adams comes to mind). She’s more sympathetic and does not yet embody the steely source of strength and independence that would define most Hepburn characters in subsequent decades. The Linda Seton character is quite unlike her iconic performances in better-known roles such as Tracy in The Philadelphia Story or Tess in Woman of the Year. Holiday is centered on Johnny Case's choice, but it is Hepburn's movie. She is the emotional center of the film and gets to shine under director George Cukor's steady hand. Her performance is entirely convincing. I know it's cliché to say this, but Hepburn becomes Linda Seton. I'm discovering that Hepburn's best 1930s performances all have this quality where she immerses herself into the character. I'm not saying that other actors from this time period don't, but Hepburn is the first actress who made me notice, and I didn't realize it until I reflected on the movie some time later! Watching Katharine Hepburn in Holiday makes me wish she would have revisited the fragile, delicate side of her persona more often in her post-Philadelphia Story career.