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Holiday (February 12, 2009)

In 1938, Columbia studio head Harry Cohn had a great idea. He would reunite Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, the team that had made The Awful Truth, which had been a hit for his studio. The vehicle was Holiday, a 1928 Broadway hit written by Philip Barry, which had been filmed once before. The story is about a young self-made man who becomes engaged to a girl on vacation. When they return to New York he learns she is wealthy. According to Grant’s biographer Marc Eliot, by 1938, George Cukor, who had directed Grant in Sylvia Scarlett in 1936, was under contract to the independent producer David Selznick. Selznick planned to use Cukor to direct his long-delayed project Gone With The Wind. That blockbuster was not yet ready to film. Selznick was still involved in preparations for it, including his project of auditioning nearly every major female star in Hollywood for Scarlett O’Hara. Harry Cohn approached David Selznick to borrow Cukor for Holiday, and Selznick agreed, because Cukor was getting paid whether he was doing anything or not and if Columbia borrowed him, Selznick could make some money from his services.

Cukor didn’t want to do another Dunne-Grant film, or any kind of sequel to The Awful Truth, however, and told Cohn that. He insisted on starring Katharine Hepburn, who, as it happened, had been the understudy for the same role on Broadway. Cukor also wanted Hepburn for the role of Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. Selznick was not convinced she was right for that, but he did take out an option on her services. Cohn, thinking Hepburn would play Scarlett, bought her services from Selznick for what he thought was a bargain. Had he waited, he probably could have gotten her for less, since she was in the process of buying her option back from Selznick. When she completed that buyback, Hepburn would have no contract with any studio. She really had few prospects in pictures at that time. Reportedly, when Cohn told Irene Dunne she wouldn’t be in Holiday, a role he had promised her, she stayed home and cried all weekend.

Holiday was filmed from February through April, 1938 and was released the following June. The movie was not a commercial or a critical success. Remember that Hepburn had had poor box office for a number of pictures, and her reputation was such that no one at any studio felt she could carry a successful film. She would leave Hollywood to star on Broadway in another Philip Barry play, The Philadelphia Story. Ironically, Cohn would probably have had more success at the box office with Irene Dunne, who had been nominated for best actress Oscars for the previous two years. Holiday is certainly not a screwball comedy. It is not purely a comedy at all, since there are dramatic elements in the story. Some of the supporting performances are memorable. I would mention the performances of Lew Ayers as Hepburn’s alcoholic brother, of Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as a charming academic couple, and of Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes as right-wing plutocrats. Grant’s dexterity in his acrobatic scenes with Hepburn reminds us that he started as an acrobat in England and his early years in New York.

Like James Stewart’s character in You Can’t Take It With You in the same year, Grant’s character expresses a desire to move on from business success at a young age to engage in some self-realization. Although this desire to drop out isn’t anything we associate with the Thirties, when many people were struggling to make a living, it certainly foreshadows similar desires expressed by characters in movies from the Sixties and the years since. I hope you find the story, and the performances, engaging.