Last Holiday: Gently Knocking at Death’s Door

On Film / Essays — Jun 10, 2009

Kind Hearts and Coronets, that most wicked comedy of ill manners, had established Alec Guinness as an acting force—and coming so soon after he had disappeared into the role of Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, his dazzling embodiment of eight characters cemented his reputation as a master of disguise. One year later, then, Guinness truly took audiences by surprise with his next role: a mild-mannered everyman. In Henry Cass’s delicate yet irony-laden dramedy Last Holiday, Guinness offered a nuanced portrait of a pleasantly drab thirtysomething salesman who’s told he has no more than a few months to live. Quiet and interior where his Kind Hearts roles had been cheekily broad, Guinness’s George Bird is one of his most winning creations, a subtle showcase for an actor whose talents naturally tended to self-effacement.

A professed admirer of the ever-so-nimble slapstick actor Stan Laurel, Guinness turns straight man George into a willowy comic foil to everyone he meets. After being diagnosed with the fatal (and fictional) Lampington’s Disease, George buys sixty-five pounds of new clothes and hightails it to Pinebourne, an exclusive resort full of upper-crust types with whom he couldn’t have less in common. Naturally, he ends up relating mostly to the clerks and maids, including no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Poole (Kay Walsh), while also fighting off an attraction to one of the guests, a married, financially unstable admiral’s daughter (Beatrice Campbell). The unassuming but well-dressed George ends up a subject of discussion among the blue bloods, who are tickled by this mystery man’s apparent wealth and seemingly endless bout of good luck—at croquet, poker, horses.

That Last Holiday ends up a sharp class commentary rather than a platitudinous tract on life and death is testament to the wit of screenwriter J. B. Priestley. A prolific novelist and playwright, Priestley was also an immensely popular left-wing radio broadcaster for the BBC and a cofounder of the United Kingdom’s socialist Common Wealth Party. Priestley had much creative control on the film, which was partly financed by his own production company, Watergate. (Cass, a journeyman director, would go on to direct such genre films as Blood of the Vampire and The Hand.) So, unsurprisingly, Last Holiday is chockablock with delightfully dramatized social observations, from George’s dressing down of two machinery magnates for their use of cheap labor to a third-act development in which all the hotel workers go on strike, forcing the guests to cook and clean for themselves.

Though not successful in England, Last Holiday was well received by critics and art-house audiences in the United States. Perhaps it was too self-critical for the Brits: in one of Priestley’s smartest exchanges, George’s doctor advises, after giving him the bad news, “Stiff upper lip! Keep smiling.” George’s retort: “How do you keep smiling with a stiff upper lip?!”