Understudies everywhere should take heart at the tale of Katharine Hepburn’s long history with the role of Linda Seton, the high-spirited but reclusive heiress she plays in George Cukor’s 1938 Holiday. When the Philip Barry play the film is based on had debuted on Broadway ten years earlier, a twenty-one-year-old Hepburn understudied for the actress who made a hit as the unconventional Linda: Hope Williams, a real-life society debutante whose cropped blonde locks and flat-footed walk earned her the nickname the Park Avenue Swagger Girl and made her the subject of a brief fashion craze. “I stole a great deal from Hope,” Hepburn later admitted. “She was the first fascinating personality from that period . . . which wasn’t really ready for her. She was a woman who blossomed with a little more than she was supposed to.”
Over the course of the play’s successful six-month run, Hepburn got the chance to take the stage only once, and the performance was not a success; years later, she still sounded stung as she recalled her attempts to mimic Williams’s signature delivery, waiting in vain for the laughter she was used to hearing from the wings. But the part of Linda, a volatile misfit who swings between passionate zest for life and near agoraphobia, stayed in Hepburn’s repertoire, and in her head. In 1932, she made a screen test for her first film, A Bill of Divorcement, to be directed by the up-and-coming Cukor. She chose to audition with a scene from Holiday, which two years before had been adapted into a well-regarded film with Ann Harding in the Linda role. Though Hepburn’s line readings were still rough, the director was struck by the expressive gestures and curiously forthright manner of the angular young woman he described as “this odd creature . . . unlike anybody I’d ever heard.” She got the part, with Cukor’s insistence winning out over the initial misgivings of RKO production chief David O. Selznick—who objected in a studio memo to what he called “that horse face”—and only a year later made Morning Glory, for which she won the best actress Academy Award. (It would be the first of four in her lifetime—to this day the most acting Oscars won by any individual.)
“Part of the pleasure of watching Hepburn as Linda comes in knowing that the character’s journey was about to become the performer’s as well.”
But by the time Cukor decided to readapt Barry’s popular play, Hepburn’s career was in a slump. Most of her recent films had sunk at the box office, including two that paired her with Cary Grant: the Cukor-directed gender-switch comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Howard Hawks’s now-venerated screwball romp Bringing Up Baby (1938). Stage Door (1937) had been a hit, but the character she played, a stuck-up actress with grandiose notions about her own artistry, was widely perceived to be based on Hepburn’s own reputation among many colleagues and critics. (Her acting, Dorothy Parker wrote in a dismissive review of a 1933 stage appearance, “ran the gamut from A to B.”)
Having played quite a few earnest dramatic heroines or gauche social climbers in films like Little Women (1933, also directed by Cukor) and Alice Adams (1935), Hepburn at this point in her career was also looking to reinvent herself as a sophisticated comedian with a brash, androgynous style—a persona not unlike that of her old idol Hope Williams, but this time without the mimicry, drawing on Hepburn’s own deep reserves of stubbornness and self-possession. Cukor, who had spent the twenties working in theater, had seen that potential in her before others did. Over the course of the ten films they would make together—beginning with A Bill of Divorcement and ending forty-seven years later with the 1979 TV drama The Corn Is Green—he helped her to develop and deepen as an actor. Speaking about working with Cukor, when they were making The Corn Is Green, Hepburn emphasized the sense of freedom he fostered with actors: “He doesn’t shut them into his own trap, like some directors who push them around like dolls.” She continued into more personal territory: “We’ve the same taste, the same sense of values, we’re aiming at the same thing, and we can’t imagine having a row that would matter. Really, we work together so closely that I don’t know where I begin and he ends. It’s a partnership. And it’s fun, fun.” More than eighty years after Holiday’s release, part of the pleasure of watching Hepburn as Linda comes in knowing that the character’s journey—from isolation and entrapment to mobility, freedom, and fun—was about to become the performer’s as well.
Soon after the commercial failure of Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn’s name had appeared on a much-publicized list compiled by a trade group of theater owners that singled out certain actors as “box office poison” (sharing the honor were, among others, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Fred Astaire). When she was offered a pay cut to star in the B comedy Mother Carey’s Chickens, Hepburn bought out her contract at RKO—though not quite an heiress, she was in a position to make such choices as the comfortable daughter of a Connecticut urologist—and signed on with Columbia Pictures to make Holiday with Cukor.
Her costar, Cary Grant, was at a different kind of crossroads. For the past few years, his home studio, Paramount, had been working out how best to use this talented but offbeat young Englishman, who had left behind a broke, alcoholic father and institutionalized mother in his early teens to make his living as a traveling acrobat, juggler, stilt walker, and all-around variety showman. (Some of those tumbling skills get a workout in Holiday, where Grant’s character, the free-spirited entrepreneur Johnny Case, likes to defuse tense situations by turning a quick somersault or front handspring.)
Upon landing in Hollywood in the prurient pre-Code years, Grant was cast as the relatively passive love interests of sexually dominating women like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. He had also played a few stock playboys in dramas about marital infidelity. Whatever he did, audiences and critics connected to him, but his singular charisma was hard to incorporate into the star system of the early sound era. Was he a generic hunky lead? A suspicious, smooth-tongued lothario? Or some new kind of male movie star yet to be invented? The ambiguity around Grant’s real-life sexuality—he roomed for years with fellow actor Randolph Scott and was often coded in fan magazines as a contented “bachelor,” but he would eventually marry five times and have many serious relationships with women—only added to the difficulty of finding just the right roles for him, at least until he emerged in the late thirties as the quintessential screwball hero.
The basic Grant type,
dating from films like Topper and The Awful Truth (both 1937), was a
complex amalgam of leading-man charms: an irresistible but ultimately
unknowable scamp; a man whose mere entrance into a scene suggested that
spontaneity, irreverence, and possibly danger were afoot. His characters
always seem to have an existence that extends, temporally and
spatially, beyond what can be seen on the screen. Even Johnny Case, one
of the sunniest of Grant’s screwball-era heroes, is a man with secrets.
Summing up his past life to Linda, Johnny casually mentions that he has
been working since the age of ten. Cukor’s touch is far too light to let
him emphasize the suffering implied by this backstory, but he chooses
to have Grant deliver it while riding a child’s tricycle, communicating
at once the character’s playful insouciance and the pathos of his lost
Grant could play klutzy and bumbling, like the virginal paleontologist of Bringing Up Baby, or sly and manipulative, like the rascally news editor of His Girl Friday (1940), while still maintaining that untouchable core of reserve. And as Hitchcock would explore later in the forties in Suspicion and Notorious, he could also use his surface affability to hint at untapped wells of malice. But late-thirties screwball comedy was the first natural habitat for the free-roaming specimen that was Cary Grant, and Holiday is an example of that genre at its simplest and freshest.
The story is as slender and diaphanous as the white scarf pinned to one shoulder of the distinctive long-sleeved black gown Hepburn wears in the movie’s climactic party scene (the costumes are by Robert Kalloch, billed simply as Kalloch, who would dress many of the grandes dames of screwball: Myrna Loy in Shadow of the Thin Man, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday). Grant’s Johnny Case, having just before the movie begins met and fallen in love with a young woman at a holiday resort at Lake Placid, drops by the apartment of his friends Nick and Susan (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon) to tell them the good news. The simple apartment of the Potters, a mildly bohemian pair of wisecrackers, provides an earthbound counterpoint to the lofty upper-class world Johnny is about to enter.
Most of the rest of the action takes place in the Setons’ city-block-sized Manhattan mansion, moving between the oppressively formal downstairs, with its double curving staircase, and the cozy upstairs “playroom,” a welcoming if regressive space still filled with the old musical instruments and toys of the Seton siblings’ youth. This is where the three grown Seton kids—the passionate but frustrated Linda, the self-loathing alcoholic Ned (a quietly tragic Lew Ayres), and the more conventional and ultimately materialistic Julia (Doris Nolan), the original object of Johnny’s affections—come to escape the demands of their generous but overbearing banker father (Henry Kolker). The playroom is also associated with the Setons’ beloved late mother, who, it is implied, encouraged the children in the musical and artistic pursuits they’ve now abandoned.
When Mr. Seton throws Julia a lavish white-tie-and-tails engagement bash against Linda’s express wishes—she wanted to celebrate her sister’s happiness with an intimate family gathering upstairs—the playroom becomes the space of a mutinous party within the party, where the groom-to-be eventually ends up as well. Johnny’s uncertainty about his hasty engagement to Julia only increases as he grows closer to her vibrant if eccentric sister. Weaving in and out of this romantic intrigue is an ongoing clash between two sets of values: the elder Seton’s belief, shared by Julia, in the steady accumulation of wealth, property, and status versus Johnny’s more personal vision of success as the ability to buy himself the period of freedom and self-discovery referred to in the title.
“Holiday’s energy derives from the way Grant and Hepburn occupy the space they share, moving with an informality and freedom that set them apart from the rest of the cast.”
What saves Holiday from feeling like a filmed stage play is not just Cukor’s graceful but unostentatious camera placement or the colossal scale of the Oscar-nominated sets, which make the Setons’ old-money lifestyle seem as appealing as living in a bank. Holiday’s energy derives from the way Grant and Hepburn occupy the space they share, moving with an informality and freedom that set them apart from the rest of the cast and thereby, somehow, proving their romantic compatibility to the audience even before they recognize it themselves. As she welcomes Johnny to the playroom for the first time, Linda offers him a bite of her half-eaten apple; without breaking stride, he accepts it, takes a bite, and proceeds to carry it around for the rest of the scene. During a tense family meeting, Linda curls up sideways in a chair, emphasizing her childlike nature as well as her nonconformity. Johnny and Linda work up a parlor stunt in which she stands on his shoulders, then dives off, joining him in a double somersault; in another trick, they step together onto the back of a couch, tipping it over and leaping forward together into the audience’s space, as if to invite us into a playroom of their own making.
For all its energy, wit, and romantic sparkle, Holiday failed to break Hepburn’s run of box-office duds, and only in retrospect emerged as a defining moment in the development of screwball. Maybe audiences worn down by an economic depression heading into its ninth year were unamused by the notion of a self-made man looking to stop working. Then again, other romantic comedies set in a world of aristocratic privilege—It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth—had been enormous hits even in earlier, tougher years of the Depression. Especially considering the failure of Bringing Up Baby earlier that same year, it seems plausible that 1938 audiences simply needed time to catch up to the modernity of the Hepburn-Grant pairing, with its unconventional gender inflections: the tomboyish “swagger girl” and the man who, swathed in a feather-trimmed woman’s robe in Bringing Up Baby, could convincingly blurt out the line “I just went gay all of a sudden!” without losing a shred of his masculine appeal. Shortly after the release of Holiday, Philip Barry was inspired to write another play, this one especially for Hepburn to star in: The Philadelphia Story, which she made a Broadway hit in 1939. The following year, that show was adapted into a massively successful film, also directed by Cukor and costarring Grant. In their fourth film together, Grant and Hepburn finally entered the public consciousness as a match made in screwball heaven. But in Holiday, there’s a delicate, almost tentative element to their connection that is absent from the sharper and more polished rapid-fire dialogue of The Philadelphia Story. To watch Holiday is to see two great performers falling in love—not with each other’s real-life selves but with the work they were just beginning to realize they could do together.
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