Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, & George Cukor give us a Holiday – thanks to Criterion’s new Blu-ray

The 1938 romantic comedy Holiday doesn’t seem quite crazy enough to be called a screwball. The laughs don’t pile up the way other such comedies of the period do. But it has something else – a believable romance between intelligent people discussing their lives and their loves, and how they became the people they are.

On the other hand, it stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and plays with class differences, so maybe it is a screwball. Just don’t expect a laugh riot like Bringing Up Baby. Perhaps it’s a screwball dramedy. Holiday was directed by George Cukor, from a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, adapted from Philip Barry’s 1928 play.

Grant plays a self-made man who discovers that his fiancée comes from a very wealthy and aristocratic family. Doris Nolan plays the fiancée, but Hepburn gets star billing as her older sister, so if you know anything about Hollywood movies, you can guess who will get Grant.

This is not a happy or healthy family. The father (Henry Kolker) cares only for prestige and money (the mother has passed on). The middle child – the one engaged to Grant – feels largely the same way. The youngest child and only boy (Lew Ayres) is constantly drunk.

Hepburn plays the only decent and caring person in the family. Obviously, she’s the black sheep. We see almost immediately that she’s truly the right woman for her sister’s fiancé.

Cary Grant was an acrobat before he became a movie star, and Holiday allows him to show off his physical prowess with some very impressive summersaults. He also shows his dramatic and comic acting ability as a regular guy suddenly dropped into the world of New York aristocracy’s who who.

Speaking of comic acting, Edward Everett Horton gets to play an intelligent person for a change. If you only know him from Astaire Rogers movies, it’s a revelation. He’s still funny, but not because he’s stupid or confused. He’s funny because he’s witty. I suspect this is what the real Horton was like. Jean Dixon plays his extremely suitable wife.

But Holiday shows its stage origins. It takes place almost entirely in a single house, admittedly a huge one. The screenplay depends very heavily on dialog, sometimes to the point of short monologs. But Cukor found ways to keep things cinematic. For instance, Grant gives his speech about growing up poor while riding a child’s tricycle.

How It Looks

The last time I saw Holiday, it was off an archival, sepia-toned, nitrate print. That was a hard act to follow.

Criterion’s 4K restoration, reduced to 1080p for Blu-ray, is bright and sharp. But it has an annoying flaw. Occasional scenes, especially early on, had a lot of something that wasn’t quite film grain, but wasn’t a digital artifact I’d seen before. It made textures look like swarms of gnats. But for the most part, it was fine but not exceptional.

How It Sounds

Criterion presents Holiday’s original soundtrack on an uncompressed, mono, LPCM track. It’s probably the best the movie has ever sounded.

And the Extras

  • Foldout: It’s Criterion, which means there’s at least one paper-based extra. In this case, it’s a simple foldout with a very good article by film critic and historian Dana Stevens. It also contains credits for the movie and the disc.
  • Scragow and Schlesinger: 34 minutes. Film historians Michael Sragow and Michael Schlesinger discuss the movie, along with Philip Barry’s original play and the first film version. They even discuss the period’s politics. The visual of two men talking gets broken up by stills and clips. Worth watching.
  • George Cukor: 21 minutes. Audio excerpt from an oral history recorded for the American Film Institute. Visually dull with nothing but a very bad photo of Cukor, tinted yellow. Best to watch with your eyes closed.
  • Costume Gallery: 27 stills. Robert Mero Kalloch III created Holiday‘s costumes, and this slideshow contains photos of Kalloch at work, illustrations, actors in costumes, film stills, and intertitles.
  • 1930 version: The beloved film Holiday is actually a remake. The original, 1930 version is blandly staged and shot, with a cast that seems to be projecting for the last row in the balcony. It’s plays like a tragedy, with no real humor. By the way, Edward Everett Horton plays the same character in both movies. The film’s best merit is as an example of just how bad most early talkies were.

Criterion’s Holiday disc goes on sale January 7.