Holiday (1938)

Home doesn’t always feel like home. We’ve all been spending more time at home over the past year. For some, this has been a harder than normal stretch marked by conflict, for others an opportunity to rest and spend more time with those they love most. But even if our experience of the pandemic has been free of pain, regular conflict, or death, eleven months into this thing, we all realize that even a comfortable home isn’t the answer to all our problems nor is it the fulfillment of all our desires.

A sense of yearning seems to bind together holiday celebrations of all different kinds. In the United States, many look forward to celebrating Independence Day with fireworks and family or spending Memorial Day honoring those we’ve lost (and wishing they were with us once again). But there’s also the notion holidays look beyond themselves, helping us to imagine a better way of being in the world: Thanksgiving prompts us to bring gratitude to our day-to-day lives, while Martin Luther King, Jr. Day reminds us of the “dream” and the hope of a just and equitable world.

George Cukor’s aptly titled HOLIDAY begins on Christmas Day, settles in on New Year’s Eve, and concludes with a holiday of a different sort. As the film opens, Johnny (Cary Grant) and Julia (Doris Nolan) announce their engagement to friends and family on Christmas morning. However, due to their brief acquaintance, their loved ones hardly receive the news as a gift. Cukor brilliantly sets up the conflict between Johnny and Julia in these first two sequences—Johnny the more “common” of the two, practical, hard-working, but also fun, while Julia’s impulsiveness with Johnny masks a significant traditionalist streak as she lives her life according to the expectations of her wealthy family and naively expects everything to work out for her and Johnny.

Into this relational breach steps Julia’s black sheep of a sister, Linda (Katherine Hepburn), who desperately wants to live an exciting and adventurous life, a striking contrast to her family’s overly structured and “proper” life. Linda spends most of her time at home in the “Playroom,” a cozy, comfortably furnished room where she can play games or music or hold intimate parties with a few of her friends. The room, furnished by Linda’s mother who has long since passed away, carries with it the remembrance of home in a way their museum of a house does not. Many of the film’s core scenes take place in the Playroom and give concrete shape to Linda’s yearning for home.

As the chasm of expectations between Julia and Johnny becomes clearer, their rash decision to get engaged appears worse than ever. On New Year’s Eve, as Julia’s family celebrates the holiday with hundreds of their closest friends, Linda takes refuge in the Playroom with Johnny’s closest friends and eventually Johnny himself. Cukor’s expressive direction in this sequence communicates the core feeling of the film—Hepburn reveals a fragile vulnerability amidst her strength of character, Grant responding and reaching out to her, even sharing a quiet dance together. They see life and vibrancy and home in one another, the opportunity to avoid spending their years waiting to die.

Also fascinating to me is Cukor’s suggestion that the lively, adventurous life devoted to family, friends, fellowship, and fun comes not with through financial windfalls but shared commitment to one another, for embracing another as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. Cukor manages to evoke all of this with a humanistic gentleness in the portrayal of all of the main characters that leaves us with a winning impression of the people on both sides of the divide—they are respectable, even as they choose what might be a less interesting or vibrant life, the safer road.

Ultimately, the film sides with Linda and Johnny, leaving us with the notion that our deep sense of yearning for something better can’t be satiated with money. As Johnny and Linda meet at the film’s conclusion, their ultimate destination is uncertain. But their love for and commitment to one another—their movement outside themselves—has put them on a path to better deal with their displacement in the world and their yearning for a better home than the ones they’ve known thus far. That makes this not just a great pandemic film, but one that will continue to bear fruit even as we get back to whatever normal will be post-COVID.

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