Format: Internet video on The Nook.
There are a few early films that focus on the plight of the poor, but once we hit the Great Depression, it seems that movies were more or less escapist entertainment from crushing poverty. Holiday, released in the latter half of 1930 and thus eligible for the fourth Oscars, is made up of purely white people problems. Rich people complain about being rich and, in something actually feels a few decades ahead of schedule, two people attempt to “find themselves” despite and in spite of their available fortune.
We begin with the whirlwind romance of Johnny Case (Robert Ames) and Julia Seton (Mary Astor). Johnny doesn’t have a great deal of money, but he’s aggressive and ambitious. He’s worked his whole life to put himself through law school and has managed a position with a good firm. Julia comes from big, big money. We catch them at the end of their 10th day together, a time when they plan to announce their engagement. The biggest stumbling block in view is Julia’s father, Edward (William Holden…no, not that William Holden).
Johnny’s goal in life is not to become as fabulously wealthy as the Seton clan or even specifically to marry into money. His goal is to make a bunch of money quickly and then retire as a young man. Essentially, he wants to make a bundle, have fun until the money lasts, and then spend the rest of his life working—have his dessert first, more or less. This is something he tells Linda Seton (Oscar nominee Ann Harding), Julia’s spinster sister.
Linda becomes infatuated with Johnny, so it’s not too difficult to see where we’re going with the film. Linda is oppressed by the stuffy family she lives in, wanting nothing more than to find a way out of a family that seems to do nothing but seek out money. Brother Ned Seton (Monroe Owsley) evidently feels the same way and has discovered his escape through booze. Linda decides to throw the couple an engagement party for a few friends. This plan is quickly usurped by Julia and by Edward, who turn the party into a massive affair completely against Linda’s original idea. It’s at the party that Johnny discovers a stock he has bought is going through the roof and the dream he’s had is within his grasp.
The problem, of course, is that what Johnny wants isn’t what Julia wants and it isn’t what Edward Seton wants. Julia’s friend Laura Cram (Elizabeth Forrester) steps in and pretty much takes over all of the wedding plans, including putting herself in as the matron of honor and her husband Seton Cram (Hallam Cooley, and yes, it gets confusing with one person named Seton and a half dozen surnamed Seton) as best man.
It’s here we learn that Linda is in love with Johnny because he seems to be a kindred spirit. Johnny and Julia fight—his investments have made him a man of means and this gets him offered a solid position with Seton Cram’s firm. But again, this isn’t what Johnny wants and Julia simply can’t understand him. So Linda pines, and it seems that Johnny might well requite her feelings a bit.
So, like many a movie of the time, Holiday doesn’t disguise where it’s going. It’s also almost disturbingly American in its outlook, or at least the outlook of Johnny. This is a guy who is very modern in a few ways. He knows what he wants and is determined to get it, and convinced that he can by his own determination and hard work. The longer the film goes on, the more Julia reveals herself as really no different from her father, who is motivated only by money and prestige. Johnny wins him over, but does so only on the strength of his investment prowess. It’s soon evident that both of them are dead inside. Linda has a spark, though, and despite his drinking, it’s evident that Ned still has some spirit as well.
It would be easy for a film like Holiday to be a crashing bore, and for the first half, it kind of is. The first potential bright spot is the presence of the great Edward Everett Horton, who shows up as Linda’s friend Nick. Horton is one of those actors who is immediately likable on screen. He’s got that distinctive voice and hangdog face; there’s something about him that is inherently entertaining. Horton’s job in Holiday is to tell stories and commiserate with Linda. It’s interesting to note that his wife Susan is played by eventual Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but she doesn’t have much of a role here. Strangely, Horton is pretty forgettable here, and he pretty much vanishes when the film starts to get interesting.
It takes the first half of the film to set up the story, and this is rough going. Once Linda’s feelings for Johnny are known and we really understand what Johnny wants to do with his life, things get more interesting. Sure, we know where this is going to end up, but getting to that end is at least more interesting than the first half of the film.
Holiday is not a film I’d recommend. It’s interesting and it turns out to be a lot better than the first act would indicate (the first 20 minutes or so are pretty dreadful). Even though it ends well, though, it takes us too long to get to anything interesting, and most of the audience will have checked out long before we get there. Oh, and before we get there, yes, I realize there's a remake of this a couple of years later.
Why to watch Holiday: A chance to see Mary Astor as a young actress.
Why not to watch: It’s obvious where it’s going right away, and it takes too long to get there.