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Wednesday
Apr092014

A Year With Kate: Holiday (1938)

Episode 15 of 52 as Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order.

In which Katharine Hepburn is named Box Office Poison, which might be the best thing that could have happened to her.


WAKE UP! HOLLYWOOD PRODUCERS

Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars--whose public appeal is negligible--receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations...

Among these players, whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box office draw is nil, can be numbered Mae West, Edward Arnold, Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and many, many others... Hepburn turned in excellent performances in 'Stage Door' and 'Bringing Up Baby' but both pictures died."

Reading that “wake up call” on the morning of May 3rd, 1938 had to sting. The Manhattan Independent Theatre Owners Association bought a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter and the Independent Film Journal to air its grievances, and the effects for Kate were immediate. Here’s how quickly the dominoes fell... 

  • May 3rd, 1938: The Hollywood Reporter and Independent Film Journal run the ad.
  • May 4th, 1938: Kate buys out her contract with RKO for $200,000.
  • May 12th, 1938: Kate turns 31.
  • May 16th, 1938: Time Magazine publishes an article titled “DEAD CATS” interviewing the stars listed in the Box Office Poison ad. Says Kate, “They say I'm a has-been...If I weren't laughing so hard, I might cry.”
  • June 15th, 1938: Holiday premieres. Columbia runs ad campaign asking, “Is it true what they say about Hepburn?” The audience’s apparent response: Yes.

When Holiday was released, it quickly drowned in its star’s now infamous reputation. Really that’s a pity, because the movie’s delightful.

Hepburn again teams up with director George Cukor and Cary Grant. Grant plays Johnny Case, a free spirit engaged to a millionaire’s stuffy daughter, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Over the holidays, Case meets Doris’s sister Linda (Kate), the black sheep of the white collar family. Sparks fly, laughter bubbles, and Johnny begins to question both his engagement and his place in high society.

It’s easy to miss or dismiss Holiday, sandwiched as it is between two of the Hepburn canon classics. However, though it lacks the manic energy of Bringing Up Baby and the Jimmy Stewart of The Philadelphia Story, Holiday remains a great example of star chemistry. Without the constant cacophonous distraction of dogs and leopards and bones (oh my!), Grant and Hepburn have only their sparkling personality and wit on which to rely. Fortunately, they have both in spades:

One joy of “A Year With Kate” has been watching Hepburn’s acting talent grow. In Morning Glory she began to harness voice control. In Alice Adams she learned empathy. In Stage Door her star quality blossomed. Holiday confirms what Bringing Up Baby hinted at: Kate has great comedic timing. She owes that in no small part to Cary Grant. Grant is a one man Vaudeville school. He can deadpan, he can double take, and his line readings have such a specific rhythm that I swear you could waltz to them. Kate could already deliver barbs, but with Grant she establishes the give-and-take patter of the great comedy duos. For an actress supposedly too serious for comedy, she’d developed a good sense of humor.

Kate needed more than a sense of humor to survive her inglorious exit from Hollywood. If there is any one thing that defines Katharine Hepburn’s legend (besides a certain Irishman), it is the story of her Box Office Poison defeat and subsequent glorious career revival. In retrospect, it feels strange that the lowest point of her career came during a year when she gave two performances that would later become classics. The reality is a little less dire than the legend though; when Kate left RKO, some studios expressed interest in picking her up. More importantly, her friend, playwright Philip Barry, was writing a play for her that was set to open in New York just a year later: The Philadelphia Story.

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby,

Next Week: The Philadelphia Story - In which Katharine Hepburn wins it all back and then some

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Reader Comments (11)

I have a slightly weird relationship with HOLIDAY. It was one in a series of, I think, five American plays of the era I read once and I didn't like it very much. I was very young at the time and I found Julia sad and sympathetic and Linda slightly too officious and the entire thing slightly depressing despite the "happy-ending" (which I never bought.)
I delayed seeing the movie for a while after my Kate infatuation hit because of that. And, content wise I'm still beholden with it but this movie really is lovely and Kate is wonderful. I prefer BRINGING UP BABY and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY but you're so right that this one really succeeding on the chemistry! HOLIDAY is well-made movie but the story works a great deal because of the Cary/Kate rapport. And as Kate is wont to do she nails what makes Linda great and what makes her annoying.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

This "weak link" in a sequence of genius performances is better than a lot of best-works-ever of some careers. Love it.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

“They say I'm a has-been...If I weren't laughing so hard, I might cry.”

Ooh I just love her. These personal tidbits are so delicious. Keep 'em coming!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

As I've said before this is one of my favorite films. I prefer it to both Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story though those are terrific pictures.

Holiday's subject matter is very contemporary, the quest for what life actually means vs. the things that money can provide, it keeps it fresh where parts of the other films may date. While that makes the film more interesting it's Cary, Kate and their delicate interplay that really put the story across. The New Year's Eve scene in the playroom is achingly beautiful.

It's not just them though. Binnie Barnes and Henry Daniell are wonderfully venal as Kate's cousins who can easily be read as fascists. Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton balance them out as Cary's surrogate parents, the two of them share a marvelous chemistry as well. Henry Kolker even manages to humanize the rigid Mr. Seaton. This also contains, along with All Quiet on the Western Front, the best work Lew Ayres ever did as brother Ned. In some ways I think he gives the best performance in the picture.

The one weak link is Doris Nolan as Julia. She's not bad but she isn't up to the high level of performance that the rest of the cast delivers. Had the part been given to a stronger, more distinctive actress, Joan Bennett would have been ideal, the choice Cary had to make wouldn't have seemed so predestined from the first scene.

As far as the box office poison label and Kate buying out her contract, I recently saw "Mother Carey's Chickens" the film RKO wanted her to do and caused her departure. Even with the great Fay Bainter and the pleasing Anne Shirley the movie is a piece of syrupy goo and she was wise to put money on the table to avoid it. Had she done the picture it could have really put the kibosh on her career.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

that 'box office poison' thing is so interesting because obviously the public doesn't know what's good for them. History is so littered with great stars who maintain their fame well after their deaths that were only intermittently embraced by the public but after they're gone nobody can think of the artform without them.

it seems like all of the greats have to face this at some point, even the totally popular ones. I remember think pieces about whether Brad Pitt had any true bankability in the late 90s and whether or not he would survive past the pretty boy years. And obviously Meryl Streep won the tag for awhile too.

April 9, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If anybody wants to play along for next week, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is on Turner Classic Movies tonight. It's also available on Amazon Instant Watch. Or you can come over and borrow one of my three copies...

Glad everyone's enjoying HOLIDAY!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I think it was just a little too late to save Kate's career at RKO. The audience had already turned on her.

I also think the timing of this movie was bad. The depression was still going strong and people just couldn't, or wouldn't, relate to a richy rich family and a guy who is willing to walk away from work just to "find himself." It would have played much better in the 20s or maybe after WW2.

The Philadelphia Story is a little better fit for the times. Audiences didn't mind seeing rich people on screen as long as they weren't disdainful of their advantages. And what is better than seeing Kate getting her comeuppance?

I quite like Holiday though it doesn't hold the "must see at any time" charms of Bringing Up Baby, Stage Door, or Philadelphia Story, or even Woman of The Year, but that's coming up as well.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

"What's it like to get drunk, Ned?"
"It's— How drunk?"
"Good and drunk."
"Grand."

It's because of Lew Ayres that I sentimentally love this movie (and Hepburn's performance) more than both Bringing Up Baby and the other Barry adaptation, even though I still consider The Philadelphia Story the superior film. In fact, for years after the first time I saw Holiday, I mis-remembered it as the film in which Hepburn and Grant played brother and sister, because the relationship between Ned and Linda made such a strong impression on me as a budding cineaste. Apologies and RIP, Mr. Ayres.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

"Without the constant cacophonous distraction of dogs and leopards and bones (oh my!)"

What a great line, Anne Marie, and probably one of the reasons Bringing Up Baby annoyed me. I quite liked this one, but the chemistry between Grant and Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story was truly wonderful, so it still remains my top pick. I love this series and the companion Davis one.

One of my favorite classic movie youtubers has a nice montage of Kate's work.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOrwOarrFvg

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

LOVE this movie. So very funny.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Unrelated to Holiday but very much related to Kate, on December 23, 1938 the Disney short Mother Goose Goes Hollywood debuts, which recreates classic nursery rhymes using celebrities of the day. It's a great time capsule to which stars were big in the late 1930s, but of particular note is the use of Katherine Hepburn in a central role of Little Bo Peep, who is a bridge appearing in several scenes looking for her sheep. It's a good look at the perception of the persona she had built to this point in her caricature.

You can find the film here.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

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