Combustible Celluloid
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With: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell
Written by: Sidney Buchman, Donald Ogden Stewart, based on a play by Philip Barry
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 95
Date: 06/15/1938

Holiday (1938)

4 Stars (out of 4)

New Year's Play

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This is my favorite George Cukor movie, and a perennial New Year's Eve classic. It's quite a bit more fine-tuned and delicate than other, more popular Cukor hits, and it offers a kind of anti-It's a Wonderful Life sentiment. In this one, the hero, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) wishes to drop out of society and go exploring -- a theme that would become more popular decades later -- and no family obligations will hold him back. Johnny wants to marry Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) but her rich family would rather he take a job before gallivanting off. Fortunately, her sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) is a good deal more open-minded. A good chunk of the film takes place during a New Year's Eve party (in a playroom), at which Johnny slowly makes the transition from his interest in the bad sister to the good sister. Cukor ventures close to Lubitsch territory in his gentle balance of comedy and pathos. Lew Ayres turns in a terrific performance as the sisters' drunken brother, and the great fusspot Edward Everett Horton plays Johnny's best friend, a professor (with Jean Dixon as the professor's wife). Hepburn and Grant made Bringing Up Baby the same year and both films flopped.

Happily, the Criterion Collection released the film on DVD and Blu-ray at the tail end of 2019, just in time for New Year's (which is when I like to watch it each year). The transfer is gorgeous and film-like with beautiful contrast and grain quality, and the Blu-ray contains an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Bonuses include a conversation between filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger and my old colleague film critic Michael Sragow, archival audio excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with director Cukor, a costume gallery, and the complete 1930 film based on the same play. (The transfer of the older film is quite a bit more squeaky-clean and scrubbed, but without the personality of the 1938 film.) The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Dana Stevens.

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