Katharine Hepburn in “Holiday”: Did Chekhov Ever Write Tumbling Into a Scene?

Dear CF:

I realized something today as I researched Holiday in order to present you with the delicious clip below: many of the old movies I love, and several I quite like, come from the same director.  A Philadelphia Story, Gone With the Wind (part of it anyway), My Fair Lady, Gaslight, and now Holiday all come to us via George Cukor. Not to mention The Women, the remake of which made you fearful. I don’t know how I failed to notice this before. I suppose I ought to consider a director more of an author-figure than I typically do.

Holiday does sisterhood and siblinghood better than almost any film I’ve seen. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. It has the sumptuary delights of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music (staircases! ballgowns!) but undercuts the sheer spectacle of money by making all the elegance seem like joyless work. Fun, in this film, is coextensive with the unmonied and therefore unscripted life.

Below is a seriously sensational cinematic treat. It’s seven minutes long. If all you want is the delightful hijinks, watch until 5:51. If you want to see how well the movie channels Chekhov, watch to the end of the clip.

What’s going on: Cary Grant (Johnny Case) is a by-his-bootstraps lad with a talent for business who wants to make a quick buck and “retire” to see what the world has to offer. He’s engaged to Julia, a socialite who (along with her father) wants him to work at the family bank. (Yes, this is a smarter, older version of My Best Friend’s Wedding.) Julia’s sister Linda is played by Katharine Hepburn—she, along with drunk brother Ned, are misfit siblings who feel trapped by the grandeur and refuse to behave like “important people.”

Katharine Hepburn’s character Linda is Mrs. Dalloway in a universe where she doesn’t get to throw the party. (The grief of that is treated with really extraordinary respect.) Her father takes over and turns it into a black-tie soiree—exactly the sort of thing she hates. She refuses to attend and stays upstairs instead. This is awkward for the family. She’s eventually joined by Johnny Case’s only friends in attendance, a wry liberal couple of professor-types who literally got lost en route to the gala and understand exactly how much they don’t belong at the “real” party downstairs. (Example: a butler takes away the man’s shoes when they first arrive and directs them several times to the elevator so that they don’t show up on the staircase, where they would be announced and seen.)

In this scene, Johnny has just joined them. (Puppets! A married couple doing “Punch and Judy” to teach their friend how uppity he’s gotten! Spankings! Tumbling! And maybe the single greatest line: “Wife, do we know anyone who smells of violet?”) They’re joined soon after by Linda’s snobby cousin and spouse. Then by her brother and father. Enjoy the absurdity and, if you continue, the nimble switch to sadness:

Fondly,

M

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