Movie review: “Holiday” (1938)

holiday 1938

Partner told me that, at a recent training/educational session, the trainer asked each member of the class: What’s your favorite movie?

Partner found it an impossible question. Who has just one favorite movie, after all? I have about twenty, a few of which I’ve spoken about here: “Annie Hall,” “The Mask of Dimitrios,” “Dodsworth.”

But, absolutely, “Holiday” (the 1938 version with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is on my list.

It’s a witty little Philip Barry play from the 1920, which was first made into a 1930 movie, and then (immortally) into this 1938 movie. The movie didn’t do well, supposedly because late-Thirties audiences didn’t want to see a movie in which the hero didn’t want to work; also, Katherine Hepburn had recently been declared “box-office poison.”


Summary: Wealthy-by-birth Doris Nolan meets wealthy-by-hard-work Cary Grant at Lake Placid, and brings him back to New York City as her fiancé. Cary meets Doris’s carefree sister Katherine Hepburn, and realizes within a few days that he’s in love with the wrong sister.

There are lots of things to admire here: Lew Ayres as alcoholic brother Ned, who’s pathetic but brave; Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Cary Grant’s funny best friends; George Cukor’s quiet sympathetic direction.

Best of all, however, is the dialogue. Many of the best lines are given to Hepburn, as follows:

Cary Grant has just admired an icky-poo doll once owned by his fiancé (Hepburn’s sister), saying “It even looks like her.” This follows:

Linda Seton: [Hugging a toy giraffe] “Now don’t you a word about Leopold, he’s very sensitive.”

Johnny Case: “Yours.”

Linda Seton: “Looks like me.” [turning its head in profile]

Or, when Hepburn’s horrible cousins appear in the doorway:

Linda Seton: “Oh, for the love of Pete – it’s the witch and Dopey!”

Or, questioning Cary on his family background:

Linda Seton: “Do you mean to say that your mother wasn’t even a Whoozis?”

This movie is a slice of lemon meringue pie, cool and refreshing. I could watch it morning, noon, and night.

Do yourself a favor and take a look at it.

Appreciation: Maria Ouspenskaya

maria ouspenskaya

I usually write these “appreciations” about hunky guys like Channing Tatum and Victor Mature and Aldo Ray.



Well, this time it’s a tiny little old lady.



Maria Ouspenskaya was a small regal actress who graced a number of classic films. She came from Russia, studied in Poland, and came to the USA in the 1920s. She liked it here so much that she decided to stay.



Her heart was in the stage, but the financial troubles of the late 1920s / early 1930s made it necessary for her to look toward Hollywood.



Her first film was “Dodsworth,” with Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton. She plays a steely old European martinet who forbids Ruth to marry her son. She’s terrific, and she got an Academy Award nomination for the role.



Many more roles followed. She played Charles Boyer’s darling grandmere Janou in “Love Affair.” She’s the mysterious Maleva the gypsy in “The Wolfman” with Lon Chaney, who intones:



Even a man who’s pure of heart

And says his prayers at night

Will become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.



Ouspenskaya was reputedly difficult. She was scornful of her fellow actors. She knew herself to be a brilliant actress, and acted accordingly. According to her IMDB biography, she relied on celebrity astrologer Carroll Righter to tell her when she should and shouldn’t perform.



This did not endear her to directors and fellow cast members.



My favorite Ouspenskaya performance is in 1939’s “The Rains Came.” She is (to perfection!) the bejeweled Maharani of Ranchipur, smoking her cigarette in a long holder and playing bridge. She is dryly ironic, and she is wonderful.



She was injured in a fire in 1949, which was (probably) caused by her smoking in bed.  She was taken to the hospital, and died of a stroke a few days later.



Poor thing.



Honor her memory by seeing one of the movies cited above.



You’ll thank me for it.


Movie review: “Dodsworth”


Dodsworth” is a gem from 1936, directed by William Wyler, based on a subtle little Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is Sam Dodsworth, head of an automobile-manufacturing firm in Ohio, who’s retiring so that he can enjoy the Good Life in Europe. Ruth Chatterton is his silly shallow younger wife, who’s fairly drooling to get to Europe so that she can misbehave (and she does).



And Mary Astor is the nice divorced lady that Sam meets on the boat going over to Europe, who lives in Italy “because it’s cheap.”



Sam adores his silly young wife, even while she cheats on him with a variety of men: English, French, Austrian.



Finally Sam and his wife part ways.



Do you think Sam will find the nice lady in Italy whom he met on the boat?



Hmm. I wonder.



Mary Astor wrote about it in her wonderful autobiography, “A Life on Film.” She especially remembered creating the scene in which she sees Sam Dodsworth coming to her from the steamship in the Naples harbor. She recreates it for us: the chalk marks on the scenery, and the silly stuff (an ashcan labeled PUT YOUR BUTTS IN HERE that was in her eyeline). And she imagined herself the heroine, and waved to an imaginary man in a boat in the harbor, and made herself believe that it was real.



And it was real. “At every theater, at every performance,” she wrote, “the audience clapped their hands. It sounded like applause, but it was sheer joy.”



See “Dodsworth,” kids. It is sheer joy.


Augusta’s favorite movies, part one


You may remember that, some time ago, Apollonia’s sister Augusta  challenged me to name my favorite movies.



Well, she produced her own list just yesterday.



Oh, my! I see into Augusta’s soul now. She is a romantic. But also a pragmatist. And also a student of human nature.



Let me give you part of her list (I will save part for another day):



Dodsworth! Well, of course: we agreed on this one immediately. Augusta attached a wonderful 2003 article by Richard Schickel to her list, in which Schickel goes on and on about this movie. And if you have not seen it – oh, please, kids, go see it. It’s seventy-five years old, but it’s completely timeless. There are no heroes or villains here, only weary adults. And it’s sad, and romantic, and has a very happy ending, which perhaps you will understand as such when you are older.



Being There. Augusta’s comment: “Sometimes I love this movie, and sometimes it’s ‘Eh.’ I don’t know why.” Complete agreement here. I remember loving when it first came out – my god, Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas! But when I’ve seen it since: it’s not quite as powerful. And the final scene (I won’t tell you if you haven’t seen it, I’ve learned my lesson) still eludes me. But it’s terrific in its way.



The Cuckoo. Never seen it, and can’t stream it through Netflix. This is Augusta’s description: “A Russian Finnish Lapp film. I loved it.” Apollonia lit up when I mentioned it. “Oh, my god!” she said. “Is that the one where the woman – oh, I can’t describe it -” We looked it up on, and it looks wonderful: the cover art alone, with a completely impassive-looking Lapp woman between two sullen-looking men, looks very promising. Augusta, listen: it’s on my list.



Brief Encounter. Augusta’s brief comment: “I love it.” Well, how can you not love it? Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, falling in love – but never quite falling into bed with each other. 1940s black-and-white at its best. A lovely delicate movie, with Noel Coward dialogue. How can you ask for more?



Babette’s Feast. First of all, I fell hopelessly in love with Stephane Audran back when Brideshead Revisited was on TV, and she played Laurence Olivier’s weary but faithful (and lovely) mistress. “How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love!” Here, in “Babette,” she’s a French outcast who comes into money and makes the most outrageously perfect meal for a group of puritanical Danish islanders. They eat, and drink, and see God. I wish I’d thought of this movie for my own list. It’s wonderful.



The Women. Oh dear me yes. Augusta’s comment, upon which I cannot improve: “All-female cast, jungle-red claws are out, and a fashion show to boot!” Children, do not waste your time on the badly-made and badly-casted 2008 version. The 1939 version is the real deal, funny and ferocious. The cast goes on and on: Paulette Goddard! Joan Crawford! Norma Shearer! Marjorie Main, for god’s sake! Dialogue by the very witty (and now nearly forgotten) Clare Boothe Luce, polished by Anita Loos. (And if you don’t know any of the names I just dropped: well, you are too young, and need some civilizing, so you definitely need to see this movie!)



There are more movies on Augusta’s list. But her list has made me think of other movies too.



So we will have to move on to Part Trois, don’t you think?



And now Apollonia has signalled that she may have thoughts on this subject too . . .



Anyway: much more soon, kids!





The movies in my head, part one


Apollonia’s sister Augusta came to the office recently, and we had a long and lively conversation about old movies. We are both addicted to Turner Classic Movies, as it turns out. She challenged me to come up with a list of my favorite movies. Impossible! But we started naming our favorites, and . . .



Dodsworth!” Augusta proclaimed. Oh my god what a movie. It’s based on a slender but uncharacteristically sweet Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is a patient man who gets dragged to Europe by his nervous silly wife Ruth Chatterton; he meets Mary Astor, and – well, I won’t tell you more. But what a final scene! Who needs CGI when you have acting?



Okay, I’m up to this challenge. Five, four, three, two, one:



The Red Shoes. Spectacular Technicolor, classic plot, incredible acting. Featuring real ballet stars: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine. And featuring one of my favorite actors, the grave and handsome Anton Walbrook.



Holiday. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edward Everett Horton. Glorious Philip Barry 1930s dialogue, and a classy upper-crust setting, and a happy ending. And it has a charming air of insouciance, almost as if the characters were ad-libbing the dialogue – which is just as it should be. “Do you mean your father isn’t even a Whoozis?”



Black Narcissus. Another Archers movie, like “Red Shoes,” based on a Rumer Godden novel. The colors and the scenery, oh my God. Apollonia can’t stand this movie because of the male lead, David Farrar, an ugly hairy brute who’s shirtless for maybe a little too much of the movie. But, for me, it just seems hilarious that this gargoyle actually seems attractive to the sex-starved nuns in the movie.



Witness for the Prosecution. I am not normally a fan of courtroom movies: too claustrophobic. But this one I’m okay with. Charles Laughton as a lawyer, Elsa Lanchester as his nurse. Tyrone Power! Marlene Dietrich! A complex twisty plot, with humor, yet! And every time you think the mystery’s resolved, it snarls back up again . . .



Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. As with courtroom movies, I am not warm to the war-movie genre. This movie is the exception: it’s intense and simple and methodical. I understand why they made it: it was a war thing, they needed to show America striking back at Japan. It’s the American version of something by Leni Riefenstahl.



Dune. I first saw first in the back yard of the Marine House in Tunis, under the stars, projected onto a sheet. It’s one of the most peculiar, spaciest, funniest, scariest movies of all time.  It opens with the ethereal Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, floating calmly against a starscape, saying calmly, “A beginning is a very delicate time.” It’s perfectly magical. The whole movie gets into your head if you watch it more than once. “Wait for my brother, Baron!”



More soon. This is fun.




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