A holiday from the Hays Code

A holiday from the Hays Code

As Read Me returns from its summer holiday, we go all the way back to the Hays Code and Old Hollywood – and the way one film merrily ran away from it. 85 years on, Sarah Cleary unpacks the sly subversion at the heart of George Cukor’s Holiday.

The hold that Old Hollywood still exerts over modern-day cinephilia is really miraculous – we remain beguiled, despite ourselves. It’s essential, however, to remember that this still-intoxicating ‘Golden Age’ sensibility was never wholly dictated by the tastes of contemporaneous audiences, let alone the filmmakers. A stringent set of values was imposed on both parties: The Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as The Hays Code. Initially implemented by former Republican Postmaster General Will H. Hays, the code served as Hollywood’s method of self-imposed censorship from the 1930s until its slow decline in the 1960s. Many of its tenets are legendary, and their enforcement self-evident: married couples in separate beds, no nudity, nary a mention of “sexual perversions” and so on. 

But among the hard-and-fast rules were slipperier directives, such as the “general principle” that only “correct standards of life” be depicted on-screen. George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday is very much concerned with the problem of how to live one’s life, though it’s highly doubtful the film would have met these so-called “correct standards” had it stated its case more plainly. It evades censorship the way all the best films made under the Hays Office’s purview did: suggestion and insinuation. Outwardly, it’s a ritzy, gently amusing comedy of manners. In actuality, it’s an incisive critique of American exceptionalism, capitalism, and perhaps everything else someone like Will H. Hays would have held dear. 

Happy-go-lucky Johnny Case (Cary Grant) embodies the American dream: he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, from hardscrabble origins all the way to the financial sector, and he’ll be going even further up in the world when he marries socialite Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), daughter of eminent banker Edward Seton (Henry Kolker). However, Johnny’s about ready to call off work for a while – he says he wants a “holiday”, one he can take for as long as he needs. “I’ve been working since I was ten”, he explains, “I want to find out why I’m working.” He can’t seem to say exactly what it would look like, but the idea makes perfect sense to Julia’s eccentric sister, Linda (Katherine Hepburn), the self-described black sheep of the Seton clan.

Linda is the archetypal poor little rich girl, beset by a quarter-life crisis. She’s tried and failed to find her calling in painting, acting, nursing, and even organised labour (“how was I supposed to know that father was on the board of directors at the company?”). Like Johnny, she yearns for an ineffable something else, and his notion of an extended, exploratory “holiday” inflames her imagination. These kindred spirits are falling for one another, but Linda is also fiercely loyal to Julia. She begs her sister to let her organise a New Year’s Eve party at the family home to announce Johnny and Julia’s engagement. “No one must touch my party but me,” Linda says, voice aquiver. “If they do, I won’t come to it.”

The most important stipulation for Linda’s NYE party is that it take place in the playroom, the lone cosy spot in the Setons’ mansion. Cukor’s use of space in Holiday is masterful. Upon Johnny’s first arrival at the house, the space dwarfs him, it’s icy and impersonal. It’s too much. The butler suggests he take an elevator, only for him to look back to see himself a stone’s throw from where he’d just been. “I could’ve walked that,” he mutters, to no one. Opulence is made to look not only unnecessary but also inconvenient, and therefore wholly distasteful. The playroom, by contrast, is intimate and homely – according to Linda, the house’s last vestige of her late mother.

It is in the playroom that Johnny and Linda first connect, and first agree that there must be more to life than “to pay bills and pile up more money.” Like Johnny’s “holiday”, “playroom” is an imperfect descriptor for Linda’s refuge in the Seton home. It may have served that function when she, her sister, and their now-alcoholic brother Ned (Lew Ayres) were children, but to the grown-up Linda it’s a potent symbol, one that stands in opposition to everything her resolutely distant father represents. This speaks to Holiday’s fascinating relationship with spoken language: it’s telling that the only words Johnny and Linda have for places untouched by accumulation and conspicuous consumption relate either to childish play or the respite of brief relaxation. But these are only the nearest approximations of their actual desires, the nearest that American capitalist orthodoxy (“the reverence for riches”, as Linda puts it) has equipped either of them with.

Though Julia initially agrees to Linda’s terms for the party, her father quickly dissuades her – New Year’s Eve at the Setons’ goes ahead as a big, swanky, impersonal affair. Naturally, Linda hides herself away in the playroom but, as luck would have it, Johnny’s good friends Nick and Susan Potter (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon) – a married couple of professors – stumble upon her while lost in the sprawling mansion. Nick and Susan represent the kind of future Johnny and Linda might find together – they’re worldly, learned, but not without a sense of humour. They’re not the sort of characters (older, academic, bohemian) who would typically be presented as aspirational in a film of the period, but here they are unequivocally positioned as such – Linda is immediately besotted with both of them.

The trio are then joined by Johnny and Ned, and this “gathering of very unimportant people” gets into full swing. Johnny has just netted a deal that will bankroll his holiday, and he and Linda mark the occasion with an impromptu acrobatic show (one of the film’s most enchanting moments). The sense of fun in this sequence is downright infectious – the chemistry between all the actors is terrific but, needless to say, Grant and Hepburn are especially electric. But, unfortunately, Julia and her father soon crash the party-within-the-party. 

Johnny decides to take this rather inopportune moment to inform his fiancé and father-in-law of his early retirement plans. Both are horrified. Linda is reduced to tears after being dressed down by her father and is finally left alone with her wayward brother – she contemplates whether or not to join him in a life of perpetual drunkenness. Despite its light touch, Holiday has dark depths. Linda’s omnipresent “headaches” are euphemistically referred to, suggesting an ongoing battle with depression. Ned’s alcoholism is played for laughs at first, but the depths of his despair become unmistakable as the film unfolds (the pathos is only compounded by the character’s queer-coding). 

While other films of the period might tritely concede that money doesn’t bring happiness (often after having luxuriated in luxury), Holiday articulates this point forcefully, and throughout. But the question remains: what exactly would Johnny do on his holiday? What would Linda see if she came with him? The film will not (or cannot) tell us. But in this absence of specificity, we can infer any number of desired awakenings, whether they be spiritual, political, or even sexual. Whatever it is that Johnny and Linda need, they will have to leave the Seton mansion, America, and even the limits of the film frame in order to find it. In this sense, Holiday functions as a kind of critique of the Hays Office – perhaps the most damning that was ever made, within the code’s restrictions. 

Holiday is about as radical as a Hollywood film of the 1930s could be, but not so radical as to forgo a happy ending. Of course, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn get together – onboard a cruise ship to France no less – but their well-earned kiss doesn’t really feel like the end of anything, the way most do. It’s not conclusive or prescriptive, their happiness isn’t entirely secure. It’s an Old Hollywood denouement through and through – but one you can believe in, and all the more poignant for its honesty. Maybe Johnny and Linda will never find what they’re looking for, but at least now they’re looking together. 

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