Viewer Guide: Holiday and Ladies in Black

October 11, 2019 | Richard Peña

Holiday (1938)


This week’s classic is the delightful 1938 romantic comedy Holiday, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and directed by George Cukor.

Holiday is one of playwright Philip Barry’s two most successful and best remembered plays, the other being The Philadelphia Story, which also provided Katharine Hepburn with another one of her most memorable roles. Adapted for the movies by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, Holiday dramatizes one of Barry’s recurring themes in the person of Johnny Case, played by Cary Grant, whose reluctance to sacrifice his quest for personal fulfillment in favor of the money-making ambitions of the American Dream goes against grain of the prevailing establishment.

While vacationing in Lake Placid, Johnny falls in love with Julia Seton, played by Doris Nolan, but upon returning to New York he is amazed to discover that she is the daughter of the wealthy banker Edward Seton, played by Henry Kolker. Securing Mr. Seton’s permission for Julia’s hand in marriage is not a simple matter, but Johnny finds an unexpected ally in Julia’s free-spirited older sister Linda, a role tailor made for Hepburn. Also providing the limited help that he can is Linda and Julia’s alcoholic younger brother Ned, played by Lew Ayres, whose paid his own high price for clashing with his father. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon are on hand as Johnny’s eccentric friends Nick and Susan Potter. And with George Cukor at the helm, a most delightful cinematic holiday is in store for all.

Katharine Hepburn had understudied the role of Linda in the 1928 Broadway production of Holiday, but went on stage only once in the part. However, Holiday’s director George Cukor had spotted Hepburn’s singular screen presence ever since casting her in her first film in 1932, A Bill of Divorcement, starring John Barrymore. Yet despite her early Hollywood success, by the time of Holiday’s release in 1938, Hepburn was still soldiering through her “Box Office Poison” period after a series of badly received films. Although Holiday was a critical success, the box office was lackluster—it seems Depression-era audiences weren’t especially interested in the story of a man who tosses away the opportunity to have it all in order to “find himself” instead—that sort of story wouldn’t really be in vogue until the late 1960s. It wasn’t until Hepburn reteamed with Philip Barry on Broadway for The Philadelphia Story—and bought the movie rights with the help of Howard Hughes—that her film career would take flight again, once more with her longtime friend George Cukor behind the camera.

Ladies in Black (2018)


This week’s indie is Ladies in Black, a nostalgic 2018 comedy-drama directed by Bruce Beresford.

Adapted from the novel by Madeleine St. John, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 at the fictitious “Goode’s Department Store,” a high-end retailer catering to the upscale post-war clientele of Sydney, Australia. The “ladies in black” of the title are the all-female sales clerks, unobtrusively dressed in black to avoid upstaging the merchandise while retaining an understated air of elegance. Entering into this refined world with its unspoken code of conduct is Leslie Miles, a naïve 16 year-old played by Angourie Rice who’s been hired to help out during the Christmas rush. A bookish only child trying to negotiate her father’s approval to apply for a scholarship to the University of Sydney, Leslie is pressed into service to assist Fay and Patty, two established sales women played by Rachael Taylor and Alison McGirr, both of whom are coping with their own after-hours personal issues. For Fay, despite her classic Grace Kelly beauty, her romantic life seems to have mysteriously stalled; and as for Patty, her husband’s frequent absences have begun to take a toll on her marriage. But the reigning Queen Bee of ladies evening wear is the commanding Magda, a Hungarian refugee played by Julia Ormond, who wears her European flair like the latest Dior gown. Ignoring the grumbled objections about Magda’s “immigrant” status, Leslie blossoms under her tutelage, creating a new identity for herself as she begins to emerge from her ugly duckling phase of adolescence.

Also featured in supporting roles are Vincent Perez as Magda’s husband, and Ryan Corr as another Hungarian expat looking to start a new life “down under.”

The director of such high profile critical and box office successes as Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Australian director Bruce Beresford had long sought to adapt Madeleine St. John’s 1993 novel for the movies, having been a friend of St. John’s at the University of Sydney. Already adapted into a successful Australian stage musical in 2015, the novel’s fictitious “Goode’s Department Store” was modeled after such actual Sydney retailers as the Mark Foys and David Jones department stores. Infused at times with perhaps a too-good-to-be-true nostalgic glow, Ladies in Black nonetheless registers some quiet observations on the growing consciousness among the women of their social status along with an awareness of immigrant rights, two issues that remain very much at the forefront of contemporary life. And any Marvel Comics fans watching may recognize young Australian star Angourie Rice from her recurring role in the latest Spider Man reboot, starring Tom Holland.

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