Winter 2011

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Taking a Holiday

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris told a contemporary story in a classical style in Little Miss Sunshine. So it’s no wonder that George Cukor’s Holiday is a model of a great romantic comedy for them. They explain why the film is so timeless and captivating.


ISN'T IT ROMANTIC: Valerie Faris and Jonathan
Dayton most admire the performances and staging
in Holiday. (Credit: Fox Searchlight/Photofest)

The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris worked in the world of commercials and music videos for two decades before their first feature, Little Miss Sunshine, became an indie comedy smash hit in 2006, nominated for a DGA Award and an Oscar for best picture (back when there were only five of those to go around). Many directors from a similar background bring the flash and pace of their compressed forms to their debut features, but Little Miss Sunshine was a contemporary story told in classical Hollywood style. So it shouldn’t be surprising that George Cukor’s 1938 adaptation of Philip Barry’s play Holiday, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, is a Dayton/Faris favorite.

Although Holiday is considered a minor Hollywood classic, it has been overshadowed other Hepburn/Grant films. Howard Hawks paired the stars in his definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, released the same year. And two years later, Cukor, Hepburn, and Grant returned with another Barry adaptation, The Philadelphia Story, a huge hit that has been enshrined as a major Hollywood classic.

Indeed, Faris and Dayton stumbled upon Holiday only when they showed up for a screening of Bringing Up Baby at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “We really went to see that,” says Dayton, “but Holiday was the first film in the double bill, and to see it on the big screen for the first time with the whole theater” - Faris interjects - “was the perfect way to experience it. And Bringing Up Baby was so anticlimactic after this. We were just blown away.”

As we sit down to watch the film at their home, Faris continues. “We love George Cukor in general. But this movie really stood out to us as a great model for romantic comedies and all that they can do. Its values are so great; I just love what the film is saying. It was such a surprise. It has a lot in common with The Philadelphia Story, but Holiday, in terms of its theme and what it’s saying, had a stronger impact for us.

“We love all the technical stuff, but we didn’t pick this film particularly for its visuals - it’s really the story and the characters. And the direction in terms of the performers, the staging. This film is one of those where it just teaches you a lot.” The story that hooked them goes like this: Johnny Case (Grant), who has worked his way up from a poor background, falls in love with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), during a vacation at Lake Placid.

Holiday 1
Grant is engaged to Doris Nolan, but his father isn't so sure. Here Cukor
takes advantage of physical and spatial dynamics.
(Photo Credit: Photofest.)

When they return to New York City, he is stunned to discover that she is one of the incredibly wealthy and socially prominent Setons. Julia and her father (Henry Kolker) see a great business future for him, but Johnny wants to make just enough money to quit and have fun while he’s still young enough to enjoy it. His worldview is much more in sync with Julia’s sister, Linda (Hepburn), a frustrated free spirit itching to escape the Setons’ restrictive world.

“With romantic comedies, you know who the big stars are, and you know that they will come together, but this film does such a good job of holding the tension about how that’s going to happen... really until the last possible moment.” As the music plays behind the opening credits, Faris notes that - outside of source music created within the story - we’ve just heard the entire score (reprised briefly during the closing credits). “No. 1! You don’t need music when everything else is working.”

The music fades as Johnny exits a taxi, enters an apartment building, and bangs on a door. Cukor cuts to inside, where Johnny’s friends Susan (Jean Dixon) and Nick (Edward Everett Horton) Potter sit quietly and try to ignore the noise. “There’s are instantly told a lot about them and their marriage. They’re both reading, and there are stacks of reading material on the table, so you just know that they’re intellectuals. And their uninterested reaction to the knocking helps give you a sense of them immediately,” Faris says.

When they realize it’s Johnny, they leap up and greet him. Dayton: “Look at the pace. The pace is just unbelievable.” Faris: “Everybody’s talking over each other.” Dayton: “There would be no room for music in the rhythm of this.” Faris: “It’s already like this,” she says, slapping her leg with a rat-a-tat beat.

A huge amount of information is conveyed in two and a half minutes, beyond Johnny’s announcement to the Potters that he’s in love and engaged. “The part they play in the movie is giving us a kind of foundation for Johnny,” Faris says. “You love them. Instantly. You want to be part of that family. Whatever, whoever they are, you know they’re fun. We don’t even know what their relationship to him is. But their world is fun - as opposed to the one we’re about to visit.”

Cary Grant slinks in through the service entrance and spots prodigal son Lew Ayres.

Appropriately, Grant and Hepburn get to know each other in the playroom.

The family turns Hepburn's intimate little party into something entirely different.

“Cukor does really set up those two worlds in such a beautiful way,” Dayton points out. “When we worked with [screenwriter] Michael Arndt on Little Miss Sunshine, he would talk about the internal stakes and the exterior stakes, but also one thing that very few screenwriters address - and it’s one of our favorite issues - the philosophical stakes within a story. And here they immediately set it up about these conflicting ways of seeing life. Of fun and adventure...” says Faris, “versus success, versus consumption. And business and banking,” concludes Dayton.

The scene ends with Johnny saying, “When things get tough, when I’ve got a worry coming, you know what I do?” Grant, a former stage acrobat, then does a full forward flip - without his fedora falling off. It’s all in one shot, making it clear that it’s the star himself. “Look at his energy!” Faris exclaims. “So if you don’t love him by now, walk out of the theater.” “Yeah,” Dayton adds, “change the channel.”

When Johnny arrives at Julia’s mansion, he assumes she must be part of the staff for some rich family, so he enters by the back door. “This coming in through the servants’ quarters is just so brilliant,” Faris notes, “to say who he is and to just set up the class system.” As he is led through corridors to a cavernous foyer, Dayton notices something easy to miss. “Did you just see the way he’s walking behind the butler, and then he adjusts his step to walk in sync with the butler? You’ve got to see that.” We back up a bit and replay it. “There it is. That is so clever.” Pointing out the way that Cukor composes his shots for maximum effect, Faris notes that “most of the film is in medium shots and closeups but for these sequences, Cukor uses an extreme long shot to show Johnny dwarfed by the architecture. It just shrinks him down.”

Johnny finally arrives at the second floor study, where he kills time with another little acrobatic move. “The tension of not meeting the girl yet is such a good decision. As opposed to starting off with her,” observes Dayton.

Julia finally arrives. “Once you see her, you know they’re just not right for each other,” says Faris, instantly reading the character. “The way she talks. Everything about her says ‘well-bred.’” Johnny compares the room to Grand Central Station and yells to test the echo; Julia’s expression is not one of amusement. “She’s actually humorless,” says Faris. “And it’s interesting, she’s not gorgeous, so you don’t even have that. Oh, of course, we heard him tell the Potters he loves her dimples, and she’s so much fun, but Cukor never shows us any of that; from the moment she first appears, the film is suggesting that Johnny’s view of her is a fantasy.

“That, for me, is the hardest thing about this movie: You never really do get to see the love between them. It doesn’t exist in the movie.”

“No,” Dayton adds. “That’s something you just have to accept, not having the opening scene of them on holiday, you just have to assume that something happened there that made them fall in love,” says Dayton. Pausing for a moment, Dayton asks, “Do you know the story about the original opening scene? The whole scene in the snow that Cukor shot and hated and they cut out? As a filmmaker, I love that he realized that wasn’t necessary. And he just took it out. That way you start with a much stronger beat of Johnny coming in the service entrance.” (Later we watch the one extra on the DVD, which shows productions stills - all that remains of the missing Lake Placid scene.)

Shortly thereafter, Johnny meets Julia’s discontented siblings, Linda and Ned (Lew Ayres). Linda spends a lot of time alone in her old playroom; and Ned’s refuge from family expectations is alcohol. “Ayres is so great here,” Faris says. “He’s just this dark figure. I mean, he’s wounded - figuratively and literally,” she adds, pointing out the bandage on his forehead from an alcoholic stumble the night before. “He provides a lot of humor, but it’s never without this feeling of doom.”

In the playroom, Johnny explains his philosophy - retire young and work old. “So the philosophical stakes, in terms of where he’s coming from, just could not be more clear,” suggests Dayton. “That really is the reigning concept. It’s always amazing to me how many films just flatly state it. But I don’t feel violated here. There’s an elegance to it.”

When Hepburn and Grant finally get together, Cukor
makes the ending inevitable, but still surprising.

“Well, their conversation is very light,” Faris adds. “The tempo of it, the quality of her questioning. Even though they’re talking about incredibly important life issues, it’s tossed around in a very comfortable way. And it’s set in the playroom.”

Johnny tentatively passes muster with father and it’s agreed that the engagement will be announced on New Year’s Eve. Julia promises Linda she can plan the party - “just a few people, just Johnny’s friends and Julia’s... and up in the old playroom. No formalities, no white ties, no engraved invitations...”

As the last words are being spoken, the camera dollies in on Linda’s face and Cukor dissolves to an engraved invitation and then to the foyer, filled filmmaking,” Dayton says, “just helping along, doing something the play can’t.”

During the engagement party, the drunken Ned bitterly describes the family’s dynamics to Johnny, in the presence of an increasingly appalled Julia. “The dialogue is delivered so beautifully,” marvels Faris. “The kind of ease with which they say all of this. The pace and the kind of dense information you get. It’s not just exposition, you get so much character in it. But it never feels forced. It’s just all coming through character.” Faris also notes that the lighting is more striking here than in most of the film. “It’s darker, with half of Ned’s face in shadow.” Dayton points out the claustrophobia of the scene within the chaotic, crowded party, “They’re literally in a corner.”

Before the night is over, Johnny realizes that Julia’s view of their future is totally at odds with his. Right after the engagement is announced, he flees through the kitchen, leaving the same way he entered at the beginning. Linda chases after him, but she’s too late. Here Dayton notices something right before the scene fades: Cukor, who has used almost no forward camera movement throughout, marks a major “act” break by dollying in to a poignant close-up of Hepburn. Through all of this, the movement, the positions, and the framing Johnny. Dayton says, “I know that the tendency is for directors to talk about how, ‘here I did it in a two-shot’ or ‘look at the coverage.’ And coverage is of course an issue, but what’s important with Cukor is the staging - the staging and the rhythms and the distances. The entrances and the way they work around the room, around the objects. The way they touch each other. The way they walk.”

“With each of these characters,” Faris adds, “their movements and the way they move tells you who they are. As great as the dialogue is, you could probably watch this movie without sound and know who these people are. It sometimes feels like people don’t take advantage of these aspects of film as much as they could - the physical and spatial dynamics. All these things that are there for you that so often are lost or neglected. And for the actors, it’s got to be more fun to work physically.”

Near the end, Johnny returns, ready to compromise, but realizes it would be a mistake. He leaves to join the Potters on their way to Europe. At the boat, Linda shows up just in time to run off with them. “We love that sort of conclusion,” says Faris, still delighting in the ending no matter how many times she’s seen it. “Inevitable, but surprising at the same time. It’s so satisfying when a character finally does something you’ve wanted them to do throughout the whole film, but you didn’t know how they were going to get there. That kind of ending is always, for us, thrilling.”

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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