Try this one on for size in the bad-luck show-biz department. You’re a successful Broadway actor in the 1920s. The movie business comes calling. You land roles of increasing prominence. The talkies arrive and it’s found that your voice is more than adequate for leading man status (at a time when other leading men were, thanks to their voices, becoming former leading men). You land the plum role–the male lead–in an adaptation of a major drawing room comedy hit by one of Broadway’s leading dramatists Phillip Barry. Starring with you is the immensely popular Ann Harding and the new but very promising ingenue Mary Astor. The movie’s a hit! And then two really bad things happen. One is you die a year later of delirium tremens caused by sudden cessation of heavy alcohol use. The other is that seven years later the movie is remade and the actor who takes your part is Cary Grant, redefining the image of the male lead in sophisticated comedy and rendering your performance in the first version all but meaningless for the ages.
Thus the story of Robert Ames, the star of the 1930 version of ‘Holiday’. Yesterday, while pleasantly snowed in, we watched the 1938 Grant/Hepburn/Cukor version for the umpteenth time and, as always, it didn’t disappoint. Charming, worldly and beautifully crafted, it tops–for me anyway–‘The Philadelphia Story’ as a sterling example of a genre now long defunct known as ‘high comedy’ (Barry, along with S. N. Behrman was its most successful practitioner). I knew there was an earlier film version and even remembered finding it once on YouTube but blowing past it–the print was unwatchably bad and anyway who needs to see a rough draft of a classic? Except that yesterday, after watching the film, I decided to take another glance at the so-called ‘rough draft’ and discovered that an incredibly immaculate print–truly mint–has found its way to the on-line world. We watched it. And while it ain’t no Hepburn-Grant ‘Holiday’ it’s a beautiful piece of early sound drawing room comedy filmmaking. Ann Harding plays Katherine Hepburn (and very well, though quite differently), Mary Astor plays Doris Nolan (perhaps even a bit better than Nolan?), Edward Everett Horton plays himself playing Mr. Potter (a role he would reprise in the 1938 version) and Hedda Hopper, of all people, plays his wife (later played by Susan Dixon). The sets are as lavish as the later version, the pacing surprisingly brisk for an early talkie and, while the play hasn’t been ‘opened up’ to the extent that the later version has, it doesn’t feel uncomfortably stage-bound. By which I mean: it is most certainly stage-bound but that’s part of its charm, not its limitation. The problem with the film, alas, is Robert Ames. He was simply not a leading man and his Johnny Case/Cary Grant is never convincingly real as a renegade who tests the waters of marrying into wealth only to give it all up for freedom (and the other, cooler sister). It’s no use comparing poor Ames to Cary Grant–he didn’t know what was coming down the pike and Grant wasn’t technically a ‘hard act to follow’ since Ames was in fact preceding him. I’ve posted this version of the film above. Okay, probably none (or only a few) of you are actually going to watch the whole thing…but I urge you to watch a few minutes, skip through it, find some other moments that you’ll find directly parrot the later version (the play’s dialogue was strong enough not to require revision for either version) and in general see what it feels like to be in a theater watching a Broadway play in the past. It will most likely make you hunger for the later classic version, but it’s also a very worth artifact on its own, one well worth examining and even admiring.