Very busy with deadlines and trying to keep a roof over our head, so no Raiders of Ghost City recap this week. It should return after the holiday weekend. Thanks for your patience. This post will self destruct in a few days.
Last week on Raiders of Ghost City! Steve follows a trail that leads to Rackerby, a coffee company owner in San Francisco who is also a member of the nefarious gold raiders. After falling into a trapdoor and letting someone else defeat Rackerby, Steve rifles through the dead guy’s stuff and finally discovers — finally — that the gold raiders are actually Prussians. When Steve returns to Oro Grande, he sets up a trap to uncover the mole he suspects is hanging around the Wells Fargo office, feeding info to the Prussians. The trap doesn’t work at first but then does, and Bill, the stage driver, is caught. The baddies want to get to Bill before Steve tortures him with blandness and forces him to talk, so they kidnap Cathy and propose a prisoner exchange. Steve goes to rescue Cathy, but while he tries to untie her, a henchman sneaks up on him with a knife! Stabby-stabby motions are made! Did Steve survive? Let’s find out.
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Bill is being questioned by Col. Sewell and another guy we’ve never seen before, the deputy sheriff, whose name I didn’t catch but I can only assume is Dirk Downtrodden. Bill insists he’s not a traitor, he’s a Prussian, therefore can’t technically betray the United States. It’s presented as a warning to all in the audience who may not know just how sneaky and low-down Germans really are, and a little “loose lips sink ships” propaganda is thrown in for good measure.
Just in case the presence of Dirk Downtrodden wasn’t enough of an indicator, Idaho Jones arrives just as Col. Sewell was leaving to deal with a tense situation with a tribe of Modoc Indians nearby. When everyone asks where Idaho has been since he apparently just wandered off after helping to apprehend Bill, he explains: “Chasing bull-bats! Always do, this time of night!”
Waldorf here is rightly angry with him, while Doc stands straight as a board with a Frankenstare on his face, never blinking. Never. Blinking. I guess the mescaline has finally kicked in, folks.
Idaho is reminded that big doin’s are going on around here and rides off to find Steve, who is, as you will remember from last week’s episode, about to get stabbed while saving Cathy. But the serial cheats because the serial has no honor, and just as the guy who brought a knife to a gun fight is about to stab down…
Bull-Bat Jones shoots him dead.
The trio ride away from the henchmen, but riding double slows them down, so Steve climbs up the same tree he hung by the armpits from back in Chapter 6 and perches, waiting for the slowest, dimmest henchman to pass underneath him.
That henchman would be Harmon, a little guy we never really get to see because Steve straight up jumps on his head, kicks him a little and steals his horse. None of the other henchmen notice Harmon is gone except Braddock, and Rawhide just shrugs and says whatevs, the guy is always tired, he’ll show up sooner or later. He never does. Thus Harmon the Henchman is forgotten, forever lagging behind, forever laying under Prop Tree #17.A with a kicked head and no horse.
Steve peels outta there on his stolen supercharged horse of speed, but by the time he arrives at the Wells Fargo, he’s casually tying the horse down and walkin’ in like he ain’t got a care in the world. Every time one of the good guys escapes from the baddies, they just saunter into the Fargo like this is a game of fucking Tag and as long as they get to their home base, they’re fine. And the henchmen act this way too, never once going into the Wells Fargo, with the exception of Trina who has more guts than the rest of raiders combined. So Steve moseys happily into the Wells Fargo…
Where Doc and Waldorf have been standing ever since Bull-Bat Jones scurried out of the building a few hours earlier, trying to catch up to the plot. Doc informs Steve that Col. Sewell has returned from the Modoc village and an uprising is imminent, which complicates the matter of trying to find the raiders before they ship their ill-gotten gold out of the country.
Meanwhile, Bill. Remember Bill? Yeah, the bad guys can’t exchange Cathy for Bill anymore since they lost Cathy, which is pretty sad since she’s not so small she’ll just fall out of your pocket or anything. Alex Morel concocts a plan to send Bill some poison food to kill him dead before he can talk. Now, that’s just silly. No one in the Wells Fargo is going to let a stranger come in with food for their prisoner
oh wait, I forgot who I was talking about. Everyone walks into the room and sees Bill pulling a whole Rose For Emily deal by dying during dinner, and deputy sheriff Dirk Downtrodden, standing right next to him, never noticed. Rest in peace, Statler-Bill. We never liked you and don’t give a damn that you croaked while eating poison beans.
Steve gets his friends in on the corpse-robbing act and they all start rifling through Bill’s old room.
They discover another 1752 coin, and eventually piece together the story: Cathy’s dad, dead before the serial began, had discovered Bill was a Prussian, but Bill killed him and planted a 1752 coin on him to make investigators believe he was one of the raiders. Then Bill apparently stole someone else’s coin, a guy who, per the code book stolen out of the deceased Rackerby’s belongings, is named Frederick Lanz. I don’t know who that is, and neither does the IMDb, so we’ll disregard it. Not important; moving on.
After briefly considering leaving because the crime he was investigating, the death of Cathy’s dad, was now solved, Idaho decides to stay and help Steve find the Prussians. They discover the tapped telegraph line in Bill’s closet, and Idaho knows immediately he doesn’t have to bother digging it up, it goes right to the Golden Eagle.
Which is why in the very next scene we see Idaho digging up the telegraph line to see where it leads.
This unsurprisingly gives the bad guys time to pack up their Deep Dark Lair of Telegraphy and hatch another brilliant scheme: Have Braddock and the boys rob the Golden Eagle so Alex and Trina can claim they had no idea that the raiders were using it as a meeting place, no sir, not them.
During this entire damn serial, the henchmen have refused to do sensible things like go into the Wells Fargo to get that nosey Steve guy, claiming that they have regular lives and jobs and can’t be outed as raiders. They even made a big deal of Rawhide’s face being seen by the good guys, meaning he won’t be able to work in town anymore, now that everyone knows he’s a raider, which they couldn’t tell despite the big fringey unique jacket he wears everywhere identifying him as well as his face ever would. But seeing their faces was a problem… and yet, here they are in kerchiefs. Kerchiefs that hide their faces! What a grand idea, and a solution to so many problems they have had over the last nine chapters! Well, I’m glad that’s settled.
Okay, so the henchmen, who we just discovered really are smart enough to learn things, begin fake robbing the Golden Eagle.
All they really do is shoot guns randomly and tip tables over and cause a scene, while Rawhide grabs the satchel allegedly full of money and tries to make off with it.
Bull-Bat over here shoots out the lanterns because why not, but kudos to the producers for finally having a photo on the lobby cards that matches the episode it goes with. Meanwhile Steve runs upstairs, because why not. He sees Rawhide with the important luggage outside a window, so once again just jumps right on top of a henchman’s head.
Trina, once again proving smarter and braver than anyone else in this sordid Prussian gold affair, shoots the shit out of both of them down below.
Who will survive? Probably Trina, but I can’t guarantee anyone else in this serial is smart enough to not eat poison beans or shoot themselves in the foot while tying their shoes.
Last week on Raiders of Ghost City! Both the secret Prussians and our ostensible heroes are on a search for luggage! Specfically, the bags belonging to head bad guy and now dead guy Von Rinkton, known far and wide as Der Dinkerplatz ¹, which they believe contains vital information about the gold raiders. The Prussians are afraid Der Dinkerplatz had documents that will reveal them as, er, Prussians, while Capt. Steve and Idaho Joe are looking for any information at all about the gang. The luggage turns out to reveal nothing, but a business card for a coffee company in San Francisco was on Der Dinkerplatz’s person, so Steve decides to take a trip. Meanwhile, someone has been feeding info to the Prussians, and when they learn Steve is off to San Fran, Trina rushes to get there before him and inform Rackerby at the coffee company of what’s going on. When Steve arrives, we learn through his attempt to fool Rackerby that these 1752 European coins we keep finding on corpses can be opened to reveal a short code which matches up with names in a code book, thus identifying the holder. Unfortunately, Steve has already been identified as a good guy, so Steve obligingly walks onto an obvious trap door that Coffee Man springs open. Steve falls! What will happen next?
Thanks to the magic known as the intertubes, you can follow along with Raiders of Ghost City here.
Sure, this episode has the same title as an epically bad 1987 action movie starring Sharon Stone, Brad Davis and Jonathan Banks, but I can promise you before watching even a frame of Chapter Nine that it will never, ever be as awesome. And we know this because…
Yeah. Again, serial, and please listen to me this time: The good guys don’t know it’s Prussians yet! They don’t!
The appearance of the chinbeards confirms this: The soldier has just brought word that Steve is investigating Rackerby, and neither know who Rackerby is, so they sure as hell have no idea Prussians are behind the gold thefts, which stopped back in Chapter One but we’re going to pretend like we don’t know that.
Oh, and this is interesting: Chinbeard on the left is a senator, while the one on the right, the one made to look like Lincoln, is known as “Fesserman.” The soldier pronounces this in such a way as to sound like “president,” all while “Hail to the Chief” is playing. But why? Why did they create a Lincoln-esque stand in and then change him to Fesserman the bureaucratic chinbeard? Oy.
Back at the coffee company, Trina and Rackerby act as though Steve is already dead, even though he just fell a few feet through a trapdoor and is now being held by a burly sailor.
Trina leaves, thinking Steve is dead, and Rackerby quickly decides to question Steve before killing him, which turns out great for the bad guys because it gives Steve time to beat the sailor, plus some government agents show up, I assume sent by chinbeards, the same ones who had never heard of Rackerb but apparently know all about him now.
Just look at that: The throw rug wasn’t even covering the trapdoor! How could Steve have fallen for that? The guy must be as dull as a unassembled particle board furniture. The Feds take Rackerby out while Steve comes out of his hole and starts rifling through Rackerby’s desk, because that is all he does, rifle through the belongings of the recently deceased. He and a Fed find more 1752 coins and the code book and finally figure out the bad guys are Prussians.
So the writers crack open their seventh grade history books again and lay some sweet European trivia on us: In 1752, Prussian King Frederick the Great composed his political testament, which Raiders tells us outlines his plan to take over the world. In truth, it was more about the reunification of Prussia after the Partitions. What’s important to note, however, is Frederick makes some clear antisemitic remarks in his Testament politique, thus it’s invoked here as another example of Prussians being used as stand-ins for modern day Nazis. Whether this is deliberate studio-funded propaganda or not, I don’t know, though the fact that the Testament politique wasn’t published until 1920, over 50 years after the events shown in Raiders, makes me concerned that it’s some deliberate retconning on the part of Universal in an effort to push forward the “See, Germans was always evil, they was” trope.
When Steve returns to Oro Grande, Alex sees them and knows something is up, what with Steve not being dead and all. He pulls Trina from the saloon to ask about what happened, and she shrugs it off, as we all do when someone we’re sure is dead comes walking back into our lives. She assures him Steve couldn’t have gotten any information from Rackerby’s, though we know that’s not true, but the bad guys don’t realize it yet.
The discussions between Trina, Alex and assorted Prussian bad guys are always the same: Someone comes into the saloon where Trina is playing piano, they sneak off together to Alex’s office in the back, and either talk there or go down the secret door to the Lair of the Telegraph Monster and talk. Their discussion is usually recaps of what we already know. It’s boring. It’s the same camera set up, same blocking, Trina even has the same plaid dress most of the time, and most of all it completely undermines any menace the bad guys could possibly have had.
Back at the Wells Fargo, the Union Colonel Sewell has returned to help Steve, perhaps under the orders of the chinbeards, but we do not know. Steve is sure there is a mole in the Wells Fargo office, and the suspects are the only two people it could possibly be: Statler and/or Waldorf.
These two are actually Bill (Ernie Adams), a stagecoach driver, seen on the left and Dan (Joel Friedkin), a telegraph operator, the one on the right. Steve has planned ahead and set up a trap where he goes into the back room, pretends to reveal a secret while talking to the colonel and Idaho, then they jump out of the door to see which one is listening to their discussion.
We then spend time following this mystery traitor around town but only seeing his feet, you know, to keep the mystery mysterious. Unfortunately for all of us, it’s painfully obvious who owns those feet.
Alex suggests to the mystery traitor that they take a 1752 coin and place it in the other guy’s pocket, then they will have Buck shoot the guy dead, thus making Steve think that was the real mole in the Wells Fargo office. Mystery traitor agrees, not knowing that Alex’s true plan is to have Buck shoot the traitor dead instead. Fortunately for him, I suppose, the mystery traitor gets caught before they can get to him:
It’s Bill! Wait, we already figured that out because hurrrr.
Trina sets an ingenious plan into action to try to kill Bill (ha!) before he can talk.
She sends Braddock out to Rock Ridge Rim Rock, then instructs her evil Prussian telegraph operator to pass on a message to Dr. Blair saying that old Mrs. Carmody wants him to stop by. Mrs. Carmody is apparently known for being more lonely than sick, so Doc takes Cathy with him, exactly as Trina had planned. On their way to Mrs. Carmody, Cathy is kidnapped!
Meanwhile, Idaho is off investigating Ghost City, and I only mention this now because it’s the first time we’ve seen Ghost City in quite a while. Raiders of Ghost City, you say?
Doc comes shuffling back to the Wells Fargo to tell Steve that Cathy has been kidnapped, and if you have a moment, I highly recommend watching these few seconds starting here. Doc’s walk is hilarious, Steve’s yelp sounds like genuine “you are so stupid” irritation, and if you watch closely, you can see Dennis Moore’s lips move as Doc says his lines.
Cathy is bound and gagged and kept at an outdoor camp, because what else would you do with a female character other than make her a damsel in distress? Steve sets out and finds her quickly, though while he’s untying her, the henchmen see him. Slowly they all get out their guns without either Steve or Cathy realizing, except this guy, who is the henchman my husband has been waiting nine episodes to see: The guy who brought a knife to a gunfight.
You can see his caricature in the upper left corner of the poster. We end Chapter Nine with this fellow stabbing down at an unaware Steve and Cathy. Will they survive? What will happen next? Are we about to learn the true meaning of fear? Tune in next week to find out!
 Not really.
This week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot feature for The Film Experience is the Katharine Hepburn classic Summertime (1955), directed by David Lean and also starring Rossanno Brazzi, Isa Miranda and Darren McGavin in a small part that gets disproportionately high billing. Summertime is part of their Katharine Hepburn theme week, culminating on Sunday on the anniversary of what would be her 106th birthday.
Legendary cinematographer Jack Hildyard filmed Summertime and the gorgeous Venetian scenes throughout. Many of the scenes are rather pedestrian, almost like a travelogue rather than pure cinema: rarely adventurous but always gorgeous. Hildyard is responsible for some of my favorite cinematography, especially in iffy films like Casino Royale (1967) and Modesty Blaise (1966). There is a strange feel to the framing in Summertime I haven’t seen in other Hildyard films. At first I thought it was just because I’m not used to seeing a 1950s film in Academy ratio as the Criterion Collection disc I rented is in, but then I learned Summertime was probably filmed in 1.85:1. As Bob Furmanek said in that thread last year, director Lean composed in 1.87:1 but protected for 1.37:1. It’s obvious once you see it (not as obvious as in the Plan 9 example they also talk about; that one is so obvious even I noticed it back when I blogged about it); however, the only copy of Summertime I had available was the 1.37:1 Criterion version, so I hope my screencap is acceptable.
Summertime is a bit of a departure for Hildyard, primarily because of his curious habit of filming most of the gorgeous scenery without any of the stars of the film in the frame; all of the beautiful scenery shots are mostly without any humans at all, or tiny ant-like humans from a great distance. In Casino Royale he integrated people into the shot, almost like props, and in Modesty Blaise, he lavished attention on both Vitti and Bogarde. This movie was different, which is why I liked this particular shot so much: It’s no picture postcard shot of a cathedral. That’s an uncredited extra, no one you see except in this brief moment, her nap brilliantly setting up the slow, hot afternoon that Hepburn is about to brave. It’s my favorite shot of the film because it’s so evocative of the moment, and also the most painterly of the shots. The film opens with paintings under the credits, and this is framed, even in probably the wrong aspect ratio, like a Mary Cassatt painting. I love it.
Holiday began life in 1929 as a successful Broadway production. Written by Philip Barry,whose work tended to focus on the upper classes and their isolation from the real, modern world, the play was originally written under the title The Dollar. It was Barry’s second big hit, his first being just two years earlier, and helped cement Barry’s reputation in New York. When Barry was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1932, the accompanying article noted that a new Barry play was a social event, one that would clog streets around theaters from hours thanks to the excess traffic and crowds of fans waiting to catch glimpses of their favorite stars and politicians in the audience. His plays were often comedies of manners, positing that that wealth could not provide the true necessities of life and featured female leads who eschewed their riches, instead looking for a deeper meaning to life; Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, written a decade later, both follow this formula and are his most famous plays.
Hope Williams played older sister Linda on Broadway, and Katharine Hepburn was her understudy. Hepburn would go on to play Linda in the better-known 1938 film version of the play, as well as the lead in both the play and film versions of Philadelphia Story. Hepburn and Barry had careers which intersected frequently in the early 1930s. By 1938, Hepburn was infamously labeled as “box office poison” while Barry also suffered from a hit to his reputation after he lost an infant daughter earlier in the decade; he was writing more macabre plays which did not sell. Hepburn bought out her RKO contract and as a freelancer took to Columbia to do the remake of Holiday, though the film was only a moderate success and was not the comeback the star hoped for. She left for the stage, bought the rights to Philadelphia Story, and finally achieved her comeback.
The first film version of Holiday was not the more famous 1938 version, but one from 1930, starring Ann Harding as Linda, Mary Astor as Julia, Robert Ames as Julia’s fiance Johnny Case, and Monroe Owsley as Julia’s and Linda’s brother Ned. Owsley was the only actor from the original Broadway play to return for the film. (Tangentially, Donald Ogden Stewart, who had played Nick in the original Broadway production of Holiday, wrote the screen adaptation of Philadelphia Story a decade later.)
The 1930 film is a close adaptation of the play, though so much had changed in the two years since it premiered that some modification would have been in order. For instance, Johnny is given the opportunity to take an early retirement, his plan being that he will work later in life after finding himself. This opportunity comes in the form of a savvy stock trade, and indeed, when the play opened on Broadway in November, 1928, it was still feasible for a man like Johnny to have made $20,000 in one good investment. By the time the film opened in July, 1930, it was impossible to believe such a thing, and for a film to rely so much on stocks without mentioning that little thing known as Black Tuesday is an enormous misstep, still obvious over 80 years later.
Regardless, Johnny’s plan is somewhat of a secret to his love Julia. When Holiday opens, Julia (Mary Astor) and Johnny have just arrived at her palatial estate. They’re happy, laughing and obviously in love, but Johnny (Robert Ames) had no idea she came from a rich family. He’s overwhelmed with the idea of being a poor kid who just barely ekes out a living trying to ask the famous businessman Edward Seton (William Holden, the first one, not the Picnic and Network one) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Julia’s older sister Linda (Ann Harding), though, immediately takes a liking to him, pronouncing him as someone who has just brought life into the house, especially once he tells Linda about his early retirement. She promptly starts planning how to pull one over on their father so he will agree to let Julia and Johnny marry.
I make a lot of jokes on SBBN about classic Hollywood actors being bland, though I realize that was, at least in part, an intentional style. Men need only be cool, collected, unemotional, and look nice in a tux or, in the case of Westerns, in tight cowboy duds. The more standout, emotive parts went to women who, historically, had been the bigger Hollywood stars, while the actors were often supporting the solid female roles. That said, Robert Ames is plain old bland, so much so that the idea that he has somehow breathed life into a stuff rich family is impossible to believe. He doesn’t seem free spirited at all, but rather someone who should be a dull vice president of a bank.
Ann Harding is the unquestionable star of the film, and she has a lot of charm and most of the humorous lines — the ones that don’t go to her sullen brother Ned, at any rate — but this film is hard to find and all available prints are so poor that you can’t always hear her properly. I can’t blame it entirely on the print, however, as both Mary Astor and Edward Everett Horton speak quickly but are easily understood despite the sound issues. Much of the problem with Harding is her phrasing, which is incredibly poor. Monroe Owsley as her brother suffers from this problem too. He has the look down pat, so much so that he reminds you of someone like a young Richard E. Grant or Hugh Laurie in one of those modern films set in the 1920s. His delivery is unfortunate, however, as he includes lengthy pauses in sentences at moments which aren’t natural to conversation. Ann at least uses natural phrasing, though exaggerates it. When talking to Johnny about his problems with Julia, for example, Ann delivers the line, “She’s worth… a try… Johnny.” with a full breath at each pause. Her insistence on using a quavery, high-tone voice that becomes more shrill with more emotion means that when she gets upset, she is unintelligible.
Linda does get upset, and often. She is so impressed with Johnny and so heartbroken that her beloved sister Julia will be leaving the house that she insists on having a small, intimate engagement party, one with very few guests. She will plan this herself, and they all toast to the idea.
But one quick jump cut later and we see the party has become one of those 300-people affairs held in a large ballroom with a sturdy floor to support all the heavy gowns, jewels and stuffed shirts. Linda is beside herself, so holes up in her old playroom upstairs with a few friends.
Her reaction is exceptional, more so than it was made to appear in the 1938 Holiday. Hepburn very wisely realized that the dialogue in Ann Harding’s hands became overwrought and outdated, and though her delivery (and even some blocking) in the 1938 remake matches Harding’s more than it properly should, she adds a wry wit — what we would probably call snark nowadays — and never takes herself too seriously. The playroom party is part of that wacky, screwball feel to Linda’s character. In the original film it’s pure, unadulterated regression, the act of a woman who has never had to deal with anything serious in her life and so throws a tantrum when things don’t go her way. She is also revisiting her past, not only wishing things were as they had been as a child, but wondering how her life became so empty and wrapped up in the trappings of wealth.
Her musings are meant to be tempered by the antics of the hipster couple Nick and Susan Potter, played by Edward Everett Horton and Hedda Hopper. Horton would go on to reprise the role, somewhat rewritten, in the 1938 remake. The two tell jokes in that peculiar late-1920s manner, where the joke is really just a wacky story that doesn’t make much sense. The film hits the humor and wit a little hard, by having Linda or Johnny stifle laughs when no real joke was made, or showing some unpaid extra, a maid or a party guest usually, chuckling at the end of the scene to reassure the audience that it was indeed funny. Despite the weak comedy, Eddie Horton is terrific, of course, because the man never gave a bad performance in his life. Hedda is a self-conscious bore, and it’s difficult not to spend the entire scene distracted by Hedda’s antics. She will look like she is just about to wander around when she remembers that the cameras are rolling, then remembers her blocking, and in the middle of someone else’s sentence will suddenly step into place, dip her leg, put her drink in the correct hand and then start listening to the person talking again. It’s bad. It’s MST3K bad.
Nick and Susan are both meant to be examples of the idle rich, and Linda and Julia are both afraid, in different ways, that Johnny Case will become idle himself. Yet the hipster couple are clearly Linda’s best friends, beloved and admired, the kind of people you want at every party. Linda probably, though we are never told, wouldn’t mind if Johnny became idle while “finding himself.” She loathes a business-oriented rich couple that show up every so often, implying that idleness a la Nick and Susan is acceptable to her while becoming a stodgy businessman is not; that said, she makes it clear she doesn’t believe Johnny’s plan is true idleness. It’s probably inconsistent, or would be if her true feelings beyond a sort of mild rebellion against her own wealth were ever revealed.
Julia is never warm to either the business couple or Nick and Susan. Without any real allegiances shown, we’re left to assume that what Julia says is the way she feels. She primarily worries that her husband-to-be will become idle off her money and it will appear that he only married her for her wealth, and truth be told, his weak promise to keep their money separate fails to convince. She doesn’t seem materialistic or insensible most of the time, though it’s obvious that she is meant to be seen as bad, perhaps even evil.
The sisters have a much more pronounced, intense relationship in this first film version of Holiday, and Mary Astor, the star of our blogathon, is miles and away better than Doris Nolan was in the 1938 film. The character is reduced somewhat in the remake, probably to make it easier to believe that Cary Grant (Johnny) was never that serious about Doris Nolan (Julia) in the first place. But Johnny is more than serious about Julia in the 1930 version, and up until about five minutes before the end, they’re embracing and smiling and happy together.
Astor unquestionably gives the best performance in this film. She is modern, strong and capable, and the reason she exhibits while discussing Johnny’s slightly wacky plan completely undermines the claim that being rich is inherently immoral. It’s questionable whether Barry intended such a black-and-white reading of the situation, anyway, as he wrote Julia as frequently protesting against her father pushing for more business than pleasure, though her problem is that she does not protest enough. Further, she and Johnny do agree that he will work for two years and then, if he still wants, take his early retirement. While Harding and Owsley both hammer home the idea that Johnny will be ruined if he’s allowed to become rich through marrying into a high-level job and wealth, Astor lends the situation some much-needed ambiguity, and her performance alone elevates this early talkie above the stodgy stage play almost everyone else in the cast apparently wanted it to be.
In 1930, Mary Astor was at a crossroads in her career. After silents fell out of fashion, she was told her voice was not acceptable for talking pictures and had trouble finding work. She took diction lessons and even trained as a singer, but her voice was deemed too low, even after appearing in the welcome-to-talkies extravaganza The Show of Shows (1929), and she was still relegated to silents as late as 1929. It was only through the efforts of friend Florence Eldridge, stage and screen actress, that Astor was able to secure a stage role that proved her voice was far from unacceptable. Her first real talkie was Runaway Bride (1930, remade in 1999).
Also in 1930 were the films Ladies Love Brutes and, of course, Holiday, though both were somewhat stressful events for Mary. According to author Anthony Slide, Mary Astor hated everything about Ann Harding, her acting, her PR, even her manner. It’s interesting to compare Astor’s solid, unadorned performances of this era with the role she’s most famous for, as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon. Brigid is a high-strung liar, all hand-wringing and drama with a false-high, shaky voice, and Brigid bears more than a passing resemblance to Ann Harding here in Holiday.
Astor reportedly shrugged Harding off as “a piece of shit” during filming and vowed never to work with her again. Mary was well known for her salty language, though more than one story about how she was treated makes her seem less volatile actress and more like someone simply willing to stand up for herself. She once told of a time when publicist Herb Sterne demonstrated, without her permission, that her wavy hair could be tamed for the role of a Spaniard in Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925) by smearing butter into it. Later versions of the story focused on her outburst, though I think most people would let fly with a little justifiable rage if some guy jammed butter onto their heads.
Astor in Holiday gives an almost revelatory performance. Her warm smile early on very subtly becomes a polite, photo-ready society smile by the end of the film. Her voice deepens almost imperceptibly, and her body language changes from fluid to stiff and guarded. This is all undermined a bit by the stagey tricks used, like changing her hair and clothes so noticeably. When she first arrives back at the estate with Johnny in the opening scene, she is in a plain traveling suit and sensible shoes, and eventually graduates to dark, vampy, backless gowns. Linda also undergoes a change, though from a lovely knit ensemble to a dark gown with a modern neckline but overly-modest skirt, and later a hilarious lacy affair meant to make her appear angelic but instead making her look like someone’s grandmother going to a wedding.
The notion that Linda is the “good girl” is made all too clear when she confronts Julia while wearing her 27 layers of lace. Julia dares to walk around her own bedroom in her lacy underthings, powdering her skin and standing up for what she believes in. Harlot!
Holiday was a hit. Astor had proven her voice was in fine form, and her performances in Holiday and Ladies Love Brutes (also 1930) changed studio’s minds. She was offered a contract with RKO, which she ultimately turned down. Her husband had died in a plane crash in early 1930, and about the time Holiday was released in the middle of the year, she suffered a nervous breakdown. A year later in 1931, she married the doctor who treated her during her illness. The marriage infamously imploded a few years later and she was embroiled in scandal when her husband filed for divorce, repeatedly referring to an infamous diary where she detailed some of her extramarital affairs. This scandal fortunately did not hurt her career, and according to some, it actually helped it.
Holiday has a mixed modern-day reputation. A lot of people find it better, or at least equal, to the more famous 1938 version. It is unquestionably dated, however, more so than the remake even though the two films are only eight years apart and both embrace the skeevy idea that sisters are essentially interchangeable — if romance with one doesn’t work out, just try the next one.
The 1930 version uses many of the same techniques as silents, including having characters walk in and stand there for a few seconds, framed by the camera as an obvious introduction; all that’s missing is the little title card:
The staging is stiff with boring blocking, as you can see in the toast above, where the two women are sitting while the two men stand, each on the proper metaphorical side for that particular scene. The cast is wildly uneven, though many films in the very early 1930s suffered from the same issue. Astor’s performance reminds me of Bette Davis’ in Cabin in the Cotton (1932), where the lead Richard Barthlemess was clearly still acting for the silent screen, while Bette flies through the film like a whirlwind, dragging Cabin, protesting, into the modern day. Holiday feels very similar, though is pulled in more directions than the usual confused early talkie. Owsley is sometimes still playing to the back of the theatre, Harding hasn’t yet transitioned her style to talking pictures, while Ames is probably just trying to hold his personal life together enough that he can say his lines without stumbling. Meanwhile Eddie Horton and Mary Astor are already in 1933, embracing the future of film and giving honest, realistic portrayals of complicated characters.
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Expanded and Updated by David Thomson
Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors, Volume 1, edited by Barry Monush
Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies by John DiLeo
Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman by Anne Edwards
Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide by Leonard Maltin
Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Films by Anthony Slide
“The Theatre: Angel Like Lindberg” in Time Magazine, 1932