Monday, July 06, 2009

Movie Review: Last Holiday

This, the original 1950 British version, features recently established star Alec Guinness in the role of a George Bird, a mild-mannered, kind-hearted farm equipment salesman who cashes in his life savings, quits his monotonous job, and sets out on a trip with the intention of spending the last days of his life at a posh hotel in an exclusive resort town. Having been informed by a doctor that he has a terminal illness and that his demise is only a few weeks away, Bird aims to live lavishly for the first time in his life. However, upon arriving he finds that the particulars and ironies of wealth and privilege, especially evident in the form of his fellow hotel guests are far more complicated and thorny than he could have ever imagined. By the film's conclusion, Bird recognizes that the strict English class system still very much in force in those days hems everyone in, regardless of station, and is comprised of a variety of ridiculous unwritten rules that no one questions, though they frequently complain about its limitations. As an unintended man of mystery who reveals few details about himself up front, he quickly becomes gossip fodder among the guests who have nothing better to do than to idly speculate about his true identity. This fact is a wholly justified swipe at every person staying at the resort, regardless of class, and is meant as much for we, the viewers, as for they the players in the picture itself.

The film's screenwriter, J. B. Priestley, was an unapologetic Socialist who help found the progressive Common Wealth Party, and once was considered so far left that even liberal author George Orwell believed he was a clandestine Communist. In Last Holiday, the emphasis on class conflict and an unwavering sympathy towards the working classes clearly shows Priestley's hand. Furthermore, in a particularly interesting scene towards the end of the film, the hotel staff goes on strike, forcing the upper crust guests to perform each and every one of the menial chores that would have been otherwise performed by the workers. Based on prior conduct, the audience fully anticipates that many, if not all of these silver-spoon blue-bloods would stubbornly balk at the task before them, and while it is true that some express indignation at first, once engaged in the matter, they find an unexpected common purpose and unifying solidarity in the act itself. Bird spearheads the effort, and with his new found acceptance among the guests acquires full participation. This scene could scarcely be more idealistic and socialistic.

Even so, the sainted working class doesn't come off looking flawless, either. Bird is frequently subject to a kind of sneering, condescending treatment at the hands of workers who assume automatically that since he has the money to stay at such a posh place that he must certainly share the snooty prejudices of wealthy people as well. Their loathing of all things bourgeois creates caustic treatment and resentful conversation. For example, Bird borrows an expensive car from a rich guest and, after cheerily proclaiming a hello to a lorry driver, draws a particularly scathing reply dripping with sour grapes and envy. Earlier in the film, when making the most innocuous of comments, he receives the same kind of reply from workers who are designing a room to reflect the exacting specifications of a selfish, greedy doctor. Though the film's loyalties are clearly with the toilers rather than the commanders, Last Holiday asserts firmly that unfounded and ill-placed anger, while perhaps understandable based on years of inequality, are often just as unfairly judgmental and unreasonable as the cultural elitism practiced by the upper class characters.

Yet, though the flaws of the so-called common people are at times unfair, they are nothing compared to the obnoxiously cold behavior of their social superiors. Bird quickly finds he has more in common with the lower class hired help and with a new money East Ender than any of the upper class society members. Paradoxically, though, Bird also is entranced by the overtures of fortune and employment dangled in front of him by those highest up the food chain. Assuming that he must certainly be one of them, they aim to drag him into their exclusive club which if fully devoid of social inferiors. The old adage, "it takes money to make money" might, in this film, be written into stone as a law unto itself. Of all the stinging criticisms of the moneyed elite, this is the most damning of all. Bird recognizes with deep frustration that in order to be an influential force, even for good, one must be born into luxury. When presumed to be a member of the Old Boy Network, lucrative business deals fall into his lap, politicians take his views seriously, appointments to high ranking government positions are offered, and suggestions to modify labor-saving farm inventions are acknowledged and eagerly agreed to be incorporated into subsequent models.

Upward mobility alone is no solution, a concept which is illustrated by the presence of the wealthy cockney and his wife, who though they are very rich, are still considered neither worthy nor fitting of a seat at the table. Much of this treatment results from the fact that the man and his wife make no pretenses to disguise their lowly roots, and particularly so because both refuse to change their accents or their mannerisms to sound and seem more dignified. Bird does, however, make a strong impact on at least one woman of high society, who through his kindness and generosity is given reason to question her earlier baseless, cavalier characterization of the vile nature of common folk. In this respect, his trip might be considered a huge success, though it needs to be acknowledged too that he only manages, purely in leading by example, to win over two or three influential fellow guests to a new mindset. Most of the smart set either refuse to contemplate their own complicit hand in the system or never really bother to contemplate the matter long enough to seriously want to change their long-established point of view on the matter.

As the film draws to its conclusion, it eventually becomes known to all of the gossipy guests, both rich and poor, of Bird's true station and his real reason for taking a holiday. At first, the rich celebrate his talents and ingenuity with wild enthusiasm. The poorer individuals, particularly the staff, appreciate his sincerity and abject refusal to act as though he was better than they. Yet, by the end of the movie, when it appears that Bird has committed a social slight by not showing up at a dinner party thrown in his honor, the upper class guests are the first to turn against him and demean his character, while those with working class backgrounds or status as commoners still hold him firmly in high esteem. This, the last of many scenes of a movie with a deliberate emphasis on class conflict and unabashed social commentary, might be the most important to ponder.

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