Director: Henry Cass
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As some of you know, I decided to celebrate my 55th birthday by throwing a party at which I would show a film from the year of my birth—1955. My friends Mike Phillips and Julian Antos at the Bank of America Cinema opened the theatre to me and offered their projection services, and Julian and I went to work to secure The Ladykillers, an absolutely perfect comedy to give to my friends. After six months of searching, we could not lay hands on a print of the film. With only two weeks until the party, I approached the Chicago Film Archives and chose from their collection a film from 1950 that at least shared a star with The Ladykillers—Alec Guinness. I had already purchased the 1955 Daffy Duck cartoon Stork Naked, with an appropriate birth-related theme, to start the show, so I felt comfortable going a little outside the parameters I’d set for myself. While expecting more comedy than I got, I found in this underappreciated little gem a good lesson for living that accorded quite well with my time of life, a somewhat somber reminder to live each day as though it were your last.
The film opens in a clinic, with one Dr. Pevensey (Ronald Simpson) examining X-rays. George Bird’s (Guinness) brings a sad furrow to the doctor’s brow, and he calls George in from the crowded waiting room to tell him he has Lampington’s disease and that his life can be measured in mere weeks. George, deeply depressed by this diagnosis and made aware by the doctor’s questions about family that he’s quite alone in the world, leaves the clinic in a daze. He quits his job as a farm machinery salesman, even after his boss offers higher and higher wage increases to keep him—another reminder of how he’s been cheated not just of a long life, but in the life he’s been leading.
Not knowing what else to do with himself, George cashes in everything of value and empties his savings account, intending to take a suite at the best hotel in a posh English resort town and live the high life at the last. Before he leaves, he is waylaid by the owner of a second-hand store who has just acquired a load of Saville Row suits from an estate sale that he divines are a perfect fit for George. Thus outfitted like a swell, George is able to check into the Regal looking the part of a man of substance, even if he prefers drinking beer to wine or brandy.
From this point on, Last Holiday proceeds like a largely stagebound play that combines aspects of screenwriter J. B. Priestley’s own accusatory play of eerie “coincidences,” An Inspector Calls, and Grand Hotel (1932), based on a play by William A. Drake. Like Grand Hotel, Priestley populates his hotel with contrasting types—a crass, shady businessman and his wife with the “common” names of Joe and Daisy Clarence (Sid James and Jean Colin); an attractive, well-bred couple living beyond their means, Sheila and Derek Rockingham (Beatrice Campbell and Brian Worth); an elderly aristocrat, Lady Oswington (Muriel George), and her paid companion Miss Fox (Esma Cannon); a cabinet minister (Campbell Cotts) and his aide (Brian Colton); and Chalfont (Wilfrid Hyde-White), the inventor of one of the machines George has been selling. The Greek chorus of the play is Mrs. Poole (Kay Walsh), the head housekeeper who is a shrewd judge of character, correctly assessing George as a common man who is having a blowout—perhaps an inheritance from a rich aunt. She keeps him apprised of hotel intrigues and develops a motherly sort of crush on him.
As can only happen in a play, and especially one written by Priestley, George turns out to have the answers to the problems of most of the guests with whom he interacts. He is able to tell Chalfont about a design flaw in the plow he sells that the inventor can then work on resolving, thereby renewing his interest in his work. His ideas about boosting England’s agricultural industry lead to an offer of a government post from the cabinet minister. He gives the Rockinghams money to settle their debts and get back on their feet—money he won by being extraordinarily lucky in a poker game organized by Joe Clarence, a card sharp himself. George even has a fairly chaste flirtation with Sheila Rockingham, one she instigated to wheedle money out of him but that turns into genuine affection that gives the bachelor a taste of romance before the end.
The deus ex machina of the film is the arrival of Sir Trevor Lampington (Ernest Thesiger), who declares from one look at George that he does not have the disease Lampington discovered. From this point on, the film moves with a zeal that is positively bracing after the funereal tone and foreshadowings of death, such as the appearance of a hearse, that preceded it. Rather than only the “fiddler on the roof” lament of a street violinist (David McCallum) scoring the film, joyful orchestral flourishes accompany a rejuvenated George, who sees that the opportunities he has been turning down throughout the film are now there for the taking.
But Priestley sees the world rigged against the common man who doesn’t cheat like the Clarences to get above their station. Even given the chance to break free from Lady Oswington when George offers her money to start her own shop, Miss Fox turns back to her mistress. A strike by all the hotel workers gives the elite guests a chance to wait on themselves and make their own meals, which raises their spirits in being able to band together. Priestley may have wanted us to think they had a chance to learn empathy with the lower classes in this way, but I rather think they simply confirmed their own superiority—a suspicion made more real for me when they all turn on George at the end, snuggling back into their belief in the ascendancy of bloodlines and power.
And, yes, George is the ultimate casualty in the class war. He becomes something of a Christ figure by dying anyway. Strangely, I didn’t find the ebullient mood created in the final act of the film diminished by his death, so well does Guinness deliver a man who has made peace with himself and his lot. Indeed, Guinness upends the heavy-handed political agenda of Priestley by creating an indelibly real person in this, his first starring role. His George never really, truly becomes comfortable in his pose. When he first tries on the expensive suits, he looks at himself in the mirror in small disbelief at how well the suits fit. When he enters the hotel lobby, he looks awkward and perhaps only dimly aware that all eyes are on him, wondering who this mystery man can be. After all, there’s no somebody these somebodies don’t know.
Nonetheless, a dying man attains a certain freedom to speak his mind. When a friend of Chalfont’s, Sir Robert Kyle (Moultrie Kelsall), moves into the suite next to George’s and complains about the shoddiness of the alterations he ordered, George confronts him about the noise and berates him for blaming the workers who are doing their best with the inferior materials they’ve been given to work with. George tells Sheila to get away from Derek, whom he sizes up as a waste of space, something he certainly would have been too shy to do before. Given the chance to speak truth to power, he does, in a plain-spoken manner that loses its defensiveness as the film progresses.
Director Cass sets up some interesting shots, particularly one of the hotel guests turning on George when he fails to show up for the dinner they have cooked in his honor. Shooting through a glass door pane, their forms are separated from the viewer, smaller, and slightly distorted, a much more subtle commentary on their humanity than Priestley’s words achieve. And though the film is quite set-bound, aside from some walks in the garden, the film doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as it could have. Indeed, Guinness literally breathes fresh air into a stale, Victorian environment. A fine supporting cast, particularly Walsh and Helen Cherry, who plays the discreet and bemused front-desk clerk, flesh out this film and help make it a moving and enjoyable experience.