A vacation from fun, more like it. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Holiday for Lovers, the 1959 comedy romance from Fox, based on the Broadway play by Ronald Alexander, and starring Clifton Webb (sadly diminished), Jane Wyman (fugue state), Jill St. John (pneumatically clueless), Carol Lynley (unattractively strident), Paul Henreid (self-parody), Gary Crosby (jesus christ...), Nico Minardos (charmless), Wally Brown and Henny Backus (fingers on a chalkboard), and Jose Greco (the only one who knows what the hell he's doing here). Distressingly flat and unfunny, Holiday for Lovers mixes a few minutes of semi-interesting CinemaScope vistas of South America in with a whole lot of static studio work in this tired story of one father's efforts to reign in his amorous daughters--ho boy I wonder how that's going to turn out, huh?!? Fox's Cinema Archives has taken a lot of flak lately--from me, in particular--for putting out old panned-and-scanned transfers of widescreen movies. Holiday for Lovers is presented here in anamorphic widescreen, to Fox's credit...but that wide, wide image only helps point out how small Holiday for Lovers plays. No extras for this only-okay transfer.
Boston consulting psychologist Dr. Robert Dean (Clifton Webb), along with his wife, Mary (Jane Wyman), and his irritable teenager, Betsy (Carol Lynley), wave-off eldest daughter Meg (Jill St. John), who's off on a four-week South American tour prior to returning to Boston to enter college. After a stream of perfunctory post cards, Robert is rattled when word comes from Meg that she's left the tour with the intent of staying in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to study under (yep) "the greatest human being," architect Eduardo Barroso (Paul Henreid). Normally in-control Robert almost flips out, and hurriedly rushes his family to the airport to chase his eldest daughter. Once the family meets up with the wayward daughter, they learn she now wants to stay one year in Brazil, studying with Eduardo...while hoping to marry his son, "nonconformist" sculptor, Carlos Barroso (Nico Minardos), a "beatnik" who absolutely hates Meg's materialistic American family before he actually meets them. To compound this horror, young Betsy falls immediately in love with pudgy Air Force hipster, Technical Sergeant Paul Gattling (Gary Crosby), who wrangles a 30-day vacation to chase Betsy all over South America. Will Robert be able to talk his daughters out of making the biggest mistakes of their lives...and no, I don't mean signing on to star in this movie?
Apparently nooooobody wanted in on Holiday for Lovers, which was based on another one of those middling Broadway shows (just a 100 performances for a few months in 1957, with Don Ameche starring) which Hollywood in the 1950s inexplicably liked to snap up for movie inspirations. According to a couple of on-line sources, Fox wanted Gene Tierney to headline here (um...can you imagine one of the most corrosively erotic women ever to appear on screen swooning to Clifton Webb?); however, one of her frequent periods of unstable mental health cropped up, with Joan Fontaine then stepping in (it). She also eventually wised up, and Jane Wyman was finally tagged--she must have owed Fox a picture and figured, "Let's just get it over with and where's my paycheck?" because the Oscar-winner looks alternately depressed or bored out of her mind here with a truly nothing role (she fared much better when Disney cast her in a somewhat similar outing, Bon Voyage!, two years later). As for Meg's part, the gorgeous (and talented) Suzy Parker was cast, only to quit (smart cookie), with Peyton Place smash Diane Varsi then assigned. Apparently, Varsi took one look at Holiday for Lovers' script and not only quit the picture but her entire Fox contract (a bonehead move she'd later come to regret when she tried for a comeback--Hollywood never forgets). Talented and beautiful Diane Baker was next mentioned for the role, but she wisely backed out, with the part eventually played by Jill St. John, who's always gorgeous...but hit-and-miss on the talented end (she delivers every line here as if she's announcing to a party who's at the front door). As for Webb, the combined disasters of this movie and the same year's excrementitious The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker would make him go to ground for three years, before one last supporting role in the silly Satan Never Sleeps finished off his big-screen career for good.
There are only three elements to Holiday for Lovers that, if they don't work, you don't have a movie: the comedy of the situations; Webb's performance (it's central, so it has to work); and the scenic glories of CinemaScope (all the travelogue makes it apparent the moviemakers thought it crucial to the movie). Let's take them in reverse order. CinemaScope was six years old by the time Holiday for Lovers came around, and its drawing power as merely a travelogue enhancer had already waned by this point. Promising to show the delights of far-off places wasn't enough to get people away from their TV sets in '59, if there wasn't a decent story tacked on for good measure. As it stands, the location shooting here is interesting like it's interesting to flip through some post cards, with it all obviously shot second unit, the actors briefly inserted via poor rear projection...and not at all integrated (or even integral) to the storyline (it worked a lot better in Webb's earlier hit, Three Coins in the Fountain). Strike one. Webb's weak, tired performance here isn't particularly stuffy, or snotty. Or controlling. Or dismissive. Or brusque or waspish. Or fey, or any of the other euphemisms that were routinely trotted out by contemporary critics for a Webb turn. When he's asked to do a creaky rumba here, or get belted in the face by a tough, it doesn't elicit laughs but stony silence at the sight of a once-supremely gifted actor, reduced to poorly-staged baggy-pants humor. Strike two.
And that leaves all the funny little moments that should be here. I've never seen or read the source play, but if it opens the way this movie opens, no wonder it only ran three months on Broadway. When already-dispirited Webb trades mild barbs with a patient, only to emphasize for the audience with sledgehammer subtly that (get ready for it...) NO ONE CAN LIVE SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE, well, gee...I wonder where Holiday for Lovers is gonna wind up? And if you already know in the first five minutes how the movie is going to resolve itself, that leaves almost 100 minutes of the "getting there," and brother believe me, it ain't worth the trip (director Henry Levin would subsequently soar far higher with CinemasScope travelogue classics Where the Boys Are and Come Fly with Me). Clumsy, arbitrary bits of exposition from scripter Luther Davis (everything from The Hucksters to Across 110th Street) are dropped on us like lead balloons, such as Bostonian Webb's seemingly incongruous love of bullfights (gee...I wonder if we're gonna see a bullfight here?!), inbetween all the blah, cliched wheezes about commie beatniks and materialistic Americans. Scenes that should have some kind of comedic payoff don't (the embarrassing "strip search" scene that makes no sense coming or going, because the smuggling couple, played gratingly by Brown and Backus, are so obviously unconnected with anything else here), while long-promised scenes, such as Webb's bullfight, end on pathetic notes: Webb, sickened by the sight of blood, gathers up his garters and sniffs, "I'm going to write to Mr. Ernest Hemingway quite a letter! Quite a letter!" (someone please pick me up off the floor from that knee-slapper).
Plugs for Brazil and all points south are inserted every few minutes or so (in exchange, no doubt, for all that fee location shooting) while we ponder just what the hell is going on with St. John and Lynley. I could see deer-in-the-headlights St. John being attracted to Henreid's old smoothie, as the movie at first would try to trick us into thinking...but grumpy, lumpy, charmless Minardos? As for pinched, whining, disagreeable teen Lynley (a real blow to me, since she's always been a fav), even she doesn't deserve the hydrocephalic charms of giant baby-head Crosby. Looking over my review notes, I noticed I scribbled for his "seduction" scene with Lynley, "No wonder beaten with hair brush by paterfamilias Der Bingle," a sick, cruel joke, I'll admit...but a necessary one when witnessing the supposed Hollywood manufacture of a "young romantic lead" with this singularly grotesque miscalculation (hey, ladies: wait till you see blubbery Gary--channeling burbling Pops, perhaps?--violently spank Lynley for refusing his marriage proposal...a bizarrely staged sequence that elicits approving smiles from mother Wyman). With creeps like these along for this desultory, tedious haul of a trip, no wonder people canceled their Holiday for Lovers reservations and stayed home to watch Ed Sullivan.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.