I have never understood why Henry Cass’ Last Holiday (1950) remains a largely unknown film. I bumped into it about 35 years ago on TV — quite by accident — and it was pretty much love at first sight. The story of a man spending all his savings and indulging in the “high life” when he’s diagnosed with a terminal disease is engaging and beautifully developed — with just the right touch of symbolism and stylization. Not only is this Alec Guinness’ first starring role, but Last Holiday marks the only time the great British novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley developed and wrote a screenplay expressly for the movies. He even produced the film, which perhaps explains why it’s much more distinctive than anything else in director Henry Cass’ filmography. It’s quite clear that many of the scenes — and scene transitions — were crafted for maximum cinematic impact. Just consider the introduction of Ernest Thesiger as Sir Trevor Lampington — the man who discovered the disease Guinness is diagnosed with in the film. It really does seem to be Priestley’s show.
The story of a common working stiff, George Bird (Guinness), who finally discovers life just as he’s preparing to leave it is prime Priestley. The premise — of a non-entity becoming “somebody” and having good luck for the first time in his life just by presenting himself differently in a different sphere — gives Priestley the kind of material to develop his gently socialistic comedy. The posh hotel setting gives him a kind of hothouse in which to collect and develop a wide array of characters — some familiar from the Priestley playbook of types, but some strikingly new ones found only in post-war Britain. The portraits are sharp and incisive without ever being cruel or excessively caricaturish — and the sense of the post-war era hangs over it all.
While the film is first and foremost a vehicle for its rising star, Guinness is brilliantly surrounded by a handpicked cast. The wonderful Kay Walsh — who would later be so memorable (and dowdy) in the 1958 Guinness film The Horses’s Mouth — makes a splendidly sensible counterpart to Guinness’ character. There are also nice turns from British comic Sid James as a member of the post-war nouveau riche and eternally sneering Ernest Thesiger (“I’m the man whose disease you’re being so free with.”). It all goes down very smoothly, but there’s a little more to it than appears on the surface. It’s that “little more” that propels the film into an altogether higher realm.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Last Holiday Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.