Prep for the Hols by Watching Holiday


HOLIDAY (1938)

Directed by George Kukor

Columbia Pictures, 95 minutes, Not-rated

(In black & white)





Not all “holiday” films are soaked in pine oil and draped in tinsel. The romantic comedy titled Holiday takes place between December and New Year’s Day, but it’s more about relationships and social class than Santa Claus or a diapered kid escorting Father Time to the exit door.


Holiday is an amusing film and a peek at Depression Era America. The Thirties are sometimes dubbed “the age of the common man” for imagery that valorized working stiffs.Franklin Roosevelt is never directly mentioned, but banker Edward Seton Sr. (Henry Kolker) makes known his dislike for current government policies.


Holiday is a classic Gary Grant/Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy. Grant is Johnny Case, a man from a humble Baltimore background who, through intellect and hard work obtained an Ivy League education and has done well, but not “too” well. His grand plan is to earn just enough money to quit working while he’s young. He takes his first-ever holiday to Lake Placid, meets Julia (Doris Nolan) and after a ten-day whirlwind romance, they are engaged.


Back in New York, Johnny calls upon old friends with whom he once lived, Professor Nick Potter and his wife Susan. They adore Johnny like a son, and why not? He’s witty, urbane, and acrobatic. (Watch Grant do back flips he learned when he was a vaudeville actor performing under his birthname, Archie Leach.) Johnny is gobsmacked when he calls upon Julia at her home–through the servants’ door, no less–to find that she is filthy rich and resides in digs you might associate with Newport, Rhode Island.


What unfolds is an old tale well done, a man looking for love in the wrong place. Julia isn’t enthusiastic about Johnny’s plan to retire, live modestly, eat, drink, and be merry until the money’s gone. Nor, she informs him, would such fanciful dreams play well with her stern father he is meeting for the first time. She even makes Johnny ditch his bowtie and borrow a proper necktie from her alcoholic brother Edward Jr., aka/“Ned.”


Screwball comedies often have predictable plots and this is one of them. (Their charm derives from snappy dialogue, muddled circumstances, and unexpected romance.) Ned alerts Johnny that the Seton household is a dour place and his other sister, Linda (Hepburn), affirms that. Johnny meets her in her sanctuary, the playroom, where she, Ned, and Susan spent their happiest childhood days. It is a metaphor for the overall joylessness of the rest of the four-floor mausoleum for the living.   


Linda couldn’t be happier for Julia; Johnny is a proverbial breath of fresh air who might just bring light back to a home filled with marble columns, art work, and servants. Johnny’s challenge is to get Edward Sr. and Julia on board with his idea. Bet you know how that works out! Watch it unravel at a massive New Year’s Eve/engagement announcement party. Will Johnny compromise his ideals? Will he see that Julia is a snob and that he’s more simpatico with Linda? Duh! Screwball comedy.


It's hard not to review screwballs without spoilers because they are all about acting, timing, and fairy tale endings. Holiday is an actors’ clinic. Grant was a tumbling Adonis at this stage of his life, but also a wonderful actor with a plastic face and a bagful of expressions to screw onto it. But Hepburn! When she’s on screen you simply can’t look elsewhere and her timing is exquisite. Shoutouts also to veteran character actors Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon who played the Potters. Horton exudes an understated but palpable folk wisdom and Dixon lights up the screen with endearing quirks. Although his part is a bit over-written, Lew Ayres is solid as Ned, the dutiful son who wishes he was neither.


George Cukor crisply directed a remake of a Philip Barry play. This is relevant because the movie doesn’t go out much; it’s more like a filmed drawing room comedy. By now, you will have worked out that one of Cukor’s subthemes involves a battle between privilege versus a (sort of) common man. Several stuck-up Seton cousins and the Potters also flesh out those warring ideals. Count me as one who finds it refreshing to view a movie in which obscene wealth is presented as crass. But make no mistake; Holiday is also a very funny movie. As seasonal films go, it is a welcome alternative to December’s usual recycled offerings.


Rob Weir






Sports, Social Media, and the Silly Season



It’s hard not to despair of social media when it’s filled with more garbage than all the world’s landfills combined. The latest case in point was the semifinal World Cup soccer match between France and Morocco. 


Many countries, not one!


Like trying to force a size 10 foot into a pair of size six boots, numerous self-styled social media experts (read “idiots”) positioned the match as a struggle between colonialism and liberation. As a professional historian I want people to use the past, but not as a club to pound a skeleton. France left Morocco in 1956 and some quick subtraction will tell you that this was 66 years ago. Yes, colonialism is a weed with deep and persistent roots, but let’s not ask young men to carry that burden. No one­–not even the respective team managers–were alive when France exited Morocco, plus if anyone cares, Spain occupied southern Morocco and stayed two years longer.


Aside from the French manager, who is 52, no one on the team (a backup goalkeeper) is older than 37 and all of the outfield players are in their 20s. The same is true for the Moroccans, whose oldest player is 33. Those who love underdogs can certainly justify rooting for Morocco against a previous World Cup champion, but colonialism is a lousy justification. It’s probably a good thing England didn’t make it to the final, or I’m sure we’d hear how the upcoming final versus Argentina is a chance to avenge the Falklands War (which was, on both sides, surely one of the dumbest conflicts within the inherently stupid pursuit of war.) 






You’ve probably also heard some express hope for the first “African” team and that too flunks the sniff test. What do we mean by Africa? Let’s look at two team photos. You might observe that the faces in one are slightly darker than the other. Great, but the ones in blue (or should I say bleu?) are the French. We are not talking rugby’s 1981 Springbok tour which put South African apartheid on trial. It’s also worth noting that France’s best player (and perhaps the Cup MVP) is Kylian Mbappé, born in Paris but to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.


Which Africa is most represented? Morocco is an African country by strict geography and little else. One might as well argue that the United States is a Latin American nation as it shares a continent with Guatemala. In many ways, Morocco is more Middle Eastern than African. Not much about it fits the profile of Sub-Saharan (read “black”) Africa. Ethnically Morocco is dominated by Arabic and Maghrebi peoples (those born in North Africa + Berbers). Its life expectancy is 73.6 years, the median age is 29, and nearly all of its population (99%) is Sunni Muslim.


North Africa is not Sub-Saharan Africa, where Christians outnumber Muslims by nearly 2:1, the life expectancy is 61.6 years, and the median age is just 18. If you’re wondering, Cameroon is one of the world’s poorest countries, though it’s the Upper East Side compared to places like Somalia, Congo, and Mozambique. Once you get south of Sudan, by the way, don’t confuse the Arabic language with Arab ethnicity. And certainly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that colonialism is just a European thing. Europeans learned a lot about exploiting black Africans from Muslim raiders, traders, and enslavers. Call it bloody hands all around.  


At this point I should disavow any suspicion that I’m rooting for France. I have no World Cup favorites or preferences beyond a vague fondness for Portugal. (I knew the USA had little chance of winning–as in virtually none.) I appreciate the skill of soccer, though I’m not really keen on any variety of football. There’s too much midfield strategizing for my taste. I’ll take the speed, brawn, and multiple scoring chances of ice hockey any day of the week. I can see soccer’s chess-like thinking, but would you watch a chess match? I used to play chess, but I’d never watch it.


I’m happy, though, that World Cup fans get to indulge in the world’s most popular team sport every four years. I just wish the idiots would let everyone enjoy it. Sports can play a positive role in a broken world. You might recall that the healing of gulf between China and the West began with ping pong and, yes, that 1981 Springbok tour did much to cast apartheid in a negative light. 



For me,  above is the picture that will endure from the 2022 World Cup. It’s of Kylian Mbappé embracing Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and later Tweeting he shouldn’t be sad because the entire world was proud of Morocco. Sportsmanship is the polar opposite of combat imagery. Can I please put in a full order of Mbappé and scrape all the social media loudmouths into the compost?



Rob Weir












Give Music as a Gift: Jamie McDell Artist of the Month and Others


Still searching for holiday ideas? Give the gift of music. Here are some artists to consider. 




“World-famous in New Zealand” was a joke punchline when I lived there in 2001. Back then the music scene consisted largely of bad cover bands and acts no one would ever wish to cover. Things have gotten better since then. Jamie McDell, my December Artist of the Month, is a case in point. She’s an Auckland native who has also lived in Nashville, Toronto, and Vancouver. McDell comes by her peripatetic lifestyle courtesy of her father, who quit his job when Jamie was 7 to move his family of four onto a boat for a year. Jamie got her sea legs by learning to play the songs of John Denver, James Taylor, and Jimmy Buffett, and obtained stardom of a sort when the record she made at 16 went gold. Ahh, but there’s the rub; in New Zealand gold means selling 2,500 units; in the USA you need half a million. That’s why so many from abroad trek to Nashville, which is where the self-titled Jamie McDell was made.

            Nashville’s potential pitfall is that it likes to pigeonhole. As you can hear, McDell can do country but she carries an alt.country label because: (a) Folk music isn’t a popular label, and (b) McDell’s country is somewhere between traditional and outlaw. Suits me just fine; she’s a wonderful storyteller and, once you listen to “Botox” and hear that catch in her voice you know that she’s a singer, not an all-flash-no-substance "performer." Call this one and “Boy Into a Man” later on the album feminism without the sermon. Why botox? Because the song is about the ways in which socially constructed masculinity is built upon forced images of femininity. As a sampled line puts it, ask the doctor to make me shorter/so you can get your manhood back. This record is filled with gems, including the semi-autobiographical “Sailor” (the studio version includes the McCray Sisters) and the power she draws from the open sea. On “Mother’s Daughter,” though she confesses that mom, not her wanderlust father, shaped her more. It's a weepie, but a good one. McDell isn’t afraid to tell tales on herself, as she does on “Not Ready Yet” and the dangers of running wild in “Limousine Running.” Let that one run as next up is amazing. McDell sits back-to-back with Robert Ellis to sing and harmonize on “Worst Crime.” What was her transgression? Listen.  



Picot is a Barcelona-based band built around the duo of Jordi Marfà (voice, mandolin, violin) and Daniel Pitarc (keyboards). Their debut record Les alles del cavall, which I’m told translates The Horse’s Wings. It’s Catalan, though, so I’m trusting my computer translation software on this. Don’t call it Spanish; Catalan has similarities in that it’s a Romance language, but it immediately derives from Vulgar (“popular”) Latin and probably began life as proto-Celtic. That helps explain why Catalan music often has a Celtic flair. “La casa que vull (The House I Want)” is an example of the Catalonia’s mixed roots. It sounds simultaneously African–as does a lot of Mediterranean music–but the plucked mando notes and swooping violin passages evoke pan-Celtic structures.

            Two other tracks to investigate are “T’he engendrat amb dolor (I Begot Your Pain)” which is as atmospheric as the video clip. Marfà’s voice is big and dramatic but the instrumentation is airy and light, almost nouveau Renaissance. It frames a song that borrows snippets of poetry (in Catalan) from everyone from Whitman to Jean Cocteau. “Tan Petita (So Small)” is another intriguing piece in that its African notes are more Caribbean than Sub-Saharan.  



Susan Cattaneo has long been a mainstay of the Boston music scene. Don’t let her respectable demeanor fool you; she has a serious set of pipes and can sing about pain with the best of them. The title track of All is Quiet testifies to this. She sits serenely on the stage and rips off a line like idle hands make idle worries and when she soars on the all is quiet refrain, we’re talking upper part of the sky. Cattaneo gives us dark things, but also delivers the message to “Hold Onto Hope” and echoes an old Lui Collins line that the only way out is through. “Borrowed Blue” is a tender song about the bond between daughters and mothers. Again, though, Cattaneo has been around the block enough times to know there are also situations in which, as a song title puts it, there are “No Hearts Here.” Cattaneo is the kind of singer I really like, one who puts the song upfront in a voice that mixes pretty ornaments with burnished maturity that resonates around the edges. Hey, even songbirds have to land.       


Warden and Co. is a Saratoga Springs-based trio that began life making kids music and still dabble in it, but has evolved into a folk-rock band. If there is an upside to the COVID crisis, it is that most musicians spent more time at home and seized the day to write and create. Frontman Seth Warden, who is also a middle school teacher, wrote enough material for Somewhere and a future release. On the album version of “Somewhere” Warden shares the mic with his 13-year-old daughter, Lovella. The song is about a dad’s hope on one level, but it’s also about connecting with one’s roots. Doug Moody’s fiddle enhances the sweetness of Warden’s smooth vocal. Lovella’s pretty good, actually, but if you want something with more grit try “Middle of Madness,” which has a splash of Tom Petty, especially in its questioning of all the competing claims of “truth.” It also gives percussionist Brian Melick a workout. But it’s hard to argue with the self-explanatory pop-laced “Living for Love.” I like these guys a lot, though objectively its top-heavy mid-tempos offerings invoke a sameness, so some might wish to track shop.



How about some world music? Kadaily Kouyate is a Senegalese-born kora player who now lives in London. If, like me, a six-string guitar is perplexing enough for you, try 21. The kora is a demanding instrument but, in the hands of a master such as Kouyate it sounds a bit like a hammer dulcimer and is capable of virtuoso pieces as well as those of great delicacy. In the second category place “Janjon Ba,” Kouyate’s tribute to a 13th century warrior. It’s done with such gentleness that it evokes a seasonal tune more than anything military. “Diyanamo” opens with sprays of notes and eventually has the precision and feel of something classical. “Kontandiro” has slightly darker tones but is also a meditative journey. Kouyate is often known for his social message songs but this album, Aado, features Kouyate’s instrumental fingering rather than direct politics, even if the title does translate as social customs.



Doriana Spurrell hails from North Carolina. Her EP Forward opens with a goodbye song, “Don’t Wake Me.” It’s unusual to lead with an “I’m outta here” song, but one gets the sense that Spurrell would rather be in the moment instead of fantasy land. “Until I Die” is another enigmatic song that suggests she’s after a vibe somewhere between torch singing, the blues, and attitude. What do you do with lines such as: To tune out so many floating bodies, like seas of plastic strangling all my hobbies/I won’t bleed for them, I won’t bleed for them. She specializes in missed connections songs; “Never Needed Words,” which is about her late grandfather, is another example. Depending on your POV, she’s either being honest about how life can overwhelm or she’s still trying to figure out how to find the path forward. She has an interesting voice, though she should lay off comparisons to Nick Drake or Brandi Carlile until her voice ripens and her pencil sharpens.      





If you are a fan of swirly wall-to-wall sound, try HeyDreamer, a three- (sometimes four-) piece rock band from Atlanta anchored by lead singer and electric guitar slayer Melody Kiser. “Untamed” is poppy and danceable, “Feel the Fire” has heart-thumping bass lines, and “As Cities Burn” is spacey and echoey. The latter, though, is filled with studio tricks that don’t serve much purpose. Overall, the record strikes me as over-produced. When things quiet down for a song like “Choose Me,” they also thin out. It gives me pause, but that’s not saying you will react the same way.   



Rob Weir


The Paris Apartment Not Fully Furnished



By Lucy Foley

Harper Collins, 368 pages 





In the world of fiction these days it’s as if those in their late 20s or early 30s have collectively decided not to bother growing up until they hit 40. The mother of Ben and Jess has passed away, but Jess in particular uses that as an excuse to remain running in place. When she finally takes action, she moves sideways rather than forward. Older brother Ben lives in Paris, so what would anyone do? Probably not what Jess does: steal money from the cafe where she works, skip out of London, and cross the English Channel to find Ben. He’s a reviewer who wishes to be an investigative journalist, yet he lives in an impressive apartment on Rue des Amants. The only thing that's missing is Ben himself, a problem because Jess has very little money and is counting on Ben to help her. 


Jess makes inquiries in the neighborhood and the apartment complex–though she can't speak French­–but most have either never heard of Ben or have no idea where he is. The other major characters in this book are a watchful concierge; Sophie Meunier and her teenage daughter Mimi; her stepsons Nicholas and the thuggish Antoine; Antoine’s prickly wife Dominique; and Sophie's largely absentee husband, Jacques. 


Ben is a charmer, but Jess infers from the people in the apartment that something is off. It's as if there is some deep secret that nobody wants to talk about. Where is Ben? As the days go by and Jess becomes more desperate, she gains a reputation for being annoying. Or is she being stonewalled? 


The novel is told in the voices of several characters, each of which gives us clues about Ben without revealing where he is until the end. Ben is more than just personable; he has been an object of sexual attention for Sophie and Nicholas, and young Mimi would also love to have it off with him despite being rebuffed. Also mysterious is how Jacques, ostensibly a wine merchant, can afford such a piece of prime Parisian real estate or an elegant wife like Sophie who is a good thirty years his junior? Where does Jacques go for days at a time?


Jess's meanderings lead her to one of Ben's journalism contacts. She begins to think that his disappearance is linked to an investigation he hoped would be his big break as an investigative reporter. She fears that Ben is dead, perhaps murdered, though the club she visits, Le Petit Mort, is a different kind of expiration; in French its name means little death, an orgasm. Is there a link between this sex club and Ben's disappearance?


The Paris Apartment seeks to be a thriller, but is only partially successful. Foley relies upon too many obvious devices: being observed going into private areas of the apartment building, asking questions guaranteed to arouse distrust, mistaken identities, and insisting that her adult brother simply wouldn't vanish because he knew she was coming. Actually, she has qualities that suggest maybe he would split; she's a mess! Is it any wonder police officials dismiss her concerns? That, and a complete lack of any credible evidence.


To her credit, Foley resolves the police issue, but other aspects of the novel work against her. The mystery is eventually revealed, but after contrivances such as hysteria, ducking into a closet, a deus ex machina appearance, and an out of nowhere venture into family values. The warped ones make sense; the wholesome ones do not.


Too often The Paris Apartment reads like a nice treatment for a novel that didn't come to full realization. This being the second Lucy Foley novel I've read, I have come to believe that she, at age 36, simply hasn’t yet hit her stride as a writer. It's hard at times to separate Foley from Jess; we want more maturity from each and are disappointed when they don't deliver. In the case of the Jess, most of her actions are impulsive. That's fine if those qualities remain consistent, but are we to believe that her newly found life compass resulted from the shock she received? If so, add that to the contrivances list.


I would not categorize The Paris Apartment as a bad novel, but I would call it inconsequential. It moves along at a fast clip. It’s the sort of book you can polish off in a few sittings on cold winter nights, toss aside, and reach for something meatier.


Rob Weir