The June screening for Classic Film Club at SouthBank is an Ealing comedy that offered Alec Guinness his first leading role in a film (rather than a support as he had played thus far). As was the practice at Ealing, its comedy doesn’t come with pratfalls or silly antics but with dark, ironicor even philosophical commentary and a very English take on human nature. These were also the signatures of the film’s writer an co-producer, the reknowned novelist and playwright J.B.Priestley.
Told by his doctor he has only a few months to live, George Bird (Alec Guinness), an ordinary, unassuming salesman of agricultural implements, decides to spend his savings living in lodgings at an up-market seaside resort.
Once there, he finds that all these wealthy people aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In a droll social commentary on the human condition, Priestly tells a moral tale, examines the bias that all too often accompanies class consciousness and provides a close that rivals Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ for it’s poignancy.
Priestley is helped enormously by a cast of stella British talent that includes Ernest Thiesiger, Kay Walsh, Beatice Campbell, Esma Cannon and Sid James, who gives one of his great performance here. Sadly remembered more for the one-note, comic skits he turned in for the Carry-On films than for his superb performances of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Sidney James can be seen in this film commanding the screen and in some cases competing well with Guinness.
For Guinness, this film established his presence as a leading actor on screen. He had started his career on stage in the mid-1930s and, after serving in the Royal Navy during the war, he returned to the stage in 1946 before playing Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (David Lean). This led to his memorable transformation into Fagin for Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948). The 1950’s would see nominations for Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy awards in films like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Startime (1959) and an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, (1958). Indeed it is Guinness’s performance that rescues Last Holiday from a sometimes heavy-handed macabre quality and J.B. Priestley’s now rather dated topical commentary.
J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was a prolific novelist (26 solo novels), dramatist (nearly 50 stage plays), essayist and much else but his contribution to the cinema was intermittent. Last Holiday was the only film which one might say received his undivided attention. Priestley wryly observes in his book Particular Pleasures that Last Holiday is ‘a film that (has) various depths of irony that London critics seemed to miss as they shrugged it away’ but that ‘it was more successful on the Continent and in New York and Hollywood’. Film critic Pauline Kael called it ‘a lovely ironic comedy’, ‘an almost perfect little picture’, thanks to ‘the dexterity – the impeccable rightness – of the screenplay’ and she praised ‘the film [as] rounded and complete’.
This film features on We Are South Devon, a community news web site with a series of pages on movies made in Torquay. The lodgings at an up-market seaside resort that George Bird retreats to was infact The Rosetor Hotel (later demolished and the Riviera Centre now stands on the site). The Grand Hotel also makes an appearance in the film.
The film was remade in 2006 with Queen Latifah playing Guiness’s part – as Georgia Bird – and support roles taken by LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton and Alicia Witt.