The Grinning Reaper
Such is the myopia of the human condition, that during all our lives, we are generally of the headspace that our troubling experiences are the first time these things have happened, we are individually pioneers on at the coalface of life, nobody understands our wee plight. That’s not to make light of some tough things folk might be currently enduring, but Man has been around in various forms for around 200,000 years, so that’s a number of tales to be told. To narrow it down somewhat, we’re going to focus on the giddy sufferings of one George Bird (Alec Guinness) in the newly restored version of ‘Last Holiday’ (1950).
Yet another gem from the StudioCanal library, Henry Cass directs the aforementioned Guinness in a superbly sharp dark comedy script by none other than J.B. Priestly, one of the most prolific, successful and famous writers of his time. He was also (much to my admiration) very political and distinctly aware of the social structures that looked down upon the ordinary working class with contempt (two recent World Wars only emphasised that). He dealt with this subject in a number of works with varying intensity, whereas this feature manages to get that mixed in with a very healthy level of gallows humour.
The humour may be healthy, but Bird isn’t. He’s just been diagnosed by a clearly overworked, under pressure doctor (some things never change) that he has a very rare ailment called Lampington’s Disease, which unfortunately for him gives him just a few weeks left. He proclaims he feels just fine, but ‘educated’ doctors know better than riffraff. There is no cure, so the only prescription is enjoy what time you have left, stiff upper lip ‘n all.
Bird hasn’t any significant relationships and works in an unsatisfying job as a salesman for farm machinery. To the greater extent he feels that he hasn’t truly lived at all, and now it’s to be whisked away. But the mortal news immediately starts to change his posture, and slowly his behaviour. And so begins his last hurrah!
He makes a number of swift decisions and convinces himself that he should spend his last days in splendour, or what he has been told is the quality side of life, in some ‘renowned’ prestigious seaside posh hotel of high repute.
He may seem literally of profound ill luck, but luck seems to start sitting on his shoulder as the frequency of fortunate moments begin to increase, starting off with a second hand suit seller pointing out his recent acquisition of some fine Saville Row tailoring, that not only fits him perfectly, but presents him with an air of ’success’ to the other guests who inhabit the hotel.
The hotel is where the movie really takes off into sublime script writing and character acting by some of the greatest faces of the time. The whole way through the movie it had me thinking of Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’, both in killer lines, and unique, highly idiosyncratic individuals, ie we’ve entered the apparent nest of the quintessential 1950s English eccentric.
The cast really is incredible, Sid James, Kay Walsh, Muriel George, Esma Cannon, Bernard Lee, Moultrie Kelsall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, amongst a great many others who you may not know their names, but will definitely know their faces if you know the movies of this period. Suffice to say, to see them together in this ensemble is a joy, with everyone firing on all cylinders, whilst firing out bullet fast lines that really hit home, and carry significant weight for the attentive.
It’s wholly clear that money may decide your ‘class’, but it doesn’t give you class, as despite their evident (or apparent) wealth of the other guests, they really are the dregs of humanity in most cases. They have nothing of note to offer, and circle Bird with amusement, their new toy to play with.
Bird uses the opportunity to try to distract himself from the inevitable, and in so begins to really understand what is of value in our fragile existence. There is the possibility that the others will learn something too, but the movie but pulls no punches is showing us that isn’t the case at all.
To expand any further would be to diminish the enjoyment of the movie, but make no mistake, this is a polite, very funny, but very damning indictment of the ‘ruling’ class. As Bird walks with confidence into his final hours, so to the movie in its criticism of vacuous individuals who are held in high regard purely due to circumstance and no merit. Again, some things never change.
There is a beautiful, yet brutal honesty about the whole tale, that can only come from witnessing the cruelty of the wars that still echoed in the society all around it at the time, and that honesty is prepared to take you to a very admirable ending indeed.
The film itself looks great, is quirky, intelligent, staggeringly accurate in hitting bullseye putdowns of the pretentious ‘higher’ classes, and even though there is a honest darkness about it all, does have genuine warmth threaded throughout like a stick of seaside rock.
There’s a couple of incredibly helpful extras on the disc too, most noteworthy and interview with cultural historian Matthew Sweet who does a fantastic job of bringing us right into the mindset of the times, and there’s also a short interview with Priestley himself.
It’s also always great when a potentially forgotten writer/director/actor of merit is reintroduced, or reappears on our radar, as after watching ‘Last Holiday’ I want to dive back into the catalogues of Guinness and Priestley. Such is the gift of great story telling.
8/10 Last Holiday is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital now.