Directed by: Henry Cass
Starring: Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, Beatrice Campbell, Grégoire Aslan, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ernest Thesiger
High on the list of undervalued, under-appreciated and just plain little-known movies that ought to be seen is Henry Cass’ Last Holiday (1950)—as perfectly constructed, witty and moving a little drama as you’re likely to encounter anywhere. Its obscurity perhaps stems from the fact that, although the film is from the same period that gave us all the best-known Alec Guinness movies from Ealing Films, it was made by the less-legendary Associated British Picture Corporation. It’s also only partly a comedy and boasts a director largely unknown even to hardcore cineastes. But the film does have Guinness at his best, and he’s paired with the great Kay Walsh (The Horse’s Mouth). It also has a terrific supporting cast, including the magnificent Ernest Thesiger at his supercilious best. But more, it has a screenplay by the great English writer J.B. Priestley, who also received a producer credit, suggesting that Priestley, more than the rather workmanlike Henry Cass, is the actual auteur of the film.
The premise of the film finds Guinness as George Bird, a self-effacing salesman for agricultural equipment, who is misdiagnosed with “Lampington’s Disease,” an invariably fatal illness. Thinking he has only a short time to live, he cashes in everything he can and goes to a posh seaside resort to “see life,” an adventure that turns out to offer many surprises—not the least of which is that everything he turns his hand to succeeds as if by magic. Bird is propelled from a non-entity to a respected figure who wins on the races and at poker, hobnobs with a cabinet minister, is offered jobs and generally becomes a new man—all the while certain that he’s dying. Yes, Priestley’s screenplay was the basis for the Queen Latifah comedy of the same name from 2006, but this is the real deal. It’s funny, touching, perceptive and one of the great undiscovered movies. Discover it.
Last Holiday, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, July 3, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.