LAST HOLIDAY (1950) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: HENRY CASS / SCREENPLAY: J. B. PRIESTLEY / STARRING: ALEC GUINNESS, BEATRICE CAMPBELL, KAY WALSH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
J.B. Priestley’s ability to force his audience to count their blessings is at its sweet and sinister prime in Last Holiday. On the surface, a far simpler concoction than classics like An Inspector Calls or Time and the Conways, it stars Alec Guinness as George Bird, a mild-mannered, even more mild-living salesman, whose accidental misdiagnosis by a tired doctor leads him to think his last days are upon him. He spends his savings at a ‘posh’ hotel where he finds he fits right in with new friends he wouldn’t have had the courage or imagination to approach in the past. His life opens up with job offers and romantic proposals, but only he knows what’s stopping him jumping at all the opportunities.
Sid James as entrepreneur Joe is a delightful mismatch with Guinness, giving a familiar character type a refreshingly different context in a story that champions taking life’s opportunities, not just for yourself but, more importantly, the opportunities to offer kindness to others. While its class politics are dated, the script is ahead of its time in asking us to notice people for who they were and how they behaved to each other, not their background. There are great illustrations not only of how to be on the lookout to assist each other, but how there will always be those who raise their game to take new offers and opportunities life throws them, and those who don’t - that we make our own lives and choices more than a lot of us care to recognise or admit.
The stills gallery won’t change your life, but it’s worth navigating a somewhat iffy sound balance to enjoy the twenty-five-minute interview with cultural historian Matthew Sweet. Priestley’s sense of fate, his expression both of human agency and its limits, is never going to guarantee a happy acceptance both of our agency and its limits mean there’s no guarantee of a happy ending but make Last Holiday’s touching script and gorgeous symbolism a perfect watch right now. See it as a poignant, amusing romance or as a gently sinister reminder about gratitude and awareness, that free will is also a call to arms.