Alec Guinness, an actor who performed well in everything he did, began his film career in 1934, with “Evensong,” as an extra. He didn’t make another film until “Great Expectations” in 1948, but he soon became a staple comic actor in such films as “Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)” and “The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).” He kept busy in 1950 too with “Last Holiday.” Guinness plays George Bird, a man diagnosed with a serious and fatal illness. Bird’s doctor advises him to go the English seaside, where he resides at a posh hotel called the Regal. His stoic attitude and resignation for his fate intrigues both the habitual guests and staff.
The film provides a heavy dose of class satire, since the hotel guests include a combination of academics, nobles, high-class scoundrels and nouveau-riche entrepreneurs. All of them find themselves attracted to George’s peculiar charm. George not only brings people together, he attracts the affection of the wife of a hotel guest (played by Beatrice Campbell) and the prickly, no-nonsense head housekeeper (played by Kay Walsh).
Although the film contains many fine performances, all the action seems contrived. A key scene involves the coincidental arrival at the Regal of the doctor that researched and discovered George’s ailment. His meeting with George influences the contrived end of the film. The movie comes from a story by the great English writer, J. B. Priestly, who wanted to expose the shallowness and class inequities in English society. George has nothing to lose, so he gains the respect of highest class.
Naturally, becoming aware of one’s impending death brings a level of moroseness to George, and he sometimes lets himself fall into the depths of this knowledge. However, the expert and subtle acting style of Guinness, with his impeccable timing, keeps the movie light and rather farcical. Comedy plots rely on misunderstandings, and eventually George and everyone else at the resort learns the truth about George’s supposed illness. George plunges ahead, feeling excited about his new opportunities and the lessons he’s learned while at the seaside, but whatever credit he gains as an enigma to his new friends quickly disintegrates. Shockingly, the movie provides a twist ending which keeps in step with the general tone of the movie, but proves to be a minor disappointment for viewers expecting George to finally achieve an ultimate triumph after a mostly ineffectual life.