Thursday 29 April 2010

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

1940's The Philadelphia Story starts slowly, with some creaking of the joints, and it initially feels like it's going to be a heavy morality play about an older, purer notion of dignity, equated with privacy and modesty, leading us to write a review about how this generation has become crass with rank exhibitionism (this) and voyeurism (Simon Pegg's tweets). And maybe there'll be some commentary on class too. But then everything gets derailed into farce, seasoned heavily with rapier wits and rivers of champagne. And it's wonderful.

Young divorcée, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), is old Philadelphia money and kind of intimidatingly amazing (those mile-wide shoulder pads don't help) and she's getting married again - this time to up-by-his-bootstraps self-made man George (John Howard), who everyone agrees is a total bore. As the wedding day approaches, ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) ("What kind of name is that?!" Jimmy Stewart will later yelp) hires two young reporters from a Philly gossip rag, Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to be reluctant paparazzi spies in the fancy Lord estate.

Mon Dieu! Le petite pox?

Now see here... and other expressions.

When the Lords find out they have two seedy media types in their midst, they initially decide to put on a good show indeed. Little sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler, great) comes pirouetting into their room in a tutu, speaking French and slamming away at the piano, before Tracy sends her away for possibly having "le small pox". The reporters are properly horrified, but then, it's time for the party, laaaaa -

And everyone gets wasted and goes crazy. And it all ends happily.

The bromance between these two was too cute. And keep your eyes peeled for Cary Grant's bust of Pseudo-Seneca! His cool-and-fineness factor just multiplied.

So this movie was, like, a big deal back in the day. We mean 1996, when we first saw it and were all about that foreign land called The Past. The dialogue is just exotic enough to intoxicate us present day types. These people hadn't even seen the end of World War II yet! (Leading to an incidentally bizarre moment when a drunk, gushing Jimmy Stewart likens the radiant Hepburn to "hearth-fires and holocausts!") They also hadn't done the whole political correctedness, second wave feminism, alcohol-for-breakfast-is-bad thing. They were wild! Such creatures.

But ultimately lovable, very much so. Especially for how articulate and inventive the screenplay was. People said things like, "You're so cool and fine and always so much your own. There's a kind of beautiful purity about you." Well, golly. What else? Go on!

The actors in this were all heavy-weights, and it shows in their easy glamour and tremendous confidence. Watch your retinas don't detach when they flash one of their sparkling, superstar smiles. And take the character of C.K. Dexter Haven, who is a self-described alcoholic and should be a tragic figure, as all he does for much of the film is mope, brood bitterly and accuse Tracy of cruelly ditching him. But played by Cary Grant, he has a sort of edgy dashing thing going. You're like, double whiskey in the morning? How sexy! Jimmy Stewart is great in this self-righteous "intellectual snob" role - it's almost a cheeky commentary on his sugary idealism with Frank Capra. He also, oddly, reminded us of Obama. Or vice versa? Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart also have amazing chemistry, especially in the late-night scenes.


Katherine Hepburn! Vah! Luminous and fierce, she was just great - much like Nargis in the Hindi remake of It Happened One Night, Chori Chori. It was entirely understandable that all three men were periodically reduced to whimpering piles of mush in her fiery presence. Gosh, she was like a real, live Galadriel. The other ladies were also very "cool and fine" - especially the cynical Ruth Hussey and the puckish Virginia Weidler.

So was the film talking about dignity, celebrity and class? Sort of, but it just concludes that the upper class aren't all evil, the media is a totally not-classy weapon, not Big Brother, and if you want to be a "first class human being", you need to learn to forgive a little human frailty... including that time your alcoholic ex-husband punched you in the face, he's, like, really sorry about that. Have any of you read F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night? Because this movie sure looks like that book, with its dizzying fortunes and near-constant drunkenness. Except here, it's a fun, frothy fantasy where everyone is fundamentally good, only a little cheeky from time to time. Given that Tender Is the Night left us in a bad mood for days, and Philadelphia Story made us sigh with happy satisfaction, we'll take the latter.

Help us, readership, you're our only hope!

It's a Cary Grant movie. It's black and white. It's not really a comedy, more like a bittersweet war or post-war romance with strong Manchurian Candidate (minus the psycho) vibes. An exotic locale - a bar. South America? Panama? Cary Grant in a uniform and some lady. Cary Grant punches an obnoxious dude at the bar, and it hurts his hand. He and the lady make bittersweet, cynical and witty exchanges. What movie was it? (Because we have no idea.)


Rum said...

Aww this is quite a lovely film, I expected to a banf bang screwball comedy but its got a lot of dil pumping through some of those fast lines! Must say i fell head over heeeels for Jimmy and Cary in this, and I have the poster in my room! Its that gorgeous drawl and that silly diffident accent that makes me go Hailla! I did like the redo High Society with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. It was cute and had some nice songs but this one tops it all!

Jabberwock said...

PPCC: the film you're asking about is Only Angels Have Wings. Very interesting film - one of Howard Hawks' best examinations of gender roles and equations, though I did find it a bit slow-paced in places.

a ppcc representative said...

Rum - I had a HUGE crush on Jimmy Stewart back in the day, and this film reminded me why. Ooh, a Frank Sinatra movie I haven't seen? Time to remedy!

Jabberwock - Ah, the internet is a many-splendored thing, and I love you, Jabberwock, I really do. Thanks!

ajnabi said...

I ADORE this movie. One director (I forget who) famously said Katherine Hepburn had a face that was one half angel and the other half horse, but to me she looked 100% heavenly throughout this film. My teenaged addiction to American Movie Classics channel paid off with greatly expanded cinematic horizons--and I'm so happy that cable led me to the discovery of the divine Kate, and Cary, and Jimmy, et al!

Janeheiress said...

One of my absolute favorites! I don't know who I love more, Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant--or Katharine Hepburn!

Only Angels Have Wings sounds right, although I barely remember that film. Wasn't Grant a pilot? The girl was Jean Arthur. Incidentally, the two of them are in another fave of mine, The Talk of the Town, along with (le sigh) Ronald Coleman.

a ppcc representative said...

Ajnabi - Oh my goodness, I think she was gorgeous as well in this - and AMC was the BEST. Though I did much of my filmi education via Encore.

Janeheiress - I need to get my hands on it, then! As long as there's that bar scene, I'll be fine. I never ended up seeing what happened. Will put The Talk of the Town on the To View list as well!

Jabberwock said...

*Self-promotion Alert* PPCC: I wrote about The Talk of the Town here.