Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Film Review--Philadelphia Story (1940)

It’s hard to believe it’s taken me this much time to get the second of these four reviews up but, what the hell, I’ve been sick and busy….

After deemed poison at the box office, despite the relative success of Bringing up Baby, Katherine Hepburn left the screen for the stage, where she began, to star in The Philadelphia Story. Phillip Barry wrote the play specifically for Hepburn and she took to the role of Tracy Lord like almost nobody had before or has since. Fully embodying the erudite, yet fun loving character, Hepburn was a huge hit on the stage, far from box office poison and, quickly, Hollywood came crawling back. Now, Hepburn held all the cards. Howard Hughes had purchased the film rights to the play and gave them to Hepburn, which she then sold to MGM of a relatively small sum. What she got in return, however, was guarantees that her choice in director and leading men would be etched in stone. George Cukor was her choice for director and, while originally slated as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, she finally settled on Cary Grant and James Stewart as her leading men. With a wealth of talent on hand, Hepburn settled into the filming of one of her most famous roles and a film that would become part of the model for producing high comedy in Hollywood.

At its heart, The Philadelphia Story is a very simple story about the paparazzi trying to get into a wedding and the family fooling the reporters into thinking they’re welcome. To this end, George Cuckor directed one of the seminal romantic comedies in Hollywood history. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, old money, who is marrying “Man of the People” George Kittredge (John Howard), new money. She once was married to Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven, also old money, still very popular with his former in-laws. This old money/new money love triangle may have made a fine little movie on its own, but playwright Philip Barry throws a wrench in the spokes by adding no money into the mix, present in the characters of Macaulay Connor and Liz Imbrie (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey). Their lack of capitol makes them the fish out of water, but instead of gaping awestruck at the fine chandeliers and garbage like that, they are scornful of what they see, happy to write their stories and take their pictures and go home to a simple world. At least, it was enough for Connor, but then he got to know Tracy Lord.

Just like Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn’s performance is in a class by itself as she plays two things simultaneously. Tracy’s cold defensiveness at the start remains in shades through her change and into the end when she has shown the capacity for warmth and love. Likewise, though she is rightfully accused by the rest of the characters of looking at herself as an “unattainable goddess,” she always lays a playful touch on her scenes (such as when she delivers a clean back heel trip to Howard to get him dirty after mocking his pristine new riding pants). Hepburn was an acting phenom. This would only become more clear later, but her skills are one of a kind even at this point in her career.

Her supporting cast is also very good, but they don’t really rise to the heights of the film’s star. Grant plays a far more secondary role than I’m used to from him, but as the character that the action revolves around, he is very solid. Though Grant has significantly less screen time than the other stars, his name actually appears first in the credits. He had clauses about name placement in his contract, but the main reason he appears first is the changing attitudes toward film marketing. Hepburn and Grant, essentially, were stars of equal clout, unchanged from two years earlier. In Bringing Up Baby, however, Hepburn’s name appears first. In the ‘30s, actresses were the focal point of the marketing, but this changed quickly and would continue this way, more or less, until today. Stewart had not yet gone to war and made himself an icon; he was still a character performer here, but does a great job as the intellectual everyman. It’s clear why his character falls for Lord, but his change from scorn to affection is quite believable. Special commendation to Ruth Hussey as Stewart’s photographer girlfriend. She had a spotty career, but he is by far the most appealing person in this film. She has an air of intelligent resilience and, though she is treated the worst of anybody in the film, she takes it with a knowing, mocking laugh, letting Connor have his fun until Lord gets on with her life, and she'll be standing there waiting; laughing at his stupidity. The character and the performance are equally good; it's a shame that her biggest role otherwise was as the nanny in Another Thin Man. Between Hussey and Asta, the dog in Bringing Up Baby, I'm starting to think there is a Thin Man pattern. Who'll be in the next movies? Myrna Loy? Tom Neal?

The Philadelphia Story definitely doesn't have the laughs of Bringing Up Baby, but the film is a lot tighter overall. It's simple, but is a perfect template for a high comedy, though it doesn't have any of the fun subtext of the later two films on the set. Brilliant comedy.

Next...hopefully soon...Woman of the Year.