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Posts Tagged ‘Cary Grant’

Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

philstory

Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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