January 16, 2011

#44: The Philadelphia Story

Cary Grant! Katharine Hepburn! Jimmy Stewart! All directed by George Cukor! The pedigree of stars along should make The Philadelphia Story a thrill -- it should snap, crackle and pop ... but it underwhelmed me. I suppose when I go back to this time period and I watch a comedy, I expect it to sizzle, either in the slapstick vein of Bringing Up Baby or in the wacky chaos of the Marx Brothers. Is my palette for classic comedy too limited?

Company: just me again. Gotta involve some friends soon. Gettin' lonely.

Cuisine: Diet Cherry 7Up (with antioxidants!), Wheat Thins and garlic/tomato/basil hummus

Well, the film begins with this amazing moment.

After palming Kate the Great's face, how can one go up? This brief, wordless prologue introduces us to the chemistry between recently divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy Lord (Oscar nominee Katharine Hepburn, her third of 12 noms), and the rest of the film chronicles how they end up back together. Tracy is a rich socialite, ready to re-marry George Kittredge (John Howard) ...

... but a tabloid publisher, eager to gain exclusive coverage of the wedding, blackmails Dexter to introduce two reporters (Ruth Hussey and Oscar winner Jimmy Stewart), who are undercover as distant relatives. Tracy sees through this plot, but hesitantly allows media coverage as it will stop the tabloid from publishing an incriminating article about her adulterous father (John Halliday). It's enough intrigue for a weekend in the country.

As is pretty typical in a romantic comedy, more and more men start to fall for Tracy, and at any given moment she has at least three men dying to be with her. I suppose if that's how it's going to be, you'd better get Hepburn. She's not at her most daffy or versatile here -- in fact, the role asks little of her -- but her great warmth and wit makes Tracy Lord a three-dimensional human being. At one point, Dexter says of her: "you'll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you learn to have some regard for human frailty." A woman who holds men to extraordinary standards? No one better than Kate to play this part. She's got that great compassion under the stony surface that's just right for the character. And Mr. Stewart, the Oscar winner here, actually felt like he was given a statue for this to make up for being snubbed for his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#26 on this list). But he's very charming, and makes for a convincing drunk.

Needless to say, the story centers around Tracy's troubles with picking just one man to spend her life with. They're all so dashing, and there's only one of her! What to do!? Booze, Tracy.

"The course of true love..." "--gathers no moss!"

Things go awry, misunderstandings spin out of control, Tracy's heart wants what it wants and then some ...

... but she can't have it all. Perhaps my indifference towards this movie stems from my indifference towards what happens to Tracy. She'll end up marrying someone, and whether it's George, Dexter or Mike, does it really make that much of a difference? Maybe that's the trouble -- I don't see the real differences in the mens' performances. In Tracy's relationships with them? Yes. She shines far above her scene partners, maybe because their characters are not as interesting as hers (and that's even saying something, considering the fact that I don't think Tracy is all that interesting, even with Katharine Hepburn playing her).

It's not that I didn't like the film. I just felt indifferent toward it. Maybe I kept waiting for it to be something else? Maybe as I continue through this blog, that's a part of the curse -- that I'll continually relate and compare these films to each other... even though that was sort of the idea. Whatever. No one said I had to like all these movies, but when they're on a list like this, I like to have concrete reasons for disliking them other than "I liked Bringing Up Baby better!"

Ultimately, my conclusion seems to be that The Philadelphia Story is asking its audience to believe it's zany and screwball when really it takes itself too seriously to be very much fun. Ask me again in five years and maybe I'd feel differently, but for now that's my two cents.

Next up: another I haven't seen -- the X-rated Midnight Cowboy.

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