Saturday, November 7, 2015

AFI Top 100: #44 "The Philadelphia Story"

Katharine Hepburn & James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

During the mad rush that has been our move, these wee-little reviews have unfortunately taken a backseat. Time to get back in the saddle, since our viewings haven't taken a break! The last time Katharine Hepburn came together with Cary Grant in the AFI Top 100 list, I wrote my most scathing review to date for a movie that I will forever and always passionately hate. It's amazing what can happen in two years, isn't it? Our actors have matured, shedding their caricature-like personas in an attempt to play delightfully real-ish people. It's #44 on our countdown, The Philadelphia Story, that reminds me just how wonderful Miss Hepburn truly was. The powerful energy of Jimmy Stewart, hot off the success of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, certainly doesn't hurt.

Society girl Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is set to remarry after the highly publicized failure of her first marriage to C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant), whose romance was short-lived, volatile, and passionate. Tracy's new fiancee is George Kittridge (John Howard), a rather boring would-be politician with little to define his personality besides his love for Tracy. On the eve of the wedding at the Lord mansion, tabloid reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and his liaison, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) show up under the guise of being friends with Tracy's brother, to get the scoop on the marriage of the centuryand discover what really happened between Tracy and Dexter.

The interplay between characters, and new ones geting introduced, mentioned, and forgotten about, appears complicated, but everything flows with such ease. Tracy is always the central focus, but even then, she feels on the periphery. At first, it isn't about her at all, but rather how everyone else feels about her. Naturally, they're all enamored with her, even if she drives them crazy with how perfect she is all the time. The beauty of the film is how slowly but surely the veil is lifted off of Tracy's perfection, and we all get to see how real a person she actually is. Even Dexter, as he shows up to witness this sham of a wedding, can't deny the power she has over people.

The beauty of Katharine Hepburn's acting style is that she doesn't need to reach for the laugh or twist herself up in flighty obliviousness. In fact, she shouldn't, because she's not very good at it, as evidenced by her almost career-ending turn in Bringing Up Baby. What she is good at is being smart. Intelligent, albeit sheltered, characters that hold a power over everyone around her, not only because she's beautiful, but because she's so strong. That's who she is in this film, and that's why it works. Her chemistry with both Jimmy Stewart and Grant is sizzling because they actually desire hernot the other way around. She simply gets to be, and by being, she captivates.

The stakes are never all that high for anyone in this film, making it a bit fluffy and trite at times, especially when the plot is basically just rich white people marrying other rich white peoplebut it's the performances and the playful dialogue that keep it afloat. Stewart's Connor gets to be the Average Joe simultaneously deriding and falling in love with the Lord family, and he's just as irritated by how much he's enjoying himself as the rest of us are. All of this can be credited to Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay, and Philip Barry's original play. Elements of the play are only evident through the dialogue, with the grandness of the Lord estate and the setting in general having been greatly Hollywood-ized.

The humor is smart, too, and there are moments when it's even progressive (for the time, of course). Drunkenness as a means of comedy rather than tragedy or drama is a strictly "rich people" motif. The richer you are, the funnier alcoholism is, according to Hollywood, and this movie takes full advantage of that fact. It all remains pretty high brow in the face of all that drinking, though, and the characters manage to have enough meaningful conversations and insights amidst all that raucous fun. And for once in a comedy, Cary Grant gives an understated performance that caps off the whole picture with ruffled, classy touch.

At the end of the day, this is a great comedy with everyone bringing their A-game. Despite not having anything profound to say, it's a far more enjoyable watch than, say, Sullivan's Travels, which attempted to say too much with very little subtlety. George Cukor is a director with enough nuance to navigate any genre, which is why this film is so balanced in its insightful approach to character and laughs. He also knows how best to utilize Hepburn's talents, as he went on to direct her in several of her most famous films alongside Spencer Tracy.

The Philadelphia Story was remade into the musical High Society in 1956, starring Bing Crosby, Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, which may be one of the most inspired adaptations if only because the songs and star power were so on pointand it poked fun at its own upper-crustness.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Check back next time for #43 on the list, Midnight Cowboy — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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