The Talk of the Town (1942)

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The Lawgh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

As a political junkie its fun to watch films like The Talk of the Town and dissect their deeper political and philosophical meaning which in this case is intertwined within a screwball farce that effortlessly transitions between wacky comedy and serious drama. The movie centres on a fantastic triangle of characters played by Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Ronald Coleman with the real meat of the film being the relationship between Leopold Dilg (Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Coleman) while Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) tries to keep this unlikely family of three in one piece.

Leopold Dilg is one of the more interesting characters Cary Grant ever played, a radical activist and one role in which we see him dressed just like a commoner. However, he is one handsome activist at that rather than some hair dyed SJW (that man can make any clothes look dapper). If it weren’t for the production code then the character of Dilg would certainly be labeled as a communist. The movie is full of clues pointing to this (educated young working-class intellectual, opposes capitalist corruption, belief that violence is sometimes necessary, his father’s resentment for work, even his fondness for borscht). The production code would not have allowed a possible communist to be a sympathetic character or a hero thus the word “communist” or related term is never mentioned. On the other hand, Dilg is shown to have much respect for the Supreme Court so is he really a communist or just a leftie? With Dilg we even get an insight into why one might be an activist; as he puts it, activism is a form of self-expression – “Some people write books, some music. I make speeches on street corners.” Dilg would have felt right at home in the age of the internet (“When I hear a man talk nonsense I always get an impulse”).

Ronald Coleman, one of Hollywood’s most charming English gents is Professor Lightcap. Dilg and Lightcap are two intellectuals but from different worlds in this clash of the classes yet they find common ground in their interest in the political and philosophical; their conversations and so much fun to listen and make the film worth watching again as they’re a lot to take in. Dilg views Lightcap as “an intelligent man, but cold” with “no blood in his thinking” and thus doesn’t desire to see him take a seat in the Supreme Court with his current mentality. By the end of the film, both Dilg and Lightcap change their philosophies on law. Dilg comes around the see the need for law and order while Lightcap begins to see that the law is not sterile. During the film’s final monologue Lightcap speaks to an angry mob at a courthouse on the importance of law:

“This is your law and your finest possession. It makes you free. Why have you come to destroy it? Think of a world crying for this law. Then they’ll understand why they ought to guard it and why the law should be the concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbour as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake; another mistake is to look upon the law as just asset of principles. Just so much language printed on heavy paper. Something he recites and then takes it for granted that justice is being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong. The law must be practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit. It can’t exist unless we fight a battle every day to preserve it.”

I’m not sure what message to take from The Talk of the Town. On the one hand, it showcases the importance of upholding a lawful and just society (which would have resonated with the war against fascism in Europe) and the dangers of mob mentality. On the other hand earlier in the film Lightcap spoke of how “If feelings had any influence on the law, half the country would be in jail” and “you conduct your law on random sentimentality and you will have violence and disorder” only to later soften these views as evident by his final monologue. These statements sound just like a description of the PC politics of the 21st century; facts don’t care about your feelings. Just how far will the professor go with this change of heart? Still, at the end of the day, it is thought-provoking stuff.

The character of Tilney (Rex Ingram) is one of the better, more dignified portrayals of an African American as Professor Lightcap’s servant of whom he considers Tilney’s judgment to be superior to his own. In one of the more unusual but emotionally powerful scenes in the movie, Tilney sheds a tear in an extreme and long close up at the sight of his master shaving his beard; a black actor having a long close up with real emotion behind it. The scene plays the emotions up to 11 as Tilney realises his friend and employer is undergoing a profound change as he shaves his beard as a metaphor for casting off old ways.

The beginning of The Talk of the Town is incredibly different from the rest of the film, setting it up as a horror/thriller with its moody, melodramatic music and making Dilg out to be a sinister, threatening character. If you went into the film completely blind you would be shocked as it gradually morphs into a comedy as the lighting and shadows become less dim, the music becomes more cheery and starts to take on a pleasant New England, small-town feel. Likewise, listen out for a piece of music heard throughout the film including at the end which sounds just like Yoda’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back.

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Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30-minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still, however, can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise, at the beginning of the film, we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out sometime.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no-nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place, however, I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another Philadelphia Experiment

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant pushes Katharine Hepburn to the ground by putting his hand in her face. With any other actor this would be a vile act against a woman but because it’s Cary Grant, it works and thus showing the power of these three acting titans, Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The Philadelphia Story gives an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, something which would be harder to pull off in later decades not to come off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. I do find myself trying to figure out why this is? Could it be the incredibly high standards of writing and filmmaking craft on display here and the love of these performers; even more so when compared to the poor standard of romantic comedies today?

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is not a ditzy socialite. In this role written for Hepburn it’s clear that she is a symbol of first wave feminism; wearing pants and an emasculating suit and being an influence on her younger tomboy sister but more importantly, it’s not to be undermined the complex characterisation of Tracy Lord. Like in Holiday, Grant and Hepburn share some very poignant and hard to decipher dialogue in which he tells her about her standing as a goddess and her lack of human frailty. Despite her ego, she claims in a sincere manner “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”. Under the surface of the usual Cary Grant charm and elegance, C.K. Dexter Haven is one the darker characters Grant ever played. Apparently he “socked” Tracy on occasions, destroyed the cameras of multiple photographers on a boat and is a recovering alcoholic. This is Cary Grant at his most conniving with no remorse and enjoying it, displaying the darkly comic side of The Philadelphia Story.

However, this is Stewart and Hepburn’s film. Macaulay Connor is the moral, do-gooder James Stewart is known for (at least at the beginning that is); objecting to having been given the assignment of snooping in on the wedding of a Philadelphia socialite, as opposed to something with more journalistic integrity. He is appalled by the rich and their lifestyle but unlike Jefferson Smith he throws this out the window when he falls in love with Tracy; a piece of subtle cynicism on the movie’s part? I also really appreciate the relationship he shares with his work partner Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Her character is very cynical throughout most of the film but later reveals her more idealist side. She shares a platonic friendship with Macaulay but there are hints they have deeper feelings for each other. Virginia Weidler, on the other hand, is a real scene stealer. Just look at her speaking French in an overdramatic manner then singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady by the piano; a pointless scene but funny.

I can’t call The Philadelphia Story a predictable movie as I couldn’t see where the story was going at the end. I could have sworn she would end up with Jimmy but at the last minute and totally out of nowhere she goes with Cary and with it coming off as contrived. Likewise, a drunken Stewart carrying Hepburn in his arms while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is surely one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid.

Syliva Scarlett (1935)

Some Like It Odd

The sheer bizarreness of Syliva Scarlet is largely what keeps the film afloat. Watching it you certainly must question what everyone involved was thinking.

Sylvia “Sylvester” Scarlet (Hepburn) is supposedly French and can speak only a little English or so the movie claims despite the fact that she speaks perfect English throughout the entire film nor are the reasons why Sylvia must dress in drag really make much sense but I digress; I could go on listing the inconsistencies present in this film. It’s not hard to see why this film became a cult classic instead of falling into obscurity. Firstly there is Katharine Hepburn cross-dressing, although with Hepburn’s masculine facial features the idea that anyone would mistake her for a man is more convincing than some other crossdressing movies. This makes the movie full of homosexual undertones; most prominently in the scene in which a woman played by Dennie Moore clearly expresses an attraction towards Sylvia, unaware she is a woman in drag; commenting that her skin is as smooth as a girl’s and kisses her after drawing a Ronald Coleman mustache on her. Make of that what you will.

On top of that Cary Grant sprouts a cockney accent. Along with Hepburn and her father played by Edmund Gwenn they make for an enjoyable trio of not very good con artists who don’t adhere to the philosophy Syliva proposes at one point in the film, “Why don’t we all get jobs and go to work”. I’m not sure if I can even distinguish the film’s moments of humor between intentionally and unintentionally funny. Either way, the whole thing is ridiculous, funny stuff.  In fact, I could have given this film a higher score but I felt the romance dominated second half slowed the film’s pace; I guess you could say the film started to drag (bad dum tiss). Sylvia Scarlett is one of those films which has to be seen to be believed. The first film of the Kate and Cary quadrilogy can be classified as many things but “forgettable” isn’t one of them.

Holiday (1938)

Is This Where the Club Meets?

Holiday is my favourite Cary Grant film and my favourite of Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn’s partnership. Between this, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story it’s almost like having to choose my favourite child; yes all three are that good but ultimately Holiday is the most beloved of my offspring. I find Kate & Cary to be one of the five greatest instances of chemistry I’ve seen between an actor and actress (my other selections being Astaire & Rogers, Powell & Loy, Stewart & Sullivan and Fonda & Stanwyck), even preferring them to the longer running Tracy-Hepburn partnership.

However, the two stars aren’t actually romantically engaged throughout Holiday, with Johnny Case (Grant) preparing to get married to Julia Seaton (Doris Nolan), the sister of Linda Seaton (Hepburn). This dynamic in which Linda is more passionate about her sister’s relationship than Julia herself and the obvious feelings she has for Johnny is a much more interesting and complex dynamic than the more standard romance. Linda is far more interesting than her comparably dull sister. The whole time I’m thinking to myself Kate & Cary are beyond perfect for each other in this coming together of two intellectuals.  – I simply don’t want to see them being involved with anyone else.

I feel Cary Grant has never looked more youthful than he does in Holiday and even gets a rare opportunity to show off his acrobatic skills, with Hepburn even getting in on the action. I’ll also take this opportunity to mention that man sure could wear clothes like no other. The discussions Kate & Cary engage on what their characters want to do with their lives are so deep and profound. The difficulty of finding their place in life, the obstacles of trying to live it and not wanting to miss out on an ever-changing world full of ideologies and ideas, all while trying to get by with an optimistic attitude despite the imperfections in their life. It’s hard to take it all in on and decipher in a single viewing, which makes Holiday one of my most life-affirming movies.

Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, had the opportunity in her career to play roles which reflected her real-life personality as a non-conformist oddball. In Holiday she is the black sheep in a wealthy, business-driven family. Linda is a character who comes up with what her family describes as “little ideas” which they outright dismiss. Her “little idea” of throwing an engagement party for Julia in their childhood playroom (a playroom which looks so much fun! You could almost set the entire movie in there) on New Year’s Eve is one of the most powerful and harrowing moments I’ve seen in any film. The feeling of being an outsider and a lonely at that (I know I’ve been there before) has never been captured more effectively on celluloid than it has when Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are dancing alone in the playroom and welcome in the New Year. I do make it an aim during a future new year’s eve to watch Holiday with the film synchronized with real time so I can introduce the new year at the exact same time the character’s in the movie do so.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Screwball Comedy on Steroids

I make it no secret that screwball comedy is my favourite genre of film. I can never get tired of these films; to me, this is the most un-boring genre ever. Whenever I’m watching a great screwball comedy I’m on cloud 9 and when it’s over I’m always left wanting more. Sometimes I wish my life was a screwball comedy.

Bringing Up Baby is the quintessential daffy dame/stuffy gentleman movie (a formula often imitated but never topped) and I find it endlessly fascinating this premise of how this woman constantly infiltrates this man’s life and just won’t go away. You think it would be easy that he could avoid her but the manner in which she keeps coming back into his life is comedic brilliance. Like many great comedies, the jokes in Bringing Up Baby always take me by surprise no matter how many times I see it. Howard Hawks seems to have a distinctive style of slapstick comedy which separates his screwball comedies from others but what this is I can’t put my finger on; Hawks’ screwball simply has a distinctive electrically energy to it. Bringing Up Baby was produced at RKO studios, of whom I can’t help but notice their films have a distinctive imperfection of a grainy image quality and the use of soft lighting which is very easy on the eyes; the days when movie studios had their own distinctive styles.

I don’t think Katharine Hepburn ever looked more staggeringly beautiful than she does in Bringing Up Baby, I even find myself infatuated with the outfits she wears and her hairstyles in the film. Unlike other films of the genre, however, the romance is largely secondary to the rest of the story; with Susan (Hepburn) falling for David (Cary Grant) but not the other way around. Even with David eventually proclaiming his love for Susan I get the impression the two only remain (unlikely) friends. Likewise, the common screwball comedy theme of a crisis of masculinity is really played up here to the full with Grant wearing a woman’s dressing gown an even proclaiming in a fit of rage to be ”gay all of a sudden”.

David’s wild goose chase to obtain a dinosaur bone known as an ‘intercostal clavicle’ (a nonexistent fossil created for the movie) to complete the museum’s Brontosaurus skeleton, it’s eventfully destruction at the hands of Susan (Hepburn) as well as Susan’s treating a leopard as a pet is all perfectly in tune with the character’s defiance of the natural order of things. Bringing Up Baby is the only screwball comedy I can think of which involves it’s cast interacting with a dangerous animal; I’m unsure why this never became a common screwball trope, I guess studios wouldn’t allow their cast and crew to be placed in such danger. My review title may sound hyperbolic but I’d pair Bringing Up Baby with You Can’t Take It With You as the most over the top, steroidal, off the wall offering in the screwball comedy genre. Watching Bringing Up Baby is like watching a movie with the fast-forward button turned on; the film is over before you know it. Old movies are slow and boring? Whoever came up with such nonsense?