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.

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Summertime (1955)

S-S-S-Summertime

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Watching Summertime kind of feels like going on a holiday, it just has that summer-like feel to it which is hard to describe. The film doesn’t have the epic scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago yet it still has that same epic feel. I’ve never been to Venice but with the European cities I have been to, you know that they feel like time capsules. Summertime also feels like a documentary that could have been filmed in subsequent decades (whenever 1950’s fashion isn’t apparent on screen) adding to the timeless aspect of the film. I often say it but the world itself is the greatest movie set of them all. Just as impressive is the sound design. The ambient noise of footsteps, dogs barking, birds singing or music in the faint background; Summertime is a good movie to have playing the in the background to create an atmosphere in your own house. I am however disappointed to report however the UK DVD release of Summertime from Second Sight is pan & scan only, shame on you!

Katharine Hepburn plays a tourist who exhibits a number of stereotypical tourist habits including the need to record everything she sees, I guess that’s not such an annoying modern trait (all that is missing are the selfies). At least though she is an independent spinster who wants to see the authentic side of another country and not the phony stuff in comparison to the couples she meets who fall for the tourist traps and guided tours. This is one of the aspects of Summertime which I can relate to as the older I get I have less patience for organised group trips abroad and just want to go off for an adventure at my own will. That and the romantic fantasy of going to an exotic place by yourself in search of love. At its, heart Summertime is a deeply tragic film once we discover just how lonely Katharine Hepburn’s character is as she tries to mask her emotion and not feel awkward when conversing with married couples. We know little of this character’s background and why she is going on holiday on your own?

David Lean may be known for his epic visuals, but the man can create an incredibly emotional story (I still say the ending of Brief Encounter is one of the most powerful film moments I’ve ever witnessed). Summertime draws a number of parallels to Brief Encounter and of course, the movie ends with the two being separated at a train station as he rushes to get there before the train leaves. It’s a cliché ending used for decades but for good reason, I believe.

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.

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is very much the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one-liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression-ridden 30’s; the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously with its barrage of highly relatable human emotion – The lightning-fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings.

Supposedly the filming of Stage Door began without a completed script resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised. The interactions between the female cast feels real; the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives.  Likewise, the film even has an early appearance by Jack Carson as an over giddy lumberjack on an arranged date with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); always a great screen presence no matter how brief his appearance is. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. I do love Terry Randall, she’s the one character in the boarding house of whom clearly comes from an upper-class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. With her go-getter attitude, Terry is the embodiment of the individual as summed up in one line: “You talk as if the world owed you a living. Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you”.  I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it. This does make me question what they are doing there in the first place; I guess they have just been beaten down by the system that bad. One thing Terry is not, however, is a snob. She doesn’t look down on the girls from a high and mighty position and even makes the effort to learn their slang. When I doubt I will ask myself, what would Terry Randall do?

On Golden Pond (1981)

My Knight In Shining Armour

On Golden Pond deserves the title of “something you don’t see every day”.  Movies which deal with old age don’t usually become box office hits in a world obsessed with being young, yet On Golden Pond became the 2nd highest grossing film of 1981. Plus it stars two elderly actors who hadn’t appeared in a major box office picture in over a decade.

Despite their six decades in the industry, not only was it the first time Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn starred in a film together but they the first time they had even met each other. I never ceased to be amazed by the longevity of the careers of these two actors, especially Henry Fonda, whom I consider to have the most impress careers of any actor I’ve come across, scoring great films in every decade from the 30’s right up to the 80’s. On Golden Pond would be his last film and what a way to end a career. On Golden Pond reflects Fonda’s real-life relationship with his children. Reportedly the man was emotionally distant from his children, as are characters of Norman and his daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) in On Golden Pond. It makes you wonder how much of the interactions between the Fondas in the film are genuine with their intentionally forced and un-naturalistic manner of speaking to each other. Yet Norman will accidentally utter Chelsea’s name at several points showing that deep down he really cares about her. Also, what’s up with the bikini shots Jane Fonda? Was she trying to promote her exercise videos?

Norman Thayer actually reminds me of my own grandfather in how he enjoys screwing with people’s minds, such as the scene in which his future son in law tries to ask him if he would have a problem with having sex with his wife in their house.  Norman Thayer seems like a stereotypical old man at first but we grow to empathize with his character. Just look at that battered old face of his which manages to say so much while his cranky, grump, smart-aleck old man shtick helps the ease the likeability of his character. Norman is a man nearing the end of his life played by a man who literally was nearing the end of his life. Compared to Henry Fonda’s appearance in the film Meteor which he stared in two years earlier, he aged quite a lot in that short period of time.

Katharine Hepburn is one badass old lady in On Golden Pond. Just look at the scene in which jumps of a boat and into a lake to save her husband and nephew and doing her own stunts too. She also reportedly told Jane Fonda on set that she hated her but watching their scenes together you’d never know it but she’s Kate, she can hate whoever she wants. Plus it’s nifty to hear old stars curse, as well as flipping the bird. Norman and Ethel Thayer represent the old couple I believe most people would strive to be, married for decades but still madly in love with each other as ever.

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.

Grace Quigley (1984)

Seymour! Mother!

Old Hollywood stars who were still working by the 1980’s where usually appearing in films dealing with old age (On Golden Pond, Tough Guys, The Whales of August). Grace Quigley was one such film and would be Katharine Hepburn’s last starring role in a theatrical film. The movie’s alternative title is ‘The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley’ although I’m assuming that title is less commonly used since it echoes a certain 20th-century atrocity.

Starring alongside Nick Nolte, Grace Quigley has a Harold and Maude element of a young man and an old woman becoming an unlikely team but the Hal Ashby comparison doesn’t end there as I’ve read several sources stating he was originally set to direct the project. The plot of the film involves retired widow Grace Quigley and hitman Seymour Flint getting together through a series of events (and eventfully he adorably starts calling her mom) and starting their own assisted suicide enterprise.  Yes, that’s the plot. Grace Quigley is one of my favourite dark comedies with much of the film’s humour coming from the characters talking so casually about killing themselves as if it’s something they do every day as well as the inclusion of possibly the happiest funeral ever.

The film has a pro-assisted suicide message with one scene involving Grace’s neighbour played by William Duell telling Seymour about dying with dignity and her unwillingness to go to a retirement home as well as “dying in front of a TV set”. In one of the more serious moments of the film, Grace takes Seymour to a retirement home to show him the horrors. I applaud the film for having the courage to make these unapologetic statements about one’s right to take their own life and society’s treatment of the elderly.  As Grace Quigley was a pet project for Katharine Hepburn she must have strongly believed in the issues raised in the film (and a sequel was even planned!).

I also recommend looking up Grace Quigley’s UK VHS cover art. The film I not actually that action-packed (although there is one brief car chase) but I still say it is the single greatest piece of home video artwork ever created.

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?

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.

The African Queen (1951)

Steamboat Bogie

The African Queen is one of those perfect, anti-boring, instantly emotional engaging films that you never want to end. I never want Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to leave that tiny broken down old boat in an African rain forest. The African Queen is the film I measure all “man and woman who hate each other at the start but gradually fall in love” movies against. With the power of these actors, the transition comes of completely organically without a contrivance in sight. Bogart gets the opportunity to get out his usual urban dwellings and into the African jungle, showing how he was one of the most adaptable actors in cinema. The scene in which he goofs around with his intimation of various animals is surely the silliest moment of his career, but it’s all good fun. Even with as scruffy as he appears, he still acts the gentleman, although I do have to ask am I the only one who gets some Bugs Bunny vibes with his performance here?

Katharine Hepburn’s Rose is one tough dame, and does seem like a very unlikable character during the first portion of the film, not treating Charlie with any respect because he won’t agree with her demands and interfering with what ain’t her property! But she’s Kate, she can do whatever she wants and get away with it, and we still love her for it, or at least that’s the case with me. Although Fanboying aside, Katharine Hepburn’s on-screen personality seems to turn many off as I’ve discovered;. you’re likely either indifferent to her or not. I do wonder if Hepburn herself, an atheist had any reservations about playing a missionary in Africa converting the local natives to Christianity, or imposing their faith on any cultures as I see it.

Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography has such striking vibrancy, a style distinctive from Hollywood Technicolor and one which captures Bogart and Hepburn’s rough, beat up faces in such detail. Along with the sound effects of nature in the background and the occasional bit of wildlife, The African Queen gets as close as a movie can get to making me feel like I’m a riverboat in East Africa. The African Queen was one of my earliest exposures to classic cinema, aeons before these movies took over my life, although I only saw the remaining 40 minutes. However, it stuck with me, particularly the scene in they start getting eaten by insects; that scene always gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s one of those rare films which feels like a different (but equally brilliant) film on every viewing.