Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hackneyed, but mildly enjoyable Hays code-hampered comedy about a high society wedding being crashed by leering (cliched) journalists. Katherine Hepburn is the lead, a prudish, wealthy woman about to married to an old, practical self-made man. James Stewart and Cary Grant play the journalists who come to mine the big wedding for headlines, but Grant has the added advantage of being Hepburn's ex-husband. The plot is probably among those that influenced Woody Allen, for it involves a lot of upper-class repression, sexual scandals, and rapid-fire dialogue; however, it also has a mandate by the Hays code to not say anything remotely lascivious whatsoever. As a result, the whole film has that "Streetcar" vibe to it, where it always seems like the characters are talking about something completely different from what they are saying. While the dialogue is snappy and fairly entertaining, it lacks a certain provocativeness that is only achieved in a stretch with Stewart and Hepburn where their character drunkenly cavort in the wee hours of the morning. The loose, romantic nature of these scenes, along with brilliant performances by Stewart (never more charming) and Hepburn (never more radiant) create that intimate, dream-like vibe that Allen worked so hard (successfully) to replicate in his later works. However, the film betrays these scenes by shoehorning in more traditional, Hays-appropriate romantic complications and writing off Stewart's character as a mischievous drunk. Cary Grant does not have the natural, human qualities of Stewart and Hepburn, but does get in his fair share of zingers with his trademark comic delivery. The supporting cast is suprisingly game, with the old aristocrats not seeming as blustery and comic as they would in, say, a Hitchcock film. George Cukor's framing is subtle, but works best in the more intimate dialogue scenes, where he is not afraid to establish fleeting, but real connections between the characters. However, the overly-done plot, the constant stupid misunderstandings and toothless arguments, and the stupid, obvious, heartless ending subvert the genuine, golden-era pleasures to be had here.

Slightly Recommended for junkies of old, classic Hollywood, James Stewart, or Katherine Hepburn. Stewart won a thoroughly well-deserved Oscar for this role, a thoroughly modern one trapped in a classic film (particularly for a moment where Hepburn tries to put on a classy act after their drunken night together and he impulsively laughs at her coyishness); the films biggest flaw, in the end, is that the Oscar (appropriately) was for Best Supporting and not for Best Actor.

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