Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

I have no idea how many times I have watched "The Philadelphia Story". Three at least, very likely more. I remember for a while it being my most wanted in my "must watch" list, the high expectations and the deception it followed. I really didn't like it. I found it flat. None of the subsequent viewings (on TV/VHS/DVD) changed it. However, watching it at the cinema I fell for it and realised how good it is. But I am wondering what changed. Did I become more agreeable to the film with age? Or watching a nice print at the cinema made a difference? Or possibly both.

Based on a play by Philip Barry, "The Philadelphia Story" was directed by George Cukor and starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant (in their last film together) and James Stewart. It's a story of woman having to choose between three men while finding out that the flaws in oneself are what make us human and life worth living. It's also funny and at moments, very tender. The film also has an interesting backstory, with Hepburn (for whom the play was written) outsmarting Hollywood and ensuring the film was done on her terms, and in the process relaunching her career.

One of the things I noticed for the first time is how little Cary Grant (top billed) appears - or is perceived to appear - compared to James Stewart. Both are good, and Stewart got an Oscar for this (or as most people see it, a delayed one for "Mr Smith goes to Washington"). They both play well against each other, particularly in a key scene after the party in Grant's house: Stewart does a very good drunk, with Grant playing his straight man. Grant's character is actually the most interesting one to me, because he is the one that reveals the least. He is smart and aware. He is loyal to his ex-wife and clearly is in love with her, but we know very little more. But what's special is that this is not because he is underwritten but because he is a fully rounded character, acting consistently but choosing to do more than hint at his thoughts.

Another character the films gets extraordinarily well is Ruth Hussey's photographer. Her character shows an unusual maturity, almost modern, for 1940s films, waiting quietly for the right time to show her feelings (which technically she never really does, as I don't think she thinks the time was right). This was Hussey's career high and she got an Oscar nomination out of it, losing to Jane Darwell for "The Grapes of Wrath".

But the film belongs to Katharine Hepburn. She's is the focus of your attention despite the fact the film is constructed around her. Yet, she's never showy and delivers her character's transformation from self-righteous goddess to human being in a organic way. The final scenes are among her finest screen moments, particularly when she relinquishes one of her two men. She also looks amazing, exactly like one the many drawings Hirschfeld did of her.

Of course the film is not without faults. Virginia Weidler's performance hasn't aged well (or it could be that I never liked her in any of her films... I vaguely remember her being particularly annoying in "All this, and Heaven too"). The subplot with the father made me cringe: blaming the daughter's lack of devotion for his affairs?! This is probably the greatest plausibility
hole in Philip Barry's play and David Odgen Stewart's Oscar winning script.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

The second most famous child actor of the 1930s and one of the most memorable presences in film. My favourite role is as the young Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama". But that is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Funny Face (1957)

Audrey Hepburn's male partners are a good case study for Hollywood sexism and ageism. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was often paired with older men, some old enough to be her father (Bogart, Cooper, Astaire, Fonda and Cary Grant - although he was in a category of his own). While we are expected that this bright, gorgeous creature could fall in love with older men; older women often had to suffer if they dared wishing to be interested in virile young men. This is one of the more extreme cases in this series - at some stage Astaire actually says that he doesn't care for her intellect. In the same vein, there is a scene where domestic violence turns rebellious women into devoted ones (this is set in France, so it could be aimed at French women). In fact, faced with Astaire's irrestitible charm, she abandons all intellectual preocupations for love.
Stanley Donen directed "Funny Face", which tells the story of a pretty young girl with intellectual ambitions that accepts a job as a modelling job in Paris so she can meet her favourite philosopher. Recycling Gershwin songs, it really intended to cash on Audrey Hepburn's stardom.

The satire has dated badly (the intellectual circles, the philosopher more interested in more material pussuits), and the romantic bits are over the top (the swans and the barge are really good examples). Hepburn is beautifully photographed (and the new restoration looks impeccable) and murders a few Gershwin songs (particularly "How long has this been going on?") but she has nothing else to do other than showing pretty clothes - although she does it well, creating an iconic image in the Louvre sequence. As for Astaire, all he does is repeat all he had spent the previous two and half decades doing. And while it's fun to see Paris in the 1950s (and how little the city centre has changed) and Givenchy and Edith Head get to show off their talent as designers, I fear this one is for hardcore Audrey fans only.

The sole redeeming feture of the film is Kay Thompson who gets the best number ("Think Pink!") and lightens up the others she appears. Oh, and Audrey's photographs within the film are very good indeed.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Al Hirschfeld and The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1984)

I love Al Hirschfeld's work, but it's always a pleasant surprise when I accidentally stumble against a new poster or cover art, or a caricature that I particularly like. Due to his longevity, his work covered the 20th century greats of Hollywood, Broadway and the West End. If there's no Hirschfeld drawing of you and you were working at that time, you really didn't make it.

So, by accident, I found the poster for "The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley" (1984), which has the distinction of being Katharine Hepburn's last film starring role (opposite Nick Nolte). I had never heard of the film, and from online clips it looks a lot like a cheap TV film. It has a interesting premise, though - but best of all, is the poster (particularly Kate's drawing).

Monday, 24 February 2014

Harold Ramis (1944-2014)

Animal House, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. No need to say add anything else.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

I Married a Witch (1942)

Veronica Lake is a strange one in Hollywood stardom. She had an iconic hairstyle which propelled her to stardom. She was in a few movies ("Sullivan's Travels", the Alan Ladd noirs) which have endured well, and partly because of this, she has a reasonable cult following. What she didn't have was a wide range in her acting skills, and in René Clair's "I Married a Witch" she is absolutely dreadful - and I am aware I am in a minority here.

Actually the whole film is somewhat odd, on and off screen. Produced by Paramount, it was sold by the studio to United Artists when Paramount had a surplus of films and UA not enough. Assuming the film was sold after Lake's peekaboo hair made its first screen appearance (I have no evidence for making this assumption), Paramount only would have sold it either they thought the film was a sure hit and a lot of money passed hands or if the studio had little faith in the film and disposed of it as quickly as it could. I have to say that with the film as the only evidence, I am inclined for the second option.

The film tells the story of a witch falling in love and marrying a man (Fredric March) whose family condemned her to burn centuries before. It is perhaps better known as one of the inspirations of the TV series "Bewitched". Originally set to be produced by Preston Sturges and starring Joel McCrea, that might have resulted in a better film, as March and Lake famously didn't get along. This occasionally shows - Lake lacks the catlike playfulness she should have had while seducing him (I keep thinking what Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard or Irene Dunne could have done with it). Only at the very end of the film (when she sorts things out), was I happy with her performance.

Of course, the film fails elsewhere and I am not blaming Lake for it all. March is best described as competent here (and he could so much better) and the film takes a while to gather pace, with the first half dragging a bit. It does improve in the second half, particularly in the wedding scenes and the build-up to the climax. I also loved the epilogue (possibly the most Paramount-like moment of the whole film). The supporting cast, particularly a young Susan Hayward as the always nagging fiancée, is very good. She also would also have been a good choice for the lead. Oh, and the posters are great (and Lake does look very good indeed).

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Family Honeymoon (1948)

"Family Honeymoon" is the last pairing of Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. And of the six I have seen (I am missing the elusive "Practically Yours"), it is the dullest and most uninspired. It is also the most reactionary, even if it starts off with a good premise. A widow with three children is to marry an academic. However, the kids babysitter (her spinster sister) breaks her leg and is unable to manage the kids who tag along on the honeymoon.
Up to the end of WWII, marriage meant the couple was finally allowed to have sex (e.g. Minnelli's "The Clock"). This meant that the film (and its leads) could, particularly in comedy, increase and escalate tension with the audience knowing that at the end there would be some release (yes, I know awful pun). Whereas here the children are the excuse to keep everything censor friendly. Colbert dexterously avoids any move from MacMurray; one scene has her giving a stern look, completely emasculating him: MacMurray is an an absent minded professor who is not will not be rewarded until he ascertains his masculinity over an over feminine Colbert, who seems to have failed to notice her children are unruly until she looses her man - the double implication that a) a woman can't raise children without a man and b) a woman needs a man to guide her to life. These are lazy post-war Hollywood stereotypes at their worst.

The plot is also full of preposterous incidents (a mother not paying attention to their kids at a train stop?!) and a predatory woman (Rita Johnson, failing to do what Gail Patrick could do so well) to keep the story moving to its 90th minute. This latter point is actually extraordinarily annoying, as it passes all possible suspension of disbelief, with Johnson's character too eager to disrupt the honeymoon. Although I must confess that the party sequence at the end was a slight improvement over the rest of the film.

Neither Colbert or MacMurray do more than the bare minimum and I would suggest that all they thought of was the pay check, and honestly I can't blame them. Hattie McDaniel has a small role, just a bit more than a cameo, and looks very ill in what was one of her last film roles. Only Lilian Bronson as Colbert's sister manages to make something interesting of what is an disappointing
farewell of one of my favourite actor pairings of old Hollywood.