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.

1 comment:

vienna said...

Loved how you described Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey's characters. Spot on. Ruth deserved a bigger career.