Review of The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Adapted for the screen by David Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Philip Barry

Directed by George Cukor

Disclaimer: I love this movie. It’s my all-time favorite.

Yes, it’s dated and sexist (married middle-aged fathers wouldn’t be tempted to cheat if their daughters just appreciated them, rather than criticizing them. Uncle Willie is a harmless old lech; boys will be boys, even when they’re grown men.) but also clever, with snappy and poetic dialogue, and its design is to humanize what appears to be a haughty, self-righteous, judgmental, unyielding, and smart high society woman. Tracy Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) both is and is not all of those things.

There’s so very much that is excellent about this film. The dialogue is witty, appropriate, fast, and smart. The directing, adapting from play to film, focuses the audience’s attention just where it needs to be when it needs to be there. Casting and performances are dead-on. The mood of the film shifts from comedy to drama, seriousness, back again, throughout, never abruptly, consistently well-balanced throughout. It’s difficult to tell who Tracy might end up with, if anyone at all.  Lots of reaction shots in this film make the viewer uncertain about who to root for with Tracy. The Guardian’s review, from 2015 by Peter Bradshaw, on the re-release of this film, calls it “utterly beguiling, funny, and romantic”, praising the “deceptive strength in the writing and performances.” That’s an apt description of the film.

This movie started as a hit Broadway play, with the Tracy Lord character based loosely on real life Philadelphia heiress Hope Montgomery Scott. Phillip Barry wrote the play for Hepburn, who originated the role of Tracy Lord on stage; with a little help from friend Howard Hughes, Hepburn purchased the film rights, orchestrating her own film return after being labeled “box office poison.” Although she originally wanted Clark Gable and Spenser Tracy for her co-stars, she got something better: Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, the latter of which won an Oscar for his performance in this film. Peter Bogdonovich on IndieWire  praises its “impeccable pedigree”, as “the last and most popular of four comedies pairing Hepburn and Grant, three of which were directed by Cukor.”

The opening scene sets the stage for the wealthy estate location of the rest of the film. With no dialogue, just orchestral music accompaniment, the audience is shown the ending of a marriage. Conflict, confrontation, and pride dominate the final marital interactions of two main characters. C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) stalks out of the mansion to the waiting car, his wife Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), in a long, flowing negligee, strides out behind him, dramatically taking his golf clubs out of the bag he’s carrying and breaking them over her knee with a satisfied smile. She spins to return to the house. He follows, tapping her on the shoulder in the doorway. She turns back to him. He draws his arm back, making a fist, then changes it to an open hand, applied slowly over her face to shove her bodily down onto the floor.philstory11

Two years later, newspaper headlines in the society section announce Tracy’s remarriage engagement. At her parents’ palatial home with her mother and her younger sister, she prepares for her wedding to George Kittridge (John Howard), rising from the middle class through his management skills. He’s not of her blue-blood set, something that she’s exceptionally proud of, seeing him as a self-made man, unlike Dexter, who inherited his wealth, and also unlike Tracy, who will do the same.

Two reviews from the original release of the film worth taking a look at are Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review and Herb Golden’s Variety review, the latter of which notes Hepburn has to fight to maintain the lead against a barrage of wit and fast dialogue from co-stars, and that this serves as her film comeback.

While most critics refer to the film as shaped by 1930s screwball romantic comedy conventions, with the lead characters caught in a tense conflict with one another, it’s fairly easy to see the roots of this kind of comedy in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the more sophisticated Much Ado About Nothing.

Obviously, Hepburn’s Lord character is suitably “tamed” by the end through the scoldings she receives from her father and from her ex-husband. But the Benedick-Beatrice witty banter and hints at a shared troubled romantic history make a more apt predecessor for this play, given the love the couple still holds for one another and the emphasis on public image both works contain. One difference, though–it appears that it was Benedick who walked away from Beatrice after she hurt him, while in this film it appears to be Tracy who left Dexter.f6760c8f6fa272141a177562557c6ae8

My understanding of the reasons for the end of Tracy and Dexter’s (Cary Grant) marriage is weak, at best, given the snippets provided through the couple’s sharp exchanges throughout the film. Alcohol, pride, lack of communication, and rigidity of character seem the core of their problems. According to Dexter, Tracy holds everyone else to a higher standard than she does herself. She admits no room for human frailty, error, or mistakes. It makes her appear hard-hearted, mostly to men, who–with the exception of Dexter, appear to deserve her accurate assessments of their character.

Tracy’s condemnation of her father and the rumors surrounding his relationship with a certain dancer is made to appear similarly rigid and judgmental. Tracy’s mother (Mary Nash) insists that if Tracy’s father is having an affair, as the paparazzi suggest, it’s no one’s business except his, which he completely (no surprise) approves of. We can’t know what agreements others have made in their marriages, what’s acceptable to them and what isn’t. Still, it’s hard not to side with Tracy in this, assuming her father is cheating on her mother, in a very public way. Ironic, of course, given Hepburn’s own affairs with older married men played out in public, first director John Ford, then actor Spencer Tracy. This film predates those, however.

C.K. Dexter Haven, hat rakishly aslant, hands in pant pockets, is elegant, charming, kind, and graceful, at home in the wealthy set he and Tracy were both born to, but without arrogance or a sense of entitlement. He’s also an astute observer of human behavior and he remains protectively fond of Tracy and her family. It becomes clear that he’s still in love with her as the film progresses.

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In her commentary on this film, movie historian Jeanine Basinger says that Grant had the choice of leading man roles, but he had played something similar to the Connor role recently, so he chose the Haven part instead.

Macauley “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth “Liz” Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) work for Spy magazine as journalists, secretly covering this high society wedding, as writer and photographer. They’re keenly aware that the wealthy and privileged world they’ve gained entry to isn’t theirs. They’re curious, but not particularly interested in this assignment. Connor is the embodiment of crabby, irritated, annoyed, and mocking, often taking center stage or directly in the background of other shots.  Connor, from the working class, has an imaginative, creative writing talent and a lot of condescending preconceived ideas about the privileged class, especially “the rapacious, privileged American female”, which he initially assumes Tracy to be. One of the short stories he’s published is titled “With the High and Mighty, Always a little Patience.” Clearly the working class, represented by Connor, Imbrie, and Kittridge are expected to bond against the privileged elite, represented by Haven, Lord, and her family. But that’s not what happens.

Tracy and her little sister Dinah’s “performance” for the intrusive press consists of ballet, in which they speak French, the younger sister plays piano and sings vulgar bar songs (“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”), while both are attired in ruffled dresses with diamonds dripping, is one of the film’s highlights. They deliberately play to the press’s fascination with the details of the wealthy set’s lives; their performance mocks the idea that the wealthy are eccentric, superficial, and foolish. Although Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are a terrific combination, Virginia Wiedler as Dinah  always steals this movie; her wise-beyond-her-years kid sister act is absolute perfection. 

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“What’s the McCauley for?” Tracy interrupts Connor’s introduction.

“It’s Mike to my friends,” responds Mike, uncomfortably.

“Of whom you have many, I’m sure,” Tracy snidely replies.

When he tells Tracy that his father teaches English, she retorts, “Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper…” Her light tone belies the list of manipulative, deceitful politicians and criminals from English history she’s listing, equating these with what Mike’s father teaches. The reporters can’t quite keep up with this banter, but they realize they’re being taunted by their journalistic prey.

Much later Tracy is surprised by Mike’s beautiful and insightful writing in his book. Mike is surprised by Tracy’s appreciation of his work and her kindness. They recognize something compatible in one another that neither of them expected, and they eventually acknowledge a mutual attraction, to the dismay of both Dexter and Liz.79eece8fcd0e0814a16706528eadd0cc

Connor’s first suit seems too big on him, but the tux he later wears to the ball is tailored, moving him from outsider to insider, and more specifically, to a possible romantic lead.

And Dexter and Mike strike up a friendship based on mutual respect for one another, as well as their shared respect and affection for Tracy. They form an alliance against their mutual enemy, Spy‘s editor, to reveal his manipulative, morally bankrupt behaviors. The scene between Mike and Dexter late at night at Dex’s place is especially charming.

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Film historian Jeanine Basinger notes that Stewart decided to try one of the takes on this scene with hiccups, without warning Grant. That’s the take you see on film, with Grant adlibbing a surprised “Excuse me” in response and the two co-stars locking eyes and trying not to break character by laughing.

Later that same night, back on the Lord estate, a still-tipsy Mike and Tracy fight, flirt, dance, and kiss in the moonlight back yard before taking a midnight dip in the pool. Tracy tries to accuse Mike of her own vices, calling him an “intellectual snob”, among other things, but halfway through her diatribe, she realizes exactly what she’s doing–and that she’s repeating Dexter’s criticism of her from earlier–and changes tactics. She tries to distance herself from Mike and to taunt him, but he’s not having it, instead praising her complexity.

“There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy. You’re lit from within. You’ve got hearthfires and holocausts banked down in you. That’s the blank unholy surprise of it,” Mike says, in wonder.

“Shut up, shut up, oh, Mike, keep talking,” murmurs a drunk Tracy.

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Dex waits for Mike to return from carrying Tracy up to her bedroom and is confronted by a suspicious George, who assumes the worst upon seeing Mike in a bathrobe and plans to call off the wedding.

The next morning brings hangovers, fuzzy memories, an unwarranted, self-righteous reckoning from George, and Tracy facing her own frailties and a  newfound sense of accountability. This story humanizes Tracy Lord Haven and the film at the time of its release worked to do the same for Katharine Hepburn, whom the audience is led to identify with the character.4b3a418e1a949d77c514df9ba68cdf21Tracy goes from being embarrassed and uncertain about what exactly happened the night before between her and Mike to indignant that he may have found her repulsive rather than attractive, when he assures her that they only kissed.

“On the contrary, but you were a little worse for the wine. And there are rules about that,” he gently corrects her. Damn straight there are, Mike. See–Mike gets it, in 1940.

Once Mike’s interest in Tracy is apparent, creating a triangle of suitors around her, it’s no longer clear how this film will end and whom Tracy will choose. 

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You’ll have to watch the movie to find out how it ends for Liz and Dex and Mike and Tracy. And the photo above? Taken by the Spy editor, who crashes the wedding himself, exemplifying the out-of-context exploitation of paparazzi pics promising insider information on the private lives of their targets.

1939 had been a powerhouse film year: Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Love Affair, and The Wizard of Oz. Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Grant had a lead role in Love Affair. In 1940, Jimmy Stewart beat out Laurence Olivier (Rebecca),  Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), and Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) to win the Best Actor Oscar.

High Society is a 1956 color musical remake of this film, starring Bing Crosby, of all people, as jazz musician C.K. Dexter Haven, Grace Kelly as Tracy, and Frank Sinatra as Connor. It lacks the chemistry and novel charm of the original.

 

Awards won: Academy Award for  Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart), Academy Award for Best Screenplay (David Ogden Stewart), and the New York Film Critics Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn)

Awards nominated: Academy Awards Best Picture, Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn),  Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Hussey), and Best Director (George Cukor).

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Review of Macbeth (2015)

Macbeth (2015) Dir. Justin Kurzel          1 hr 53 min

Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso, and Michael Lesslie

Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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If you’ve ever wondered what a drama might feel like without any “light” or any comic moments, woven throughout, watch this unrelentingly dark, intense, and raw version of the familiar tragedy.

Be prepared for departures from the familiar, though, beginning with the opening scene. Ambition, greed, and even temptation take a backseat to “grief and violence” in this adaptation, with the image of a child or children repeatedly inserted throughout, in association with the witches, the battlefield, and the church.

As Emily Rome notes in her review on Hitfix, “Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths: It seemed to be perfect casting. Which is what makes this adaptation of William Shakespeare’s bloody tale of ambition spun out of control all the more disappointing.” I admit that I had great expectations, given the casting and some aspects of the promotional trailer.

Film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays often allow for more nuanced delivery of lines, focus on shifts in facial expressions through close-ups, and an element of creativity in lighting, angles, special effects, and scope of visual images. This adaptation tries something that would never work in a stage production by having the lead actors deliver their dialogue in a low monotone most of the time. Geoffrey Macnab describes this aspect of the film as “Fassbender and Cotillard mutter their soliloquies in remorseful fashion, as if by talking to themselves they hope to justify their own monstrous behaviour.”

Michael Fassbender, in the lead role, is, as usual, riveting in his performance with multiple looming close-ups of Macbeth. His commitment to the Scottish dialect, however, ebbs and flows. His Macbeth is obviously maddened through the course of the film. However, Macbeth’s problem seems less temptation to power and greed than possession by an evil spirit. Macbeth does not appear moved by much of anything that happens to him, which one critic refers to as “restrained intensity”, but I would add restrained to the point of losing viewers’ attention and empathy. Even the influence of Lady Macbeth is downplayed, excessively subtle compared to most productions of the play this film is based on.

Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth stands apart from the rest of the Scottish-dialect-attempting cast with an English dialect and a repeated visual association with a definitively Christian chapel. In some ways she’s presented almost as an anti-Marian figure visually. Maternal associations are also emphasized in relation to her, yet she comes across as cold and calculating, distant and removed. She never seems domineering or even taunting towards her husband, perhaps because the dialogue is delivered as though she is talking quietly to herself.

Part of the power of Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes from the title character’s psychological and spiritual struggle and open wavering between virtuous choices and self-serving ones. His better angel calls to him throughout the original play, yet he chooses to act on darker impulses. Audiences can relate to the temptation he faces, and they recognize that, at least until now, he has been a good man, a loyal subject to King Duncan, and one who has been recognized and rewarded for that loyalty. For the most part, the psychological and spiritual struggle of the character has been entirely cut from this version. It’s all darkness, mud, blood, and quiet intensity.

Given that low and often passionless delivery of lines, Macduff’s shouting at the discovery of the butchered King Duncan seems out of place. Multiple cut scenes keep the focus clearly on the Macbeths as the central figures of the film. Included in those cuts: Lady Macbeth’s interaction with servants after reading her husband’s letter, gaps in the discovery of Duncan’s corpse, the testing of Malcolm by Macduff, and the Porter scene.

The multiple long shots of mist-filled panoramas with human silhouettes are simply gorgeous. Combined with creative use of lighting and saturated color—usually red, these cinematic aspects of the film are stunningly beautiful. I cannot imagine what the candle costs must have been for this production, given that most of the many close-ups are lit by candlelight or fire of some kind.

At various points in the film, the action is moved to slow-motion, with a focus on the blood and mud of the battlefield. Costuming of the Scottish noblemen in the battle scenes reflects the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) in which Japanese warlords compete for power and control.

As Manohla Dargis observes in her New York Times review of the film, “the results are visually striking, even if beautifying carnage in this manner is distracting and complicated, both for what it means for the drama unfolding on screen and for the audience”. The dramatic spectacle of the visual effects invites viewers in but the delivery of the dialogue distances them. It’s a confusing combination, leading audiences to focus more on the visual and less on the audio—the exact opposite of where Shakespeare’s original audience’s attention was directed.

My Macbeth film or taped stage production recommendations include any of these three: the 1979 Trevor Nunn-directed version featuring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, the 1999 Greg Doran-directed version featuring Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, or the 2010 Rupert Goold-directed version featuring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.

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