Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Tribute to Great Films: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

In a time when comedy is cheap and laughs come at the expense of the audience few films resemble the classic romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story.  The film, directed by George Cukor (My Fair Lady, Adam’s Rib, A Star is Born, and Born Yesterday) follows socialite Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) whose wedding plans are complicated by her husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) involving himself and tabloid writer Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and tabloid photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey).  The combination of these plot elements make for one of the funniest/sweetest films of all time.  The film was nominated for 6 Academy Award including Best Picture and Best Director.

The plot of this film centers around gossip within high society, and the way it impacts people being themselves.  In this film (based on the play) Tracy’s father has taken up with a dancer in New York City, and has walked away from the family for the time being.  As the wedding draws near he finally returns, but Tracy hopes to keep her families name out of the tabloids, and move forward with class and dignity, even though she herself had a messy divorce.

The film has a modern sensibility, and proves that throughout time motifs are transient.  I have not seen 1956 film, High Society, that retools this story, but I doubt the film can measure up (I am hesitatingly adding it to my watch list). The film The Women (1939), was directed by the same director, and was given a more modern retelling in 2008 with the likes of Meg Ryan, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett-Smith and audiences did not turn out in droves.  Films are often remade because modern day audiences say things like “I don’t like old movies” or “Why should I watch a movie about something I can’t relate to, or that’s black and white?”  When I hear people say this about film, or specifically old movies I refer them to this film, and many of the other Hepburn comedies.  The spirit of this film shines with an eternal brightness, thanks in large part to the direction of the wonderful George Cukor. 

Cukor has had two distinguished monographs placed upon him.  During his time he was known as a “woman’s director.”  Cukor directed many great performances from Katherine Hepburn in films like this one, and Adam’s Rib; he also directed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (the performance gained no Oscar nomination), Judy Garland in a Star is Born, the film The Women, and greats like Greta Garbo.  This is only a brief list of the women he worked with, but this man knew how to get the best out of these talented women.  Cukor abhorred this label, and was more proud of another accomplishment. Cukor is the director who has had the most actors go on to win in Lead Actor category: Jimmy Stewart-The Philadelphia Story, Ronald Coleman-A Double Life, and Rex Harrison-My Fair Lady.

Cukor’s career is one of the most fascinating careers, mainly because he had a role in the future direction of the classic films The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, but is not credited as directing either film.  Cukor never shot a single scene for Oz, but he did make a few creative changes that would be instrumental to future of the film’s production.  Dorothy originally had a blonde wig, and wore fare more make-up, but Cukor told them to lose the wig, and had Garland stick with acting more youthful, and innocent.  Cukor also changed the make-up on the scarecrow, the wicked witch’s make-up, and her wig.  With Gone with the Wind Cukor was a perfectionist aiming to create the perfect world that was envisioned my author Margaret Mitchell.  Cukor spent numerous hours working with both Olvia de Haviland and Vivien Leigh to coach them; he also worked to get a southern accent out of Clark Gable, which is notably missing from the final production..  Cukor’s perfectionist style, created conflict with studio head David O. Selznick, thus allowing him to direct The Women, and start his career on a different path that lead to him working on this film with an incredibly talented cast.  These two stories are just a snapshot of what makes Cukor one of the most fascinating directors during his time, and fueled some of the great performances specifically within this film.

This film had an incredible ensemble and singling out any one of the performances is almost impossible the four main leads were all incredible.  The standout to me is the brilliant Katherine Hepburn; she is the rock of the film, and her comedic timing is something she is not given enough credit for.  Watching Hepburn deal with realizing that she has never been honest with her true self is one of the greatest evolutions to watch.  Hepburn received a Best Actress Oscar nomination (one of her 12) for this film, but did not win.  Tracy becomes well rounded, and her closing speech at the end to her party guests through the words of Dexter is so beautiful.

The only main character of the four main characters not to be nominated for and Oscar is the charismatic Cary Grant.  Grant plays a great foil to Tracy; he is witty to a fault and does a great job playing puppet master to at first cause trouble for Tracy, but down deep he involves himself with her because he still loves her.  Grant was only nominated twice for an Academy Award, but would only win an Honorary Oscar in 1970.   His snub for this film is a travesty.

While Cary Grant was not nominated for this film Jimmy Stewart was, and he won the Academy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.  Stewart’s Macaulay or Mike is the compass of the film; he is the writer in the film, and even though he is an outsider to the family you see most of the film through his lense.  Stewart’s always been a wonderfully capable actor, and plays the everyman better than anyone I have ever seen.  In this film he carries much of the working class observation on his shoulders, and allows for viewers to understand and really know the Lord family.

Most of this brilliance can be attributed to Academy Award winning screenplay,  This is one of my favorite screenplays of all time,   Screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart knows how to weave to witty repartee, and the beautiful love story so well that you almost feel as though you are an intruder on this families hilarious yet beautiful experience.  I am beyond grateful Hollywood has not remade this film for the modern audience, and I hope some butcher never tries to have someone like Jennifer Anniston take on the Tracy Lord part, God help us all if this ever happens.

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