Current movies playing in theatres get many reviews in local and national newspapers. In addition, you can usually watch the trailer on one of many websites. However, when it comes to classic Hollywood movies from the nineteen forties to the sixties – which are becoming increasingly available on DVD, it is still largely a hit and miss affair. Many of these movie DVDs are picked up by nostalgic old-timers, of course, but many of them are excellent examples of the cinematic arts and deserve to be seen by seen by younger generations. Probably, the reason they are not is that the present generation knows so little about them. In my small way, I hope to correct that imbalance by providing an objective review of some of the best of different genres.
Back in the 1940s and1950s, star power was so formidable that most movies sold almost solely on the basis of who was portraying the lead roles. The fact that many of them had less than inspiring story lines did not seem to matter to audiences. If a movie had Jean Harlow, or Clark Gable, or Spencer Tracy, the crowds would throng to it.
The Philadelphia Story had star power in abundance; Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart – it didn’t get much bigger than that. Ironically, though, their presence in the picture was almost redundant. The story moves along at such a brisk pace; the comedy is so subtle and sophisticated; and the writing (by Donald Ogden Stewart) so brilliant, that even a less talented cast could have carried it out. Add direction by the legendary George Cukor; and you know you have a winner.
The plot is deceptively simple. Tracy Lord (Hepburn) and C. Dexter Haven (Grant) belong to crème de la crème of Newport society. Two years after divorcing Dexter, Tracy is all set to marry George Kittridge, a nouveau-riche stuffed shirt, who is very proper and crushingly boring. Tracy, herself, is the epitome of social graces, character and uprightness. She cannot tolerate imperfection, which is why she hasn’t invited her own, divorced father to her wedding. The latter has had the temerity to set up house with a dancer and is, accordingly, persona non grata in the Lord household. To make matters worse, the editor of a pernicious tabloid has got hold of certain juicy tidbits regarding papa’s indiscretion and is threatening to publish them unless Tracy allows one of their reporters, Macaulay Connors (Stewart), exclusive coverage of the wedding. The story line follows Tracy’s impetuous dalliance with the reporter, which causes her to slip from her self-constructed pedestal and compels the realization that she is as imperfect as the rest of the human race she once looked down on. Along the way, George, realizing that the woman he is engaged to is no longer a goddess, dumps her on the day of the wedding. The gallant Dexter saves the day – and the Lord family’s social standing – by offering to step forward as a substitute bridegroom.
Like I said, hardly an epic tale – but those are best left to Charlton Heston anyway. The Philadelphia Story is light, frothy and tremendous fun. Hepburn and Grant display the impeccable poise and timing they are renowned for; but the real surprise is James Stewart. Apart from ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ – which is not a comedy in the true sense – Stewart is best remembered for his roles in many classic Westerns. Yet, in this picture, he shows a deft, comic touch that is curiously endearing.
If I sound a trifle biased, it is because I am. Cary Grant has been one of my all time favorites, ever since I saw him in the hysterically funny ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’. He had the easy charm and suave sophistication that I aspired to, but could never achieve. Perhaps his greatest achievement was that – despite being born an Englishman – he came across as the quintessential American.
And what can one say about La Hepburn. She occupies an exalted position in the cinematic lexicon, that is uniquely her own. At a time when ray guns and AK-47s are Hollywood’s weapons of choice, she could demolish an opponent with just a lift of her imperious eyebrow. They don’t make them like her anymore.
As an added bonus, The Philadelphia Story has one of those rare, magical scenes that have become part of movie legend. It takes place right at the start of the picture. Grant is leaving home after a furious row with Hepburn. She follows him to the car, carrying his golf bag and deliberately flings one club after another at him. The last remaining club, she snaps across her knee. Grant doesn’t say a word. He follows her back to the front door, puts his hand over her face and pushes her down to the floor, before storming out. The entire scene does not have a single word of dialogue, but it is sheer genius.