Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

philadelphiastory1If there ever was a benchmark for the sophisticated, high-society brand of comedy, The Philadelphia Story is most certainly it. It’s less screwball because instead of Howard Hawks, George Cukor takes the helm and injects the film with his more refined sensibilities. It’s still very much hilarious and impeccably witty, but it’s not quite as scatterbrained as it could have been. Once more you have the iconic pairing of Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. Previously they had been in two other Cukor pictures (Sylvia Scarlett and Holiday) and of course Hawks’ romp Bringing up Baby. However, this time they’re joined by another cinematic titan in James Stewart and it proves to be a wonderful battle for command of the screen. The story ends up being a wonderful clash of classes and culture that also manages to illuminate a few bits and pieces of truth.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had it out rather acrimoniously with his wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and now two years down the line, she is set to marry someone else. She couldn’t be happier to be rid of him and all his faults. Her new husband is a real “man of the people,” the wooden George Kittredge (John Howard), and he got his money doing an honest day’s work. In other words, he’s everything Haven isn’t when it comes to class and manners, but he’s also quite different than Tracy. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s on cloud nine to be rid of Haven.

Although Cary Grant does take a back seat at times, it’s only so he can manipulate and connive in the background, because he most certainly has an agenda. It’s great fun to watch. First, he brings in the folks from Spy magazine to do a full spread on the big wedding. There’s belligerent journalist Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) scoffing at all the opulence around him and then photographer Ms. Eilzabeth Imbre (Ruth Hussey), who has something complicated going on with her colleague.

They’re all here because the editor of Spy has a nice juicy expose piece on Tracy’s father and so C.K. advises her to go along with it. She suspects her old spouse has something to do with it, and it’s true, he didn’t put up much a protest when it came to taking part. However, Tracy’s not ready to let him ruin what she’s got going. She and her younger sister the crack-up Dinah (Virginia Weidler), put on a good show of upper-class snobbery to utterly bewilder their guests.

The funny thing is that while Tracy detests C.K. with the vehemence of the plague, her mother and sister quickly welcome the old gentleman back into their home with open arms. After all, what kind of trouble could he cause a couple days before the wedding, and Dinah is always game for a little chaos. She and C.K. have a mutual affection for each other. They’re both serial troublemakers.

After the surprise of Dexter wears off, the next person Tracy clashes horns with is the brusque newsman Connor, who is as turned off by her as she is annoyed by him. As she sees it, he’s invading her house as part of the paper’s plan to make her life miserable and steal away all her privacy. For him, she’s a stuck-up brat, who has had everything served to her on a silver platter in the west drawing-room. He thumbs his nose at the whole set-up. But a chance encounter at the library no less opens up a different side to these characters. Mike Connor is actually an accomplished poet far more skilled than his lousy journalistic pursuits would suggest. He learns just how perfectly imperfect she is.

philadelphiastory2It’s at a party the night before the big day that things get particularly interesting. A lot happens when you fill people up with a little bubbly, some wine, and some early morning gaiety. Tracy is absolutely swimming in exuberance partially thanks to alcohol, partially because of the dancing, and maybe in expectancy of tomorrow’s high. But when things come a little loose around the edges, things happen that you regret. As it turns out Tracy doesn’t remember quite what happened that night, but Dinah saw all the good parts from her balcony. It involved a drunken Mike taking a jaunt to Dexter’s home at a godforsaken hour followed by Ms. Imbrie with an inebriated Tracy in tow. What this sets up is a wonderful little sequence where a hiccuping Stewart helps Grant orchestrate a plot to get back at Spy magazine editor Sidney Kidd. Then, Connor gets to spend the wee hours of the morning rambling on and on. It’s innocent enough, but quite the evening no less. It makes Kittridge quite distraught finding his bride to be in the arms of a man who is singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And of course, with such an unfortunate moment so close to the wedding it looks like things will be called off. But Kittridge is willing to make amends. It’s Tracy who realizes she has to break things off because ironically this man is too good for her.

philadelphiastory3It looks like Haven has won, but in a split second Connor is proposing marriage and ready to tie the knot with Tracy to save the wedding. Once again Tracy makes a sagacious decision (which is surprising given her earlier condition). Hangovers on your wedding day are not usually a good thing. In this moment everything falls back into place as it should and as we want it to. These are characters that we grow to care about, despite their misgivings and class differences.

When reading up on this film I was astounded to hear that the film supposedly had no outtakes. Everything we see was as it was when it was first shot and that has to be a testament to the strength of these actors and maybe a little luck. It’s true that the film sometimes enters territory that feels unscripted and loose. That’s when it really gets fun. Stewart and Hepburn. Grant throwing a quick retort here and there. Imagine, this could have been a vehicle for Hepburn paired with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I’m sure that would have been great, but the whole dynamic would be very different.

So who is the winner in this film? Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven? Hepburn as “Red?” Stewart as the “Professor?” The Philadelphia Story is a real winner for the audience. What more could you want in terms of high-brow comedy bursting with legendary star power?

5/5 Stars

Libeled Lady (1936)

Poster_-_Libeled_Lady_01Libeled Lady has screwball comedy written all over it and that’s perfectly alright with such a glorious cast. Myrna Loy and William Powell reunite once again (for one of their 13 pairings), but we also get Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. Amazing!

The set-up is easy and pretty self-explanatory. Warren Haggerty (Tracy) is the managing editor of the New York Evening Star, but while he is reluctantly getting ready to walk down the aisle, he gets the horrific news that the paper sent out a misinformed scoop by mistake. Now Haggerty is faced with a $5,000,000 libel suit from wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Loy), and it brings his weddings proceedings to a halt, much to the chagrin of his peeved fiancee (Harlow). This isn’t the first time that their big day has been postponed after all.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he goes to one of his former reporters, Bill Chandler (Powell), who really rubs Haggerty the wrong way, but he also happens to be a whiz when it comes to libel. He’s the only man who can get the paper out of the major jam so he leverages his position. Things go down like this. Chandler will ingratiate himself to Ms. Allenby and soon afterward Gladys Benton (Harlow) posing as his wife, will rush in on them. Presto! The suit will be dropped. Simple, right?

It’s the consequences that get even dicier. At first, Gladys absolutely despises being cooped up in a hotel with Chandler and she’s still fed up with Warren. But over time, the close quarters cause Chandler to grow on her. Meanwhile, Chandler tries to learn everything he can about angling, to charm Allenby’s father (Walter Connolly), who is a fishing aficionado.

From the start, his daughter has Chandler pinned as a fake (which of course he is), but by some act of heaven his act actually works and he wins them both over. Worse, Connie is falling for him and he’s reciprocating, but Haggerty is still waiting for the plan to be executed. Gladys is waiting impatiently for her “husband” who she seems to genuinely miss. It’s all a big mess to be sure.

The finale involves the four leads together for one final climactic barrage of pandemonium and spouse swapping. As you would expect everyone ends up with the right partner, but it was sheer craziness to get there. It had been a while since I had seen a screwball, and Libeled Lady is a striking reminder why the genre is so fun. It had me laughing pretty hard whether it was the utter absurdity of the fishing sequence or any of the other madcap moments. It boasts quite the cast too. It’s crazy to think that in only a year Jean Harlow would be gone, a short but vibrant career behind her.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Spencer Tracy

1. Judgment at Nuremberg
2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
3. Captains Courageous
4. Adam’s Rib
5. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
6. Fury
7. Libeled Lady
8. Bad Day at Black Rock
9. Inherit the Wind
10. Northwest Passage
11. Father of the Bride
12. Woman of the Year
13. Pat and Mike
14. The Seventh Cross
15. Boys Town
16. San Francisco
17. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
18, Edison, The Man
19. Desk Jet
20. How the West was Won

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

8435a-bad_day_at_black_rockStarring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan with Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger, and Anne Francis, the whole story takes place in an isolated desert town. Tracy as the one-armed man Macready comes to the town and soon is face to face with many cold, detached, and suspicious folks. He has his own reasons for being there so that he can find the father of a Japanese-American war buddy of his. He asks around and no one is willing to talk. Macready soon realizes their secret and understands how much danger he is in. However, with the help of a couple of townspeople he is able to resolve everything. Then, he leaves town aboard the train just as calmly as before. This film intrigued me for a number of reasons but especially since a central topic was racism towards Japanese-Americans.

4/5 Stars

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

ff836-guess_who27s_coming_to_dinner_posterThis film directed by Stanley Kramer, has a relatively simple story line revolving around a major issue. Joanna Drayton has fallen in love with a doctor she met only 10 days before and wishes to get married. Obviously, her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are startled by this whirlwind event. They are even more dismayed when they discover he is a black man. Hepburn’s character lightens to the idea while her husband is adamantly against it. Soon everything becomes even more complicated when the man’s parents are invited to dinner, only to be equally startled. Eventually giving it more thought, Tracy does condone the marriage realizing how much his daughter is in love. This would be Tracy’s final film and he would die only a couple weeks after shooting ended. He and Hepburn do a wonderful job with Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hougton as well. This movie is good and also monumental for the racial issue it covered.

4/5 Stars

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

If you want a movie of comedy legends and who’s who, this film has practically everyone you want. Spencer Tracy is a police officer who is tipped off to where a great sum of money is. Close behind are a group of travelers including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine, Edie Adams, and Jonathan Winters. Soon it becomes a mad dash as each group tries to reach the money first. Along the way are many hilarious antics and memorable cameos (including Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Don Knotts, and Buster Keaton). In the final scenes Tracy has the money but the others are still in pursuit. After some wild events everyone ends up in the hospital without any money. However, they are quickly reminded how madly funny the world is all the same. I really enjoyed this film because of the many great stars and hilarious scenarios. It really had me belly-laughing. This was also the favorite movie of the founder of Inn-N-Out Burger so what more could you want?

4.5/5 Stars

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

This epic court drama relates the true story of the War Crime Trials after World War II. With Stanley Kramer directing, this cast is amazing. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Werner Klemperer, and even William Shatner all play a part. However, Maximillian Schell is by far the standout because he is such an amazing defender of his country’s honor throughout the entire film. He wants the Holocaust to be known and yet all the while he goes through the case with dignity even though the pressures are so great. For every intense moment the viewer is stuck in their seat and when the verdict comes it is hard to contain the emotion. This movie should be seen by all not only because it is great but it also chronicles an important event in history. Whatever happens we should never forget the events surrounding the Judgment at Nuremberg.

4.5/5 Stars

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as a married pair of lawyers on the opposite sides of a case, this film begins with a bang. A distraught wife followed her husband home to find him cheating and she shot a gun off. In the ensuing days she is being charged with assault and the case is getting major publicity. Adam Bonner is the district attorney put on the case believing the law must be upheld but much to his chagrin she chooses to represent the other side. Thus begins an uproarious battle of the sexes. The pair continually spar inside the courtroom then return to their normal lives at home. However, after some bad publicity they are pulled apart by the case and their marriage is in trouble. After the case is won by Amanda Bonner a seemingly angered Adam shows up with a gun. Hilarity ensues along with a fight, however importantly in the end the Bonners reunite. They realize they cannot live apart. As always Tracy and Hepburn are wonderful together and they have a good supporting cast behind them including Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, and Jean Hagen.

4/5 Stars

Happy Birthday Spencer Tracy!

Today would have been the 113th birthday of the famed leading man Spencer Tracy. His career spanned from the 30s well into the 60s and he starred in numerous classics, many of which co-starred the equally great Katharine Hepburn. Of his films a few of my favorites would have to be Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Starring two battling greats in Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, with Gene Kelly as well, the film chronicles a fictitious version of the controversial Scopes Monkey Trial which acted as an allegory for the McCarthy era. March is the prestigious prosecutor on the side of Creationism and Tracy is the famed defense attorney fighting for a young schoolteacher (Dick York). The two spar back and forth on the touchy subject while staying friends outside the courtroom. The whole town backs Brady, condemning Cates and Drummond as evil. However, despite all that is against them, Drumond saves the case by bringing Brady to the stand. The two stars have commendable performances if not their best. Gene Kelly proves he can be a serious actor, playing the cynical newspaper man. The cast is rounded out nicely by Harry Morgan and Claude Akins. Here Stanley Kramer puts together a respectable movie version of the stage play.

4/5 Stars