The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story – 1940

Director – George Cukor

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, and Cary Grant

A successful film often has more than one thing going for it.  A charismatic star, on their own, isn’t enough to hold up a mediocre story (as much as they might have you believe otherwise).  Likewise, a good story can’t endure under the weight of poor acting, and fantastic cinematography can easily translate to a beautiful yet forgettably boring film.  In order to succeed, the stars have to align, talented people who share a vision have to work together, and put aside their differences to create something that transcends each of, and all of them…or it’ll fall flat anyway despite all their best efforts.

The Philadelphia Story is one such film that, for me anyway, really fell flat fast.  If one were to take the film and separate it into its crucial elements, talent, crew, story, director, etc., the film looks undeniably strong on paper.  Unfortunately, again in my own humble opinion, it comes off as self-important, and more than a little trite not to mention, straight up boring. Rather than Cary Grant charming me with witty repartee and Jimmy Stewart making me feel as though justice has been done, I felt annoyed at each of their rather lack-luster and incomplete characters.  Both are caricatures of jealous sad-sacks that are found on sitcoms.

I’m afraid the jury is still out when it comes to Katharine Hepburn too.  I started out this project with a healthy, natural dislike of her, stemming mostly from the film Bringing Up Baby.  Then I was caught off guard by her lovely, feisty and moving turn in the film The African Queen.  Now I’m afraid I’m going back to square one with my impressions of her thanks to this film.  She starts off as a character that I rather enjoyed watching.  I liked her and agreed with her motivations, then she was transformed into a watered down milquetoast-ish, doormat type of woman who gets on my nerves almost immediately.

This criticisms are, of course, to say nothing of the fact that this film has been built up so highly from the outset.  So many people consider this film a classic and treat it as such.  All forms of criticism for it are too harsh, with the love story and the characters themselves being too dear to the hearts of those who enjoy it.  To be fair, I am not immune to such blind loyalty.  I would be utterly aghast at any criticism, and recklessly jump to the defense of a film such as, say, Total Recall.  But, I mean come on…it’s Total Recall.

So…the story.  As the film opens, we are dropped into the tumultuous marriage of Cary Grant’s, C.K. Dexter Haven, and his fire-brand of a wife Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.  The first thing we see is Dexter getting kicked out of his house by Tracy for reasons we will come to understand later.  Dexter leaves, but not until getting in one last bit of domestic violence.  Flash forward a bunch of (Years? Months? Days?) time and we find that Tracy is set to marry again, this time to a rather wealthy man whose new money status makes him a target for the local paper’s gossip section.

A photographer and reporter team (Stewart and Hussey as Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie respectively) are put on the job of getting the exclusive story of the impending nuptials.  Put up to it by their boss, in cahoots with Dexter, it looks as though it is a smear job engineered by Dexter to get revenge on his ex-wife.

More than anything the failure of this film rests with the lack of chemistry amongst its actors.  Jimmy Stewart, generally seen as a man who could get along with just about anyone, plays a man so filled with melancholy and disdain for the intended subjects of his writing, that he literally makes the worst newspaper reporter ever.  His girlfriend, frankly the most engaging character of the piece, Imbrie is stuck watching her albatross of a boyfriend drunkenly stagger through life and falling in love with another woman on a whim.  Grant, one of my normal favorite actors of the golden age of cinema, is surprisingly absent from this film, especially given that he is one of the headliners, but what I bristled most at was the transformation of the strong confident woman who was Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, reduced by guilt and criticism to just the sort of brainless weak-willed woman that she worked her entire career to rally against.

How dare she want a divorce from a husband who is a un-repentant alcoholic, or be angry at a father who cheats on her mother.  How dare she find a respectful, caring, man of considerable means despite the fact that he is not considered “old money”.  No wonder she is looked down upon by every other single character in this film, until she is brow-beaten into submission.  Each review I’ve read describes her as “snooty”, or “uppity”, and describes her treatment as her having “had it coming”.  How refreshing and unique a view. Yuck.

I found that I had checked out of this film pretty quickly and found little in the way of redeeming characteristics from that point forward.  At most, I can say that I saw this “classic”, and at least I can say that I’d rather have watched something else.  I’m a little surprised that George Cukor had so much to do with a film about a bunch of men putting an “uppity” woman in her place, seeing as how he has had a long history of working on films with capable women characters (A Star is Born, Wizard of Oz, and he’s worked with Katharine Hepburn before on Adam’s Rib which I assume falls into that demographic although I haven’t seen it myself).  This film was a rather large disappointment to me, and as such is not nearly recommendable, either for me or by me.

“I can not and will not endorse any work whose agenda it is to propagate the idea that anyone should stay in an abusive situation.  That is not love, nor is it amusing to dress it up as such.  A truly disgusting film.”  –  Ashley

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The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen – 1951

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

When I was in junior high, I got my first computer.  Along with a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem, floppy disk drive, and the home-edition of Microsoft Works (not Word, mind you, works.) that machine of the future came with a copy of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-Rom.  That laughably slow and instantly outmoded program, had a whole glossary of movies, a few with accompanying video clips, only the best ones mind you.  Now since only the most renowned films came with video clips, it goes without saying that it was a point of pride for me that I had seen all but two of those select few films.  The first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second…was The African Queen.  Take that Encarta!  It took me till 2012, but I finally beat you!

The African Queen is at its heart a love story, though it’s a love story that’s wrapped up in a war, adventure, thriller, and at times a comedy.  It’s the early days of World War 1, and we start at a british-run mission in the heart of an African colony of Germany.  Reverend Sayer and his sister Rose (Hepburn) staff the mission, attempting to spread the gospel to the un-enlightened natives, when they receive word of the start of the war.  They are advised that German soldiers are on their way to oust any enemies to the interests of Germany, and have to leave behind their life’s work if they want to escape with their lives.  This news pushes the reverend too far and, unable to cope, he falls ill and eventually dies leaving his sister to fend for herself.

As the arrival of the German soldiers looms close at hand, supply ship captain Charlie Alnut (a particularly grizzled Bogart) arrives just in time to offer Rose a mode of escape.  Though he is course in his manners and seems generally uncouth to the prim and proper English upbringing that Rose is used to, Charlie is a welcome sight.  The two make their way down river toward friendly territory, all the while avoiding Germans, Alligators, mosquitos, leeches, harsh weather, white water rapids, and each other along the way.

So I’ve made it fairly plain that I haven’t ever really been a fan of Katherine Hepburn.  This has been a point of contention between my wife and I, as she simply adores Hepburn (despite the fact that she has seen Bringing Up Baby, which is one of Hepburn’s most terribly annoying roles).  My dislike is ingrained in me so deeply, that I’ve actually avoided The African Queen because of its star.  Upon having actually seen it, I am disappointed to say that maybe I was being a bit harsh with my immediate dismissal of Hepburn.  It’s a good film.  More than that, it’s a great film!

To classify this film is not as easy as it can be with some other films.  With so many genres mashed up together in the story, it really fits into so many different categories.   Perhaps the best fit for my purposes here is to call it a romance.  We really get to see a pair of people go from not really liking the other, through friendship, courting, and eventually we see them emerge as true companions and best friends.  While the going is tough, the nagging and pestering they inflict upon each other actually strengthens the bond they have, and raises the stakes of the film in direct relation to the danger level.

When Rose demands that they try to strike a blow on behalf of the british navy against the Germans, Charlie is initially against it.  He stands to lose his boat, his lively hood, and potentially his life.  It is plain to the audience that without someone to share his life with, a friend, a purpose, he really has nothing to live for anyway.  The companionship with Rose illustrates this fact to him, and as they draw closer to their target, the thing he fears most is losing the woman he loves and respects.

Rose, too, gains from this relationship.  She learns to soften her rather stuffy and stuck up exterior.  Charlie shows her that there is a romance, and beauty to the world that she was here-to-for un-aware of, and that it can’t necessarily be attained through scripture and strict adherence to manners.  Ultimately, they learn that they need one another.  The off-hand relationship they have at the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming, dwarfing the danger, uncertainty, and even the beauty that lies ahead of them.  Each becomes the other’s reason for moving forward, and the pair becomes the reason and the reward for the audience’s continued attention.

As far as the performances, I don’t think Humphrey Bogart has ever been bad.  He makes everything I see him in at least a little bit better, and more than likely, he is the reason that it was excellent.  There are a select few actors who are capable of doing what other actors accomplish in half the time and with a quarter of the exertion.  Bogart is one of them, and is most deserving of all of the praise that is lumped upon him.  Hepburn on the other hand is equally matched to Bogart…in this movie.  I remain skeptical as far as her other roles go, but I am at the very least excited to find out if my initial impression of her holds true, or if I had her wrong the whole time.  I’m not quite sure what to wish for…to be right from the start, or to be wrong but with a fresh new body of films to look forward to.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the African Queen.  For a film that I had such an adverse reaction to before watching, it was certainly a treat to be proven wrong about it.  The plot, pacing, cinematography (gorgeously filmed in Technicolor, by the way), and yes, even the acting, really do make this one of the best films ever made.  A deserving addition to this list, and definitely something worthy of your time and attention.

“Told ya so!” – Ashley

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby – 1968

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Mia Farrow, John Cassavettes, Ruth Gordon, Sydney Blackmer, and Charles Grodin

It is relatively rare that all of a given director’s films (of the ones that I’ve seen, mind you) are of such a caliber that each defies the expectations put forth by the last. Even some directors of what I would consider the greatest films of all time have their bad ones. Coppola has The Rainmaker, Spielberg has the last 30 minutes of everything he’s made since Schindler’s List, and Scorsese has Bringing Out the Dead. My point is…it is extremely hard to make one great film, let alone multiple ones. It seems however that Roman Polanski is one of a select few directors who, through each of his films that I’ve seen, remains consistantly engaging, provocative, and inventive.

Now granted, I certainly haven’t seen everything he’s made, but so far he’s off to a great start. But even with his talent’s as a filmmaker resolutely confirmed, there was an awful lot of lot of hype surrounding Rosemary’s Baby. Does it stand the test of time, like “The Godfather” has? Or does it suffer the same aging and loss of context as something like “The Graduate”? The news is good, it easily stands the test of time, and remains a throuroughly suspenseful, intellegent, and effective film.

The story is fairly straight forward, a young couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, move into a new apartment building that has a history of tragedy, and misfortune. The neighbors are strange, and manage to barge their way into the lives of the Woodhouses, pushing their homemade remedies, and decorating ideas off on the young couple, and all the while Guy is busy with work leaving Rosemary alone in the big, empty apartment a lot. Though an initial friendship is struck with their neighbors, the Castevets, they seem to surround and smother the still wary Rosemary. Guy seems to take to them more and more as they make themselves even more at home once Rosemary becomes pregnant.

The Castevet’s start seeming stranger and stranger, eventually leading Rosemary to question whether or not they have alterior motives. The suspense builds and builds, relentlessly pushing Rosemary closer and closer to the edge of sanity.

Firstly, it should be said that Polanski seems to have a real curiosity with the relationship between lonliness and ones world view. Each of his films deals with the struggle to maintain the latter while dealing with the former. Also, in each of his films there seems to be two main characters (one inanimate and the other human), the human character (often played by a waif-like, attractive, young woman), and the apartment in which the main character is living. Oh sure there are other characters that play into the story, but none of them leave the same indelible impression on the story that these two characters do.

The apartment in Rosemary’s Baby serves as a launching pad for the film’s paranoia and mistrust. It is depicted as huge, yet it always seems cramped. The ceilings are vaulted, but the apartment itself is so deep and maze-like we feel as if our characters, and the audience as well, will never escape. This place is a prison, and Rosemary is it’s prisoner.

As the film starts, Rosemary is bright and cheerful. Her relationship is strong, and she has a wide network of friends, but as the film progresses, she is consistently more and more cut off from the outside world. The apartment is equal parts sanctuary and menace. As if the neighbors and history of the apartment weren’t enough she has been getting more and more ill during her pregnancy, resulting in her staying locked away inside, under the watchful eye of her husband and their neighbors.

It is this balance which is most delicate in the film. If the strange-ness of the setting or situation was heaped on too quickly, or if it wasn’t strange enough, the crux of the conflict would have been ruined, but Polanski gets it absolutely right. He let’s us dwell just long enough to send our minds racing right towards the edge, right after Rosemary. She and the audience are together in our suspicions, not sure of what is real and what is simply paranoia.

As well as being superbly constructed, Rosemary’s Baby is also expertly cast. Sidney , and Ruth Gordon are pitch perfect as the intrusive and possibly evil Castevets. The always great, John Cassavettes is equal parts caring, strong, and yet still completely suspect at the same time as Guy Woodhouse, however the performance most central and most integral to the success of the film is Mia Farrow, Rosemary.

Farrow doesn’t play the role as the victim. Rosemary isn’t so much helpless as much as she is facing insurmountable odds. Despite the fact that she is the focus of the conspiracy (or is she?), she is actually the strongest character, not to mention the most interesting of the story.  It is a testament to Farrow’s skill as an actor, and to Polanski’s as a director that this delicate balance wasn’t lost in the shuffle.  Instead, Rosemary’s Baby was, and remains a powerful example of what can be achieved through the medium of film.

So the long and short of it is that, if you haven’t already, you should see this film. It really stands up to the test of time, and truly deserves it’s place on this list!

“Mia Farrow has a cute haircut!” – Ashley

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby – 2004

Director – Clint Eastwood

Starring – Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Elvis or the Beatles?  Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth? Biggie or Tupac?  If you like one, liking the other is out of the question.  Your stance on each of these pressing issues has the power to determine what category others lump you into, and more importantly, it determines where you place yourself.  I would argue that, as in the music world, so too in the world of film.  One crucial example of this “either, or” mentality is found in the career of Clint Eastwood.  Either you like him as an actor (generally his earlier career), or you like him as a director (equally as generally his later career).  I’ve found that I like one, and definitely am not  a fan of the other.

Eastwood, for the entirety of his career has stayed busy, prolific even.  Stories of his work ethic are stuff of legend in Hollywood, no matter which side of the camera he finds himself on.  As an actor, he has a steely intensity that gave life to roles such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry series, the man with no name from his spaghetti western days, and Private Kelly of Kelly’s Heroes.  As a director, this intensity translates to a certain austerity, an emptiness that never feels finished.  Sure it has all the bells and whistles, star actors, polished editing, and usually an unflinching story, yet his direction has always left me wanting.

It’s fair to say that I prefer Eastwood’s acting more than his directing, and thusly was not a huge fan of Million Dollar Baby.  Eastwood’s bifurcated tale of the never-say-die female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and her curmudgeonly old trainer Frank Dunn is actually made up from two different short stories from the same author, which would explain the distinctly different nature of the two halves.  Fitzgerald, played here by Swank, manages to worm her way into Dunn’s heart through sheer pluck and can do attitude.  Luckily for the both of them she turns out to be a decent fighter despite her age, and apparent lack of skill at the beginning.  She ends up in a series of fights, heading for the top until tragedy strikes.  Without giving away too much, Fitzgerald and her trainer / father-figure are forced to make some pretty hard choices by the end of the film.

This film, just like Mystic River, Invictus, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and yes even the beloved Unforgiven, is missing something.  The problem comes in when I can’t put my finger on exactly what is missing.  The stories, and acting all seem somehow sewn together and incomplete.  We get almost no detail about how Fitzgerald came to be so pugnacious or why Dunn ended up as such a grouch.  We’re given a little bit of a clue as to why he accepts her with the inclusion of a few lines about how he is estranged from his daughter, but most other details are left to our imagination.

Acting wise Eastwood has the goods (I mean he does have a career filled with grumpy characters), but unfortunately Swank doesn’t.  Now I have never really been a fan of her, but critically speaking she seems to only have one set of traits that she falls back on for each and every role that she takes.  Abused (emotionally or physically, she is versatile enough for both) hillbilly characters.  Morgan Freeman, is always good at what he does, unfortunately most of his acting is used as a storytelling method in the very unnecessary voice over segments.  His considerable talent is wasted in the role he’s given, all I can guess is that Eastwood just likes having him in his movies.

The two stories that make up the film aren’t enough, by themselves, to flesh out a feature-length film no matter who is directing them, but with Eastwood’s minimalist style it falls flat quicker than it otherwise would.  While it isn’t a terrible movie, I think it may have been included on this list because it was at the time a controversial film that people were talking about.  It doesn’t hold up, and most likely will be replaced at some point in future editions of this book to make room for something else.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Live your dreams. Get paralyzed.  Kill yourself.” – Ashley

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey – 1936

Director – Gregory La Cava

Starring – William Powell, Carole Lombard, and Gail Patrick

When talking about films of the Hollywood studio system from the 30’s and 40’s, one of the first genres that comes to a lot of people’s mind is the screwball comedy.  These zany, farcical, films are usually the farthest thing from realism, with characters so far-fetched and ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly be real.  One prime example of the screwball comedy, and not-coincidentally the only example I had seen up until recently, was the much-loved Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  I didn’t like Bringing Up Baby, point in fact, I hated it.  And it, being the most prominent example of the screwball comedy, led me to the mistaken impression that I just didn’t like the genre.  Recently, I learned something.  Upon my viewing of the fantastically fun My Man Godfrey, I learned that I was wrong. 

Godfrey follows the rise, and the adventures, or rather the mis-adventures, of the titular Godfrey and the spoiled, nearly detestable members of the Bullock family.  Starting out in the city dump, where Godfrey is living, the flakey and fickle Irene Bullock hires him on as the family’s butler after he is claimed in a scavenger hunt as a “forgotten man”.  The real conflict comes into play when Gail Patrick playing the fantastically poisonous Cornelia Bullock, sister to Irene, sets her mind on ruining Godfrey, and having him fired based on a small slight she received from him during the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

Godfrey, played with ease and charm by the wonderful William Powell, handles both Irene’s romantic advances, as well as Cornelia’s maliciousness with a calm, cool head.  As time passes, Godfrey becomes a trusted and valued member of the Bullock household, but he has no intention of remaining indentured to them for the rest of his life.  Godfrey has other plans, and as these start to become clear, everyone in the Bullock family starts to wonder what they will do without him, even Cornelia.

The writing, by Morrie Ryskind, and Eric Hatch, is lightning quick and very sharp.  The film is essentially a dense, solid wall of humor and heart, pushing forward regardless of what (or who gets in the way).  ***SPOILERS*** The one disappointment I had with the film, was the fact that Godfrey ends up with Irene, and not Cornelia.  The conflict, and therefore the magnetism and attraction between Godfrey and Cornelia was the strongest.  Irene, though likable, and interested in Godfrey in a romantic way, is not smart or deep enough of a character to make a proper match.  Cornelia is just as capable, just as smart, and just as big a personality as Godfrey, not to mention, they each could have taught the other a thing or two.  The story ended up with the wrong pair getting together, but the path getting there was super fun to take, and isn’t any less successful for going off track. ***END SPOILERS***

The real strength of this film lies in its actors performances.  The story is a fine outline, but doesn’t go much beyond the blueprint stage, and the cinematography is fine, but nothing groundbreaking or outstanding.  Powell, Patrick and Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock have a kinetic chemistry with one another that could carry any story pretty far, no matter how good or bad it was.  Powell had already made a name for himself as one of the caustic, lovable, alcoholic main characters of the beloved Thin Man series, and My Man Godfrey only helped to catapult him into further great roles (a lot of them in the Thin Man series).  Lombard and Patrick on the other hand are both new to me, but I’m definitely interested in seeing other examples of each (especially Patrick).

So…what have we learned here today?  Well, I’ve learned not to base my opinion of an entire genre on one crappy movie (sorry to those of you who like Bringing Up Baby).  I’ve also learned that all I have to do to make it in this world, is to move down to my city’s dump, wait to get caught up in some socialite scavenger hunt, go to work for them as a butler, and ride the gravy train on to success and good fortune.  My Man Godfrey was a lot of fun, and is definitely worth checking out.  I recommend it highly!