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

Advertisements

Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances – 1925

Director – Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Ruth Dwyer, and T. Roy Barnes

Each and every time I watch a brand new Buster Keaton movie, I go into it remembering the last one I saw.  So far each of them that I have seen, except the first one of course, the extreme level of quality has me continuing to hold the next one to that high standard.  The problem with that, comes in with my memory.  Each and every time I forget that these films start out slowly.  There is the inevitable set-up of the premise, the introduction of all the main characters, and the reveal of the potential love interest for Keaton’s character(it happens in each of them).  As a result I get worried in the first 15 or so minutes, that it’s going to be all slow pace, and cutesy plotting.

The fact that Seven Chances was a movie about a man who desperately needs to get married by 7 o’clock on the same day, only elongates the necessary set-up of the film, and tricked me into believing that this would be the one that would simply be corny and sweet, without the usual jaw-dropping action.  As in each of the others, however, I was not disappointed or let down in the least, it simply took me a little longer to get to the meat of Keaton’s athleticism, derring-do, and stunt-work.

As I mentioned earlier, Seven Chances is about a man who needs to get married on the double in order to gain a huge inheritance, and after doing an inventory of the women in his life, and in the immediate vicinity, he determines that he has seven opportunities to make that happen.  Of course the girl he truly loves misunderstands how he actually feels about her, and thinks he only wants the money.  The real trouble starts when his lawyer, in an effort to expedite the process, explains in the newspaper just what the situation is.  Soon enough a flood of women come out of the woodwork all bent on marrying the rather flustered bachelor cum-millionaire.

As with all of the Keaton films that I’ve seen (Sherlock, Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.), the plot of Seven Chances is a backdrop at best and really ends up being a device through which to deliver the action.  The romance and characterization serves the purpose of setting up the scene and attracting people to the film in the first place, and while there are some fairly funny gags with Three’s Company-like misunderstandings, everyone is really there to see Keaton potentially kill himself.

Once again, the mans sheer physicality is astounding.  Each of the stunts is actually done by him, usually in one-unbroken take, and certainly without our modern-day concern for safety.  The rock-slide sequence in particular is the defining moment of this film.  The capper on a 20 plus minute chase sequence, it’s pretty insane to watch this guy run head first into a stream of rolling and bouncing rocks (I assume they weren’t really rocks, but still, his skill at avoiding all the obstacles in his path is exemplary).

That being said, I don’t think this film was quite as good as any of the others I’ve seen, and I’m not quite sure what aspect or characteristic placed this film on this list in the first place.  Perhaps the compilers of this list felt that Seven Chances had some unique defining quality, or maybe that it was of some great historical import, or perhaps it was simply a personal favorite, I’m not really sure.  I will say that it didn’t seem that there was a real stand-out reason to choose it over something else.  Perhaps there was a quota for a certain number of movies from each year, and without this film, 1925 was looking a little light.  Who knows?

Hopefully, I haven’t given the impression that Seven Chances is a bad film or anything.  The fact that I was excited to watch it, I enjoyed it, and that I will be excited to watch the next Keaton film is a testament to his staying power as an entertainer, one who I would have been completely ignorant of, if it hadn’t been for this list.