The Philadelphia Story

  • Title:  The Philadelphia Story
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1940
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Romance, Comedy
  • Cast:  Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The film opens with Katherine Hepburn throwing out Cary Grant.  Two years later, newspaper headlines announce the upcoming wedding of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) to a man named “George”.  Tracy is a spoiled, self-centered, upper crust, old money, Philadelphia socialite.  She’s recently estranged from her father, because he’s recently had an affair with a New York dancer.

Grant, an alcoholic playboy, returns to Philadelphia from two years abroad, because he wants to re-kindle his relationship with her, and stop her wedding.  However, he’s not completely obvious about what he wants.

Stewart’s a newspaperman, a reporter, who dreams of being a real writer, and has written one book of short stories.  But he’s currently working at a gossip magazine, and is paired with a female photographer. He’s bribed to cover Tracy’s wedding.

Grant and Stewart arrive at Tracy’s — however, the pacing of the film is slow, much slower than is needed for the type of “screwball” romantic comedy that Cukor is trying to build.  I think the film may have been better off in the hands of Howard Hawks.  Or, for a melancholy feel, Billy Wilder.  But in Cukor’s hands, it clunks along.

There are some very funny, witty, clever lines of  dialogue — but there’s also scenes that make one wince, such as Grant insulting Hepburn until she cries — and he’s supposed to be in Philadelphia to woo her back?

Hepburn, meanwhile, starts off as a nearly liberated woman, wearing silky pantsuits, and telling her mother and younger sister, that she dis-invited her father from the wedding because of his affair.

Meanwhile, Hepburn ends up having an illuminating conversation, not to mention a few kisses with James Stewart, while she’s drunk.  The next day, her wedding day, she can’t remember exactly what she did.  At first, evidence suggests she slept with Stewart, which ticks off her fiance’, George.  However, Stewart clears the air by explaining nothing happened.  George forgives Hepburn — but, to her credit, she doesn’t forgive him for jumping to conclusions about her and she cancels the wedding.  Then, as she’s announcing this to the guests — Grant, who’s feeding her lines to make the embarrassing situation more graceful, proposes.  She accepts, and the wedding goes on — with Hepburn marrying Grant.  It’s also suggested that Stewart’s female photographer should marry him, so at least Stewart isn’t left in the cold.

The problem with the film — well, it’s almost like a updated “Taming of  the Shrew“.  Yes, Tracy Lord is a spoiled, pampered woman who has difficulty expressing her emotions, and thus seems to be an ice queen.  She compared to a “goddess” several times in the film, and never favorably.  However, her abilities at horseback riding, swimming, and sailing suggest she’s a true “outdoorsy” woman — and a woman who doesn’t need a man, she needs to be allowed to do her own thing, probably in a career.  I also felt she had much better on-screen chemistry with Stewart’s character, a nearly penniless writer, than Grant’s — who’s also a spoiled playboy.  Tracy and Dexter (Grant) had split before because they grew bored with each other, and her coldness drove Dexter to drink (his drying out is a sub-plot of  the film), but there’s no reason to believe they won’t tire of each other again.  Stewart, meanwhile, is an “every man” sort, as always, but his honesty would keep Tracy on her toes, and she probably wouldn’t get bored of  him.  And, should she start to take advantage of him — he’d call her on it.  I could also see Stewart prodding her into opening some type of writing or artsy-related business, such as a publishing house, art gallery, or artist’s colony.  Not that Tracy’s an artist, but she does have a head for business, and she seems genuinely interested in Stewart’s book, not just flattering him.

There are a couple of misses in the film as well – Tracy’s ill-fated second husband-to-be really should have been played by Ralph Bellamy– we know she’s not going to marry him, the romantic triangle is between Hepburn, Grant and Stewart, so why not cast the guy who never gets the girl?  Howard Hawks would have been a better directing choice — and would have ramped-up the pacing of  the film.  The scenes with fast dialogue are some of  the best, but at 112 minutes the film runs a little long, and drags in places.  Hawks could have speeded up the dialogue and the plot (such as in his wonderful His Girl Friday).  And, as much as I like Grant – I don’t think the film works with the plot of Tracy Lord going back to her first husband.  On the one hand it makes her look like an on-screen Elizabeth Taylor, and on the other it seems terribly old-fashioned, almost as if to suggest a woman can’t really be divorced.

Recommendation:  Worth seeing, but at times slow.
Rating:  3 out of  5 Stars
Next Film:  The Princess Bride

Gaslight (1944)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC, (Double-sided)

“I was right about you — I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to me.” — Gregory
“I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to her.” — Mr. Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard

I’ve always thought that Gaslight is one of the scariest movies to watch. It’s spine-tingling and chilling, rather than gross, or shocking. The best way to get the full effect, is to watch it with all the lights off, at night, when you’re alone in the house, and of course a thunderstorm helps. There is nothing scarier than the idea of someone coldly trying to drive you insane. Films about those kinds of mind games are truly frightening.

The movie opens with Paula leaving her aunt’s house, she thinks for the last time. She had been raised by her aunt, after her mother died in childbirth. She’s been encouraged to go to Italy to study singing and forget the recent tragedy that’s befallen her. We learn later that her aunt was a famous opera singer and she was murdered. Still later we learn the murder is still unsolved, there was a jewel theft at the same time, but the jewels were never found, sold, or traded.

In Italy, Paula quickly discovers she has no talent for operatic singing, and she meets the man of her dreams, she thinks. After two weeks, he’s proposed. She tells him she needs time to think about it, and wants a week to herself at a lakeside vacation resort. When her train arrives there, he’s waiting for her. He talks her into settling down in London, and even though Paula doesn’t want to return to London, she agrees. The film is, by the way, set in Victorian London. They end up living in Paula’s Aunt’s house, which Paula has inherited.

The film then gets weird – Gregory Anton completely controls his wife’s life. He doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, not even on a short walk (even by Victorian standards, that’s excessive). He fires Paula’s maid, and hires an impertinent girl named Nancy (beautifully played by Angela Lansbury as alternately sinister and flirty). Again, normally the hiring and firing of servants would be a woman’s job.  And he slowly starts to drive Paula insane, giving her things, then taking them away but telling her she lost them. Taking a picture down off the wall, then pointing it out to be missing and saying she did it.  And going out at night, leaving her alone with a deaf cook and rude maid, who do everything he says and thus join in on his mind games of turning down the gaslight (and saying it hasn’t been) and ignoring the footsteps in the closed off attic that Paula hears.

But the genius of  the movie is that it isn’t obvious about any of this. We don’t actually see Gregory take a brooch from Paula’s purse, we only see him fiddle with it. We don’t see him tell the servants to lie to make Paula look nuts either – we only see him tell Nancy she’s to take all her orders from him and not her mistress.

Joseph Cotten is Mr. (Brian) Cameron, a Scotland Yard detective who happens to see Paula with Gregory one day when they are sight-seeing at the Tower of London. Gregory is immensely jealous when Paula smiles at Cameron after he tips his hat to her, but she was merely being polite. Gregory then goes back to the Yard and examines the cold case of Paula’s aunt’s murder, but is told to leave it alone.  Luckily for Paula, he doesn’t.

Paula, Gregory and Mr. Cameron again run into each other at a party thrown by one of Paula’s aunt’s friends. Again, Gregory pulls his slight of hand, telling Paula his watch is gone and pulling it out of her purse – the hysterical Paula is led from the party.

Gregory’s cold, calculating, insidious little plans get worse and worse, as he tells Paula a letter she found in her aunt’s music doesn’t exist and she was staring at nothing, and that her mother didn’t die in childbirth but rather a year later in an insane asylum.

Fortunately, by this time Cameron and a bobby named Williams have started investigating, and find out  Gregory only goes out to “work” at night, they even find that he disappears in an alley behind the house, and comes out looking dirty and dusty, his tie askew. One night, when Gregory has left, Cameron goes to the house and finds Paula, he starts talking to her when the gaslight dims. She’s excited that he also sees the gas lower. Then he hears the footsteps, and, knowing what he does from his own investigation, concludes her husband is poking around in the attic. They also find the letter that Gregory had claimed didn’t exist.

Then the light turns to normal, Paula encourages Cameron to leave, he does, and when Gregory returns he, and Elizabeth try to convince Paula no one was there that evening. Paula starts to break down and Gregory arrives. After a struggle, Cameron arrests Gregory finding the jewels on him.  Paula’s aunt had sewn them on her costume amongst all the paste jewels. Nothing like hiding in plain sight!

But this isn’t a case of the boy rescues the girl. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is masterful – she portrays a deliriously happy bride, and a frightened wife equally well. But her best scene is at the end of the movie, as she turns the tables on her husband, playing the same mind games on him that he had played on her, if only for a short while, before turning him over to Cameron and the police.

The directing, the use of light and shadow, and the acting, especially by the women in the piece is all masterful.  It’s also a flip-flop of the typical Film Noir motif — that usually involves a cunning, conniving, designing woman, known as the femme fatale, dragging a relatively innocent man down into a well of crime and evil, and thus destroying him. In Gaslight, it’s the man who’s cunning, conniving, cold, and chilling, and he’s attempting to drive his wife insane, after murdering her aunt, to get the jewels he didn’t have time to steal because she had interrupted him. (The police knew Paula had awoken, walked down the stairs, and found her aunt dead, but everything else on the case remained open.) Also, where the man often dies as a result of committing a crime for the femme fatale – here Paula not only survives, but in the end, she’s triumphant, discovering she’s not going insane, getting the chance to pay her husband back (who’s secretly married to someone else, and thus not legally her husband), and possibly even finding happiness with the detective who solved the case. How often can a Film Noir film have a truly happy ending? Not often.

Anyway, it’s an incredibly good film, everyone in it does an excellent and admirable job, and I love it. It can be good to watch something spooky occasionally.

Recommendation:  See It!
Rating:  5 Stars
Next film:  Gaslight (1940)