The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Philadelphia Story 4This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian.  But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also  suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.

The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman,  George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute.  It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.

Continue reading

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday

iwasamalewarbride21Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood.  I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between  Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.

Continue reading

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

After  seeing two earlier Howard Hawks movies about flying, The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero, I couldn’t resist watching his most famous airborne drama. Not surprisingly, I loved this one too. I’ve now watched it twice and am sure I’ll be returning to it in the future.

Cary Grant

Cary Grant

Hawks wrote the original story which was the basis for the Jules Furthman screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings, and set it in the same world as Ceiling Zero. Again he focuses on a small close-knit group of mail pilots who are determined to make sure the letters get through on time, whatever the weather, even at the cost of their lives.  The sheer number of dead and injured by the end of the film makes it feel almost like a drama set in a war zone – except that here the enemies are fog, hills, trees and passing birds. 

However,  intertwined with all the melodrama, there is also a strong element of humorous romance, making it hugely entertaining to watch.  At times the quickfire dialogue between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur almost seems to be taken from a screwball comedy like Hawks’ His Girl Friday. The blend of deadly danger and love works brilliantly, even if at times the plot twists seem a little unlikely.

Jean Arthur’s character, travelling piano player Bonnie Lee, doesn’t know quite what she is getting into when she gets off the boat in a small South American town. She is chatted up by two handsome young pilots, who offer to buy her a drink – but, next thing she knows, they are both being packed off to work, and their boss, Geoff  ‘Pop’ Carter (Grant) is the one turning his charm in her direction.
Continue reading

Topper (1937)

I watched this movie more or less on the spur of the moment. To start with I didn’t know anything about it, and assumed it would be realistic, like most 1930s movies I’ve seen.  So I was surprised to discover that in fact it is a comic fantasy, based on a novel by Thorne Smith, who also wrote the book which inspired hit TV series Bewitched.

topper1

The plot revolves around a rich, carefree  young couple, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), who die in a car crash. They find themselves marooned on earth as ghosts, until they can do a good deed to ensure their entrance into heaven. They decide to help a friend, strait-laced banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) to enjoy life and stop being so stuffy – but a lot of their ideas turn out to be the sort of help he could do without.

Continue reading