Sunday, February 3, 2019



Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart based on the play by Philip Barry

So, I think I've mentioned this before but, I'm not as fond of Howard Hawks as others are. You see, when the Auteur Theory Movement first came around, and this would be the Caheirs du Cinema guys, they singled out certain directors, of course, most famously Alfred Hitchcock for their distinct style. One of the other big ones they first singled out as an auteur was Howard Hawks. It's clear to see why; the more films of his you watch, the more distinctive properties, tropes, motifs, tones, that you can identify as distinctively Howard Hawks. I think it also helped that he was a pretty notorious guy for a director at the time too. Hawks was known for being athletic, he was a Junior Tennis Champion, he was an engineer, he was fascinated with racecars and airplanes and motorcycles back when both of things were still the cutting edge of modern transportation. He was a rapscallion who hung around with adventurers and made comedies and action films. He's basically looked upon in certain circles as the original man's man director. I guess you can also point to him and many of his works as a very American director as well, and something that, people like, the French cinephiles of the time might've picked up on more than us.

Now, I do love a lot of Hawks's movies, but if I'm being honest, I'm kinda uncomfortable with how masculine many of his films seem to be in this regard; not that there's anything wrong with masculinity, but the fact that that's why he's singled out and his works so positively looked upon now because of it, eh, I just wonder if perhaps that's not an influence that we should be looking at as much. For instance, why not single out a director who had just as much, if not more acclaimed and popularity from around that time, who perhaps was just as equal at singling out and focusing on more feminine aspects in film and cinema.

Now, ideally, I'd of course would like to seek out a female director for this, but tf you think there aren't enough of them now...- to me, the feminine equivalent to Howard Hawks is George Cukor. Cukor was a New York Hungarian Jew who got his start on Broadway before transitioning to the screen. He also worked on just as many different kinds of movies as Hawks, and he did for longer, directing films, shortly after coming to Hollywood after being hired as a dialogue writer at the beginning of the sound era, despite focusing mostly on comedy. He was capable of other things, like "David Copperfield", or even writing most of the dialogue for "All Quiet on the Western Front", but he would give us some classic thriller, epics, musicals, he wasn't just held-back by the limits of his stage background. Think of a movie like "Pat and Mike", one of the great Tracy/Hepburn movies, which is basically a movie that shows off Hepburn's athletic prowess. and the comedic special effects he would use to show a tennis and ball looking bigger and bigger as she gets distracted by her fiance that she always starts performing badly for. That movie almost seems like a shot at Hawks to me, telling a feminine story about such masculine activities, creating a romantic-comedy out of a character who was clearly inspired by ahead-of-their-time female athletes like Babe Diedricksen-Zaharias.

Given the chance, Cukor always leaned towards the feminine angle. He famously got fired as a director on "Gone with the Wind", (Which Hawks was an uncredited screenwriter on) for focusing too much on Scarlet O'Hara. It was a well-known secret that Cukor was gay, which means that everyone in Hollywood knew but nobody outside suspected a thing back then. That may add another layer to much of his work, especially with his films that basically seems like stories about who the main female character will marry. Of course, he made movies about women that didn't focus entirely on romance or love too, and he did some that undermined many of those expectations, like his best thriller, "Gaslight", but it's a common topic and back in the Golden Age of Cinema it was one of the few that he could make. Probably the best, funniest and most memorable film of his that's like that is "The Philadelphia Story". In some ways, it's the ultimate "Who's the girl gonna marry?"-movie.

It's also one of those movies where, if I try to describe the plot to anybody in any logical way, it's simply just not gonna make any sense in a modern world, which is part of why I decided to zone in on talking about George Cukor for most of this review, which, frankly I'll use any excuse to do that, but moreso with this film 'cause it's my favorite film of his; the one I've seen the most times and can watch again and again several times over. Yet, there's nothing en vogue about this film on the surface. I mean, it's partially confusing, who's concerned these days with the problems of the rich social elites, of Philadelphia of all places?

Okay, so it's based on Philip Barry's hit Broadway play, and it was inspired by an actual Philadelphia socialite named Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. You gotta remember that for, much of the 18th and early 19th Century, Philadelphia upper class was very much a WASPy, "The Age of Innocence"-like culture and was the dominant place for that world and the sociality. (The movie was actually remade as a musical in the '50s under the title, "High Society") So, essentially Traci Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is basically,- you can reasonably sorta think of her as-, sort of a Paris Hilton of her time? Kinda? It's not a perfect comparison, and it really seems like an odd role for Katharine Hepburn, at first glance at least.

She had made the role famous on Broadway; in fact the role was specifically written for her, but she was classified as Box Office Poison by the press at the time, so she took a huge change by forgoing a salary for the stage performance and instead bought the film rights, determined to play the role on screen. Louis B. Meyer, decided to cast two major stars opposite her, as precaution. In hindsight, this seems both ridiculous and genius. The film rejuvenated Hepburn's career and it's a movie that shows her being the object of two of the biggest stars alive. And why not cast big stars in this; this is a movie this witty over-the-top socialite screwball comedy, the fact that this movie has Cary Grant and James Stewart fighting over Katharine alone makes this a classic. On top of, of course, the amazing dialogue.

In the beginning of the film, Hepburn has just thrown out her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven. (Cary Grant, and what a name for a Cary Grant character!) Now she’s about to get married to George Kittridge (John Howard) who isn’t nearly as funny, quick-witted, or fun as her ex, but he’s rich and a very safe, reliable choice for a husband. C.K. Dexter Haven btw, is a yacht designer by trade. He's the risky choice in this world. 

Why she needs a safe, rich, husband is never properly explained considering she’s pretty well-off on her own unless we play it as though she looking for boredom. She has a history of excessive and scandalous behavior that everybody's award of. In fact, word of her latest wedding has led to two writers for Spy Magazine (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey, oh and think TMZ for the day.) to come in and cover the wedding and for reasons that are better left unexplained, all of Tracy’s family, and her ex-husband are all in her house the day before her wedding to George. As the day becomes into night, the real movie starts to evolve, or devolve maybe, and this suddenly goes from an inside-look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous to aristocrats gone wild. Or to be more precise, aristocrats gone drunk. Really drunk! 

The things that actually occur from hereon in is the stuff of the movie, so I won’t go into too much detail describing it, I think in modern upper-class lingo, we'd call these things a New York Evening. The kind where truths are revealed as nights turn into days and everybody ends up a little off-kilter and a little under-the-influence. The next morning, a barely-sober Tracy has to make a last minute-decision about her marriage, and in one of the craziest wedding sequences of all time,… well, I guess you can tell she not going to marry Kittredge, but I won’t reveal who she does actually marry. (You probably figure it’s between Stewart and Grant though) "The Philadelphia Story" is the kind of movie that we just don't make anymore, a true screwball romantic-comedy that knows how to deal with love, and all it's artifices and excesses. The film won two Oscars, one for it's screenplay and more infamously a surprise Best Actor Oscar for James Stewart, the only competitive Oscar he'd ever win. It's unfortunate, 'cause he is amazing in this movie, but it's generally accepted that he only won because of him surprisingly losing the year before for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington". Stewart wasn't even planning on showing up, figuring that Charlie Chaplin was gonna win for "The Great Dictator", only to show up at the last moment after word began coming down that he might've won it. 

Mostly though, despite everything, the best part about the movie, is the dialogue. Characters are blunt to each other and everyone's got their acid tongue sharply in cheek in this film. I may be standing here on my own two hands and going crazy, but dammit this film remains hilarious even today, despite how much it even takes to fully understand how a movie like this could exist, it's still hilarious and hell; more screenwriters should study this film's dialogue and recognize it as one of the great comedies of all-time. 

And more people should remember Cukor as one of the great and most influential and important directors of the Golden Age, if not of all-time. Maybe if more critics had a more feminine perspective on auteurism...? (Shrugs)