Wednesday, December 19, 2007

12/19: The Philadelphia Story

George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story is an epitome of stylish wit and charm, evincing the same concern with class and life decisions as Cukor's earlier (and much superior) Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn vehicle Holiday. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a society heiress with a long history as a tabloid gossip mainstay, especially in regards to her marriage to and angry divorce from Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven (a brilliant high-class name if ever there was one). The opening scene perfectly captures the antipathy between these two, in a quick and wordless evocation of the end of their marriage: Hepburn breaks Grant's golf club over her knee, and Grant palms her face and shoves her backwards, after first feigning a punch. But when Tracy plans to get remarried, to the nouveau-riche George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter returns into her life, dragging with him a pair of gossip-rag journalists who he plans to introduce as friends of his.

From then on, the film is a game of appearances and realities, with nothing ever quite what it seems. Dexter is seemingly out for revenge by showing up at the wedding and bringing sleazy journalists with him, but he actually has more altruistic motives in mind. And the journalists, Connor (James Stewart) and Liz (Ruth Hussey), must maintain their facades while gathering information about the Lord family. Meanwhile, Tracy sees right through her ex's ruse immediately, but is forced to accept the journalists as friends anyway, due to a blackmail plot by the tabloid's editor. All this is established with perhaps too much detail, and the first 20 minutes of the film drag ponderously with exposition that brings the plot up to this point. It's only then that the first genuine sparkle appears in the film, as Tracy and her sophisticated young sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler, in one of those annoyingly precocious little kid roles) playact before the befuddled journalists, hoping to present a super-exaggerated portrait of the society lifestyle for their benefit. This scene is hilarious, and the smooth-talking, constantly quipping Hepburn quickly proves a strangely compelling counterpart for the laconic Stewart.

The duo achieves an uneasy rapport almost as soon as they're onscreen together, totally different from Hepburn's already established rapport with Grant as her ex. In Grant, Hepburn has a true onscreen equal, someone with a sharp wit to match hers and an ability to trade barbs back and forth with ease. Stewart, in his best folksy personality, can be witty too, but his conversations with Hepburn aren't so much back-and-forth as give-and-take, up-and-down, going from periods of rapid-fire exchanges to more halting moments of withdrawal and uncertainty. The difference between the two male leads and their complicated connections with Hepburn provides the film's central spark and tension. It's telling that, from the very beginning, the prospective husband George is sidelined in favor of not just one, but two other leads. He's a stuffy cipher, a man who pulled himself up from nothing to be a successful businessman, and who has now totally bought into the status and self-importance of his new class. In contrast, both the impoverished Stewart and the born-rich Grant seem much more natural, relaxed in their skins and not overly concerned with appearances or traditions.

As this précis suggests, Cukor's interest in class is complex and not at all couched in the usual simplistic terms. The Lord family is undoubtedly upper-class, and they accept their privilege with casual ease, while Connor is nearly a pauper, a struggling writer working way beneath his talent just to pay the bills. Connor is understandably resentful of the riches around him at the Lord home, but his resentment cools as he grows to know Tracy better, although their discussions still often have a tinge of class warfare about them. This is especially apparent when Tracy offers Connor the use of a country house for private writing, and he rejects her by saying that the concept of wealthy patronesses has gone out of style. Connor just wants to be his own man, even if it means struggling, and this ultimately is the film's primary message. Both Connor and Dexter are comfortable with who they are, while George and Tracy aren't — Tracy, especially, seems uncertain about what direction to go in her life, or even what kind of person she is. She's repeatedly told, sometimes in insult, sometimes with the best of intentions, that she is a cold, distant, and self-centered goddess, and only Connor seems to see the warmth and intelligence in her.

Cukor deftly juggles this introspective subtext with the romantic interest of the central love triangle (actually complicated into a hexagon by the additional points of George and Liz), and a great deal of humor. The film is at its peak in the scenes between Connor and Tracy, especially a remarkable sequence in which the two of them grow progressively drunker and drunker over the course of a night as they ramble and talk and drink. The scene is a series of back-and-forth movements and gestures, with each of them moving towards each other and then backing off; several times, in the midst of quietly phrased arguments, their faces are close enough to kiss, and then they back away again. Cukor handles this beautifully, subtly increasing the romantic tension in the scene even as the tone of the dialogue largely remains friendly and unsentimental. When they finally kiss, the music soars romantically and then jolts to a halt, as though pausing to breath, and in the silence between kisses Hepburn simply whispers, "Golly." It's a moving, hilarious, wonderful moment, a perfect movie kiss. Without resorting to typical Hollywood grandstanding or manipulation, Cukor simply evokes the emotional depth of that kiss.

The Philadelphia Story abounds in moments like this, the result of Cukor's ability to organically combine witty dialogue, emotionally complicated characters (and performances to draw them out), and the subtle use of formal elements to gently nudge the scene towards its meaning. In this film, Cukor neatly shifts between light humor, low-key drama, and intellectual ruminations on identity, purpose, and the decisions made at crucial junctures in life. The film never quite settles into any of these modes, but it never quite feels disjointed either. Its story flows organically, and best of all, it doesn't rely on stock clichés or conventions. Its complex denouement somewhat defies the logic of Hollywood endings (though it's definitely a happy one), because it arises from the characters and their actions rather than from any clever twist or sop to audience expectations. The film as a whole isn't as dazzlingly fun as Holiday, which dealt with similar themes and ideas, nor is it as rigorous in developing these ideas. But it's still a fine work, and once it gets past the speedbump of the opening 20 minutes, it's very satisfying indeed.

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