Holiday

For a Cary Grant fan like myself, the prospect of watching him and Katharine Hepburn together was not to be missed this Memorial Day weekend.  “Holiday” was made in 1938, the same year as the pair’s much better known romantic comedy, “Bringing Up Baby.” This one’s a romantic comedy too, but it’s got an edge. A sad undercurrent that lends the film depth.

Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the older sister of the woman Grant’s character (Johnny) loves. The Setons are a wealthy family with the usual skeletons in the closet. In this case, it’s a younger brother with a drinking problem. Ned Seton has given up his love of music to go into business and his quiet self-destructiveness broke my heart.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Linda has just realized that she’s in love with Johnny.katharine-hepburn-cary-grant-holiday-black-gown-2 She’s too high-principled to steal him away from her sister — nobody does high-principled better than Hepburn — even though we can see that she’s just his type.

So Linda asks Ned to pour her a glass of champagne.

“What’s it like, to get drunk Ned?”

He considers this seriously. “How drunk?”

“Good and drunk.”

“Grand!”

“How is it?” Linda persists.

“Well…” He pauses to refill his glass. “To begin with it brings you to life.”

“Does it?” she asks, brightening to the idea.

“And after awhile you begin to know all about it. You feel… important.”

“That must be good!”

“Yes.” He beckons her closer. “And then pretty soon the game starts.”

“What game?”

“A swell game. A terribly exciting game. You see, you think clear as crystal but every move, every sentence is a problem. It gets pretty interesting.”

Linda’s face falls as understanding dawns. “You get beaten then, don’t you?”

“Sure, but that’s good too. Then you don’t mind anything. Not anything at all. Then you sleep.”

“How long can you keep it up?”

“A long while. As long as you can last.”

“Oh, Ned. That’s awful.”

“Think so? Other things are worse”.

“Where do you end up?

“Where does everybody end up?” He says this matter-of-factly. “You die.  That’s alright too.”

Shades of the bitter disillusionment of “Dinner at Eight,” which George Cukor also directed from a stage play. The romance is lovely, right up there with “The Philadelphia Story” (another Cukor gem). But the dialogue lends this film a darker tone.

Many thanks to E. H. for recommending it to me.

Bringing Up Baby

This one’s for Olyvia Eve Garrison, born January 2, 2012

Cary Grant is having the worst day of his life. He’s a paleontologist who’s just assembled a huge brontosaurus skeleton, and he’s about to put in very last bone. All he’s got to do is convince a wealthy widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Random, to give a million dollars to his museum and he’ll be all set.

Enter Katharine Hepburn’s madcap heiress character, Susan, and her pet leopard, Baby. She’s instantly smitten by Grant and used to getting her own way.  Before you know it, she’s got Grant where she wants him…

Unfortunately, the dowager at the front door is Grant’s benefactor, who also happens to be Susan’s aunt.  Things go downhill from there. Mrs. Random’s dog buries the bone, Baby is set free, another leopard appears on the scene, and this one’s not tame. It’s a killer.  Meanwhile, the entire cast ends up in jail. Still with me? Never mind. Susan’s got everything under control.

 

Welcome to the world, Olyvia.  May you find joy always, and laughter even in adversity.

© Lisa Lieberman 2012

The Philadelphia Story

Kate is in fine form in this picture.  Of course, she got everything she wanted:  George Cukor for her director, Cary Grant for her leading man, cary-grant-and-katharine-hepburn-the-philadelphia-storyJames Stewart as the reporter she gets drunk with, and fine supporting performances from Ruth Hussey and Mary Nash.  You can tell they’re all having the time of their lives.

Kate’s character has painted herself into a corner. She’s got such high standards, no mortal man can measure up.  She’s about to marry a stuffed shirt who worships the ground she walks on—the polar opposite of her first husband (Grant).  Rosalind Russell nearly made the same mistake in “The Front Page.”  How any woman could divorce Grant is beyond me, but Kate’s character is awfully confused when the picture opens.  She thinks she wants to be worshipped.

Fortunately for Kate, she’s got Stewart to remind her how to be human.

But life isn’t only champagne and kisses.  The uptight fiancé cares only for appearances, and things look pretty bad.  He’s ready to defend his bride’s honor, but Grant beats him to it.  Maybe he’s a wee bit jealous, too.

Of course he wins Kate back.  About time she came to her senses!

The Lion in Winter

If you’re into verbal abuse, you could do worse than memorize some of the insults from this film.  Here’s one, an exchange between Prince John and his brother, the future Richard the Lionheart.

Prince John: My God, if I went up in flames there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out!

Prince Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

Or how about this welcoming line, spoken by King Henry when he’s just let Eleanor of Aquitaine out of prison for Christmas:  “What shall we hang first? The holly or each other?”  Then there’s my favorite, spoken by Eleanor to Henry in their final showdown:  “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.”

Compared to this lot, the intrigues of the current royal family come off like a Disney movie.  None of them rages like Peter O’Toole’s Henry, or plots like Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor.  I ask you, where can you find the kind of stab-in-the-back diplomacy that took place between Richard’s sons and King Philip of France?  And knowing as much as we now do about George VI’s speech impediment, it’s difficult to believe he could have put anyone in their place through verbal attacks alone.

Gladiator dialogue just isn’t done these days.  It’s all internal now, even in films adapted from stage plays.  But in the early sixties, plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” proved that words were just as sharp as sticks and stones, and “The Lion in Winter” comes out of that era.

It’s well worth watching, not only for Hepburn and O’Toole’s performances, but you get to see a young Anthony Hopkins in the role of Richard and Timothy Dalton as Phillip II, the first motion picture appearances for both actors.  Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor, which makes up for the one she earned the previous year for the embarrassing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

 (15 March 2011)

Woman of the Year

“Woman of the Year” is one of those classics you’re always hearing about.  Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy began their twenty-seven-year love affair on the set, and the sexual attraction between the two stars is what gives this picture its buzz.  Here are Tess and Sam at a baseball game.  Can’t you tell they’re already in love?

In other ways, though, the film is like Mr. Potato Head:  so many parts that don’t entirely cohere.  Start with the ending, where Tess makes a fool of herself in the kitchen, trying to be a good housewife.  Apparently the studio tacked it on to amuse the women in the audience—and back in 1942 it did satisfy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who considered it Hepburn’s best scene.  What’s she doing, writing newspaper articles about the war, following events in Europe, hosting refugees in her apartment?  For goodness sake, writes Crowther, “Tracy’s character, a plain, old-fashioned fellow, can’t be sure whether he is married to her or General De Gaulle.”

Still, I like Crowther’s description of the film:  “As warming as a Manhattan cocktail and as juicy as a porterhouse steak.”  Juicy for sure:  Hepburn’s character is actually kittenish.  But for all Tracy’s character’s plain, old-fashioned charm, Sam manages to get in a few zingers at his wife’s expense.  “The outstanding woman of the year isn’t a woman at all,” he announces as Tess leaves to accept the award.  Ouch!  I thought this was supposed to be a romantic comedy.

And Sam’s good old American lack of worldliness does make one wince at moments, like when he calls an turbaned Indian diplomat a “towel head” at one of Tess’s international gatherings, all in good fun, of course.

But admitting the film’s limitations, it is endearing.  Not only do the two lead actors deliver outstanding performances, but the supporting characters are delightful as well, from Sam’s newspaper cronies and drinking buddies to Hepburn’s father and aunt, not to mention those stray refugees who keep showing up in her apartment at inopportune moments.  Enjoy the Manhattan and the steak in the spirit of New York, circa 1942.

(22 April 2011)