Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story poster, via Wikipedia

The Philadelphia Story is a 1940 picture starring Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord (I know. If you’re a child of the MTV age, you can’t help but think of this person. They’re not the same person,). This Tracy is a rich, young society divorcee about to wed for a second time. Tracy’s first marriage to CJ Dexter Haven, (I know. If you’re a child of cable TV, you can’t help but think of this guy when you hear the name Dexter. They’re not the same person.), ended two years earlier, Dexter punctuated their break-up with a smack that knocked her to the ground. Now, she’s about to marry George Kittredge, a coal-miner-turned-executive who is clearly there for the money and the status. Tracy abhors  publicity in the gossip rags, but that’s exactly what Kittredge wants given his new station in life. It’s plain to see that this union is doomed, and it’s unclear why they got together in the first place, but most of us have an ex like that.

Meanwhile, at the offices of an evil gossip rag, Macaulay Connor is assigned to cover the Lord wedding, along with photographer Liz Imbrie. The pair meet Dexter who, inexplicably, will be a constant presence at the home of his ex-wife during her nuptial weekend. He’s their “in.” Doesn’t seem like a great plan, but it works. Tracy is initially hostile about the reporters’ presence in her home during her wedding prep, but quickly grows fond of Connor (and really, who wouldn’t be fond of Stewart?). The night before her wedding, Tracy gets drunk and is seen looking cozy with Connor. Kittredge sees this and sends her a letter (I know, isn’t that cute? On paper and everything.) the next morning questioning her faithfulness and whether a wedding should even take place. Kittredge is quickly dismissed and Tracy seems set up to marry Connor. After all, she’s already in her dress, and the guests have arrived, so you may as well marry someone. That doesn’t pan out, either. In a contrived bit of plot twisting, Tracy ends up marrying Dexter (remember, not the serial killer), even though he, you know, knocked her to the ground two years earlier. But he’s reformed and looks like Cary Grant and everything, so it’s all good. Also, I don’t think you’re supposed to think about it too hard.

Overall, the material is well-written. It’s a solid romantic comedy with no real surprises. The film only makes passing reference to the fact that Dexter had hit his ex-wife and doesn’t seem too flustered about the issue of domestic violence. Plus, the guy’s supposedly all kinds of reformed so it’s supposed to be considered acceptable by 1940 standards. By today’s not so much, for obvious reasons. The notion of privacy being invaded by a single magazine photo spread is kind of quaint in today’s climate of paparazzi, deliberately leaked sex tapes, celebs posting their dinners to their Instagram accounts and the entire Kardashian family.

Class and privilege are central themes to the movie. Tracy, pampered from birth, hasn’t thought too hard about all of her privilege. She doesn’t grasp the fact that some people, including women, have to work for a living. Connor and Liz serve as character foils. Connor is an aspiring novelist and poet who earns his living as an ink-stained wretch (not unlike myself), and Liz is a divorcee who supports herself with her photography. Tracy doesn’t quite understand why someone would write magazine articles when what they want to be is a respected author (cause, you know, respected authorship just falls out of the sky). On the same level, as a non-wealthy divorcee in 1940, Imbrie is part of an emerging class of female working professional who is in sharp contrast to Tracy, the future Lady Who Lunches. Still, it’s hard to fault Tracy, who seems like a genuinely nice person, just sheltered. I’m sure that in the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of a second World War, Tracy’s gorgeous clothes and society wedding might have provided a nice mental escape. Or they really pissed people off.

The biggest upside of this movie is that Stewart is his usual delightful self and has excellent chemistry with Hepburn. I sensed no chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, which is odd because they had been romantic leads before. Grant seems unnecessary in most scenes; his main purpose is to hook up with Hepburn’s character at the end. Throughout the film, he appears wooden and kind of lost between Stewart and Hepburn. Indeed, it was the film that earned Stewart an Oscar, although he is quoted as saying that Henry Fonda should have won for The Grapes of Wrath. It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Grapes of Wrath, but that was probably a fair assessment. There’s nothing wrong with Stewart, it’s just that it’s a role he could have played half-asleep.

The bottom line: It’s an enjoyable movie if you don’t think too hard about it and you overlook the opening scene.

Some Like it Hot, 1959 (Or, Why do we love it when a man puts on a dress?)

Cover of "Some Like It Hot"

Cover of Some Like It Hot

What is it that makes us so happy when a man puts on a dress?

Some Like it Hot isn’t the first or the last of the man-in-a-dress movies. It’s a remake of a French film from the 1930’s, and it serves as a predecessor to films like Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage. But it is one of the funniest and most enduring.

The film opens in Prohibition-era Chicago, as Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, respectively, have a sweet gig in a band at a speakeasy. It’s all fun, booze and dancing girls until it gets raided by the cops. Somehow, our two stars manage to escape arrest (their knack for near-misses with danger will be an ongoing theme). Their lives get pretty sucktacular pretty damn quick as they lose their overcoats in a bet and are stuck wandering Chicago coatless in February lugging their instruments. Their luck almost changes when they secure a gig at a Valentine’s Day dance in Urbana, and head to a garage to borrow a car from one of the many women Joe has bedded in the recent past. This is where things go from sucktacular to whatever is much, much worse than sucktacular, when they happen to witness a fictionalized version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre orchestrated by mob boss Spats Colombo.

Escaping with only their lives and their instruments Joe does some quick thinking and puts in a call to an agent who was looking for a bass player and saxophonist, the two specialties of Joe and Jerry, except that it’s an all-girl band. Joe raises his voice a few octaves and swiftly secures the spots for himself and his fellow bandmate on the run. Joe and Jerry arrive at the train platform the next morning in full female form. Jerry’s make-up job looks not unlike the Joker from Batman, but it’s good enough to pull off for a few hours. One does wonder how the pair, broke and running for their lives could acquire the full monty so quickly AND learn how to walk in high heels, albeit not very well. And I don’t even want to think about how uncomfortable all that 1920’s underwear would be. Today’s gender-bending mob witnesses at least have the option of grabbing some Spanx at Target on their way out of Dodge. The plan is that they board the train, fall in with the band until they make it to Miami, and then scram.

And then, Sugar comes along walking “like Jell-O on springs,” and the plan all goes to pot. Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar has loved ‘em and lost ‘em, and is one flask away from losing her job as ukulele player and singer in Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. Slack-jawed, Joe and Jerry board the train as Josephine and Daphne, and manage to make their way to Florida undetected. That’s where the true hijinks ensue as Daphne/Jerry pulls off swimming in the ocean while not destroying his make-up job, and Joe pulls off the even more improbably feat of courting Sugar while posing as an oil tycoon. In the end, everyone manages to find love, and manage more narrow escapes from Colombo and Co., who just happen to be having a mob shindig at the band’s hotel.

Some Like it Hot is more than just a man-in-a-dress flick, and this is part of what makes it endure. The dialogue is smart and the casting is strong. Monroe brings her typical gorgeousness, radiant smile and flawless skin, but also brings an undercurrent of vulnerability to her role. You really don’t want her to get screwed over again, but you can’t see how there are many other outcomes. Or maybe we’re just all too familiar with what happened to Monroe, and think seeing her happy on-screen will give her a happy ending in life. Curtis and Lemmon work together so seamlessly that they could have easily been a comedy team rivaling Lemmon and Matthau. The modern bromance owes a lot to this crew.

Some Like it Hot serves up helpings of mafia-intrigue, cynicism about prohibition, and romance. But its most obvious nod is to the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. According to the nice people at Turner Classic Movies, Director Billy Wilder planned to shoot the film in color, as required in Monroe’s contract. However, after seeing Curtis and Lemmon dressed as women, he felt black and white would be the better option. If you’re wondering just how bad those make-up jobs looked in color, you can get an idea here.  This helps to give the film not just the fun of the 1930’s, but also the look of the era.

It is also probably the funniest of the “man in a dress” films. We always love it when a man puts on a dress, much like we always give Oscars to the actress who had to ugly-up for her movie. The cross-dressing theme was somewhat risque for the time, but it’s an old-school theme. It was already alive and well in Shakespeare’s day, and even goes back to Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, and it’s not going to go away. Something about the image of a man squeezing into pantyhose and stumbling in high heels is especially entertaining to us on a cellular level. Perhaps because it reflects how ridiculous so many aspects of womanhood are. High heels seem kind of silly and arbitrary after watching Lemmon and Curtis struggle down the platform in them.

If you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that this film was scandalous for its time. The cross-dressing is the obvious culprit, but then there’s also the possibility that Jerry will marry another man, Sugar kissing someone who looks like a woman, and Monroe’s dresses, which leave little to the imagination. Theaters in Kansas supposedly wouldn’t show it, and it didn’t receive approval under the Hays Code. The most fun scandalous rating comes from the National Legion of Decency, which gave it a C for ‘condemned’. If that won’t convince you to see it, I don’t know what will.

What’s this all about?

So I watch a lot of old movies. A few years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to watch more old movies. I came up with this idea for a few reasons. First, I realized that there were a lot of classic films that I had never seen. Second, I really have no vices. I’m a social drinker and non-smoker who doesn’t believe in dieting. I mostly stick to decaf. I have accepted that my shoe collection will never be organized in any form or fashion. There really wasn’t much I could cut back on. Third, I thought it would be fun to try something that might actually be, you know, fun. My plan was to watch at least one movie a week that I was too young to have seen in the theater. And I stuck to it pretty faithfully until about June and I  had better things to do. 

So now, I’ve decided to pick it up again. Mostly because I enjoyed it, and also because I really had no one to discuss the films with. So often, I’d think “They wouldn’t end it that way today.” And when you meet a friend for lunch and they ask what’s up and you start going on about a 50-year-old Elizabeth Taylor film they kind of look at you as though you’re strange. Also, blogging is what we writers do now, and I thought this might be more interesting than writing about parenting and cats. 

Editor’s Note of Warning: I’m just a person who watches movies. I’m not any sort of film expert or insider. As a feminist, I am especially interested in how films portray and have portrayed women and women’s issues, but that won’t necessarily be the focus of every movie or post. Feel free to agree or disagree. I really have no ego invested in this. I’m just a person who watches movies.