Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Film: 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)

What began with 'Bringing Up Baby' ends here, with the diversions into 'Holiday' and 'Woman Of The Year' mere figments of a fancy. 'Box office poison' became a thing of the past as Hepburn engineered her own redemption via the most scathing of self-lampooning. It was already old news for her, in a way, having starred in the play during her cinematic exile. Buying up all the rights, getting Cary Grant and director George Cukor on board, she redeemed her career by the greatest strength of will and engineering. If only a lot more screwball comedies had followed!

'The Philadelphia Story' is on a superficial level just a comedy of class and relationships, albeit one enlivened by the presence of not just Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but also Jimmy Stewart in one of his numerous breakout roles. Jimmy Stewart broke out so many times, without ever sliding back into any sort of oblivion. The man was a phenomenon. In actuality, this is a film rich in metatextuality, as it explores the inherent contradictions in the life of the icily cold, rich socialite Tracy Lord as she prepares to marry and engage in the life of love. Can she manage love, is her coldness a permanent state, will anyone love her rather than worship her, and what does it mean that in the days before her wedding both her first husband and a visiting journalist become intimately involved in her life?

Putting the metatextuality of Lord/Hepburn parallels aside, noting only that she effectively deconstructs her whole screen persona in this role and then rebuilds it just so that everyone can see it anew and different, this film is a fascinating screwball/romantic comedy. Screwball because the culture clash between Hepburn's Tracy Lord and Stewart's Mike Connor is iconic as the cinematic toff butts heads with the iconic everyman, and sparks as it couldn't with any other combination of actors, and romantic as Tracy is all set to marry the wrong man until Grant's suave and unbearably right Dexter Haven comes back to throw a spanner in the works. I spoke prematurely, as 'Holiday' may have been a diversion for the blog, but it was the greatest practice run for this monument to small-scale audacity. It's truly remarkable that 'The Philadelphia Story' isn't spoken about all the time, rendering as it does almost every other romantic comedy completely redundant.

Of course there are flaws, which I shall gloss over thanks to the licence I inherit as web-logger in residence, but they are mainly represented by the somewhat clunky exposition and setup of Tracy's family, who are never outright weak but also never strong presences. To be fair, who could be when they're sharing a film with Those Three? Ruth Hussey does well as Jimmy Stewart's attendant photographer and would-be love interest though. A second flaw would be the fairly obvious 'wrong man' aspects of Tracy's fiance George, who never at any point is a credible husband, even before the advents of Grant or Stewart's characters. Thinking about Jimmy Stewart, he takes the second lead outright while Cary Grant really doesn't get much to do, and if memory serves did it partly as a favour and got top billing as part of the bargain. Stewart excels as Mike's character arc directly mirrors Hepburn's. While Tracy Lord struggles to get down from her pedestal and become part of love, Connor is struggling to get out from under his pile of both class prejudices and artistic scruples. Their very odd relationship underpins the whole film, revolving around the Lords' swimming pool.

There's not much else to say without spoiling the whole thing, and it shouldn't be spoiled. It's the ultimate romantic comedy with screwball included for no extra price. There's dialogue to spare, and the staginess of the adaptation and production is eclipsed totally by the star power of Those Three. Can you really not check out the unique pairing of Cary Grant and James Stewart? Even if you don't like Katherine Hepburn? You'd be mad.

Here endeth Hepburn mini-season. 'His Girl Friday' will follow, to close the Cary Grant / Howard Hawks double also begun by 'Bringing Up Baby'.

O.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Balancing Act

Buckle up, as it's going to be a rough ride. Over the next week I have to prepare for a suddenly sprung interview in Portsmouth, apply for several jobs, stare blankly at the walls, resist finally watching the newly released DVDs of the sixth season of 'The Mentalist', incorporate the finally returned comments into my paper, punch out some three dimensional calculations, and remain sane in the process.

'Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House' is playing as I write, and it proving to be mildly entertaining in its comedy, but not particularly noteworthy. Cary Grant is as good as always, of course, but not much is really happening. It's all a bit bland. At least it's alleviating the nerves a little. Isn't life wonderful in its seemingly random piles of events, slapping down from on high after weeks of dullness and boredom? It can not possibly be any stranger.

Gosh, another interview, how to get through yet another interview and succeed this time?! It's possible, it must be possible. It has to be possible to get through this post too, even though I am so deeply sleepy as to be barely coherent at all. Still, what could possibly go wrong? Words, words, words, don't fail us all now. No, nothing's happening, not even a joke. It's probably partly the effect of trying to condense the first phase of 'Triangles' into a single piece.

Hmmm, this new world of global health crises and madnesses, it's got its own balancing act to keep going, and we're the ones set to fall off it goes wrong. Let's hope it keeps going for a while longer.

O.

Note: Now only five episodes of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' left to watch. Today's was 'Savage Jungle', and it was rather amazing in its sheer idiotic creativity. The submarine Seaview was overtaken by jungle and invaded by guerrilla aliens. How bizarre and fascinating it was. Being the 'dumb science-fiction show' really does let the writers have liberty in many crazy ways. A submarine overtaken by jungle! Amazing!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Film: 'Woman of the Year' (1942)

My Katherine Hepburn mini-season has come to this, a spectacular personal fail. It shouldn't be true, as this is the movie that paired Hepburn with her long-time love Spencer Tracy for the first time, but it just doesn't work when compared to the other three movies I've been considering: 'Bringing Up Baby', 'Holiday' and 'The Philadelphia Story'. All of those play with the Hepburn persona and contradiction well, but this is a heavy-handed mess, and one which is just too scared of the problem it's trying to address. Also, It's too far to the dramatic end of the comedy drama spectrum to really fit into the movies I find interesting and to make its point lightly and effectively.

Digging into the story: 'Woman of the Year' is about the high flying and influential journalist Tess Harding, as played by Hepburn, and the rougher-hewn sports reporter and biographer Sam Craig, as personified by Tracy, and their rapidly matured relationship and marriage. That marriage is quickly threatened by the inability of Tess to give up her fast-living and important lifestyle to be a wife, and Sam's similar inability to understand how to deal with such a woman who spends her life dealing with ambassadors, refugees and statesmen galore. It's a frustrating story, as it almost brings Tess to the point of abandoning everything to be a housewife or to lose her marriage, before Sam brings her to an understanding of the existence of some half-way compromise in the last half-minute of the film. The problem is that it's not clear that Sam himself is compromising at all, or that he would have helped her in any way, or even left her in a confused and crippled state of mind for the rest of her life if they hadn't reconciled. No number of comedic popping toasters or interesting characters can fix that, and for that reason, I just can't like 'Woman of the Year', although there are some interesting aspects.

One of the great things about the movie is the radiant love affair between the two leads. If there has ever been screen chemistry then these two had it. It's easy to believe they would spend the rest of their paired lifetime together, even under the burden of Tracy's alcoholism! As a consequence their rapid courting, engagement, and marriage works perfectly, as it would in a light romantic comedy. That marriage is the point, however, at which the drama kicks in and it all becomes tricky. In this contemporary world of equality and feminism it seems strange, and then if you put yourself back into their time period it seems particularly ham-fisted, with only a few brief seconds at the end where you wonder that maybe the film had the best interests of Tess at heart the whole time but had no intention of showing it for even a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. Could those two actually function together at all? Could Tess go through with it and not be stifled to the point of heartbreak?

Is it possible that I have missed some incredibly obvious point, or that a tonal shift eluded me? When a movie is in the company of 'The Philadelphia Story' it has to be incredibly good or die in the comparison, and this one doesn't do well. At least Hepburn and Tracy were both good, and the supporting cast solid. The direction can be mixed in with the confused motivation of the movie but was good in at least the execution of the story. Was it perhaps a landmark at the time? It made it into the American Film Registry so it must have broken some ground. Hence the value of 'Woman of the Year' may not have been in being a great movie itself, but in breaking enough ground for other movies to go further and do more interesting and less contradictory things. That's probably enough.

Next, and finally: 'The Philadelphia Story'!

O.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Basking

In the light of a fairly successful diversion around the narrative block of 'The Glove', and a much welcome haircut, it's time to bask in the ever so welcome feeling of being free and a bit tired. Tired? Well, I made a deal with myself that every time I went to the job centre to sign the accursed piece of paper I would cycle to town and back instead of getting the bus. It's a beautiful idea, and there's a cycle track at the top of the hill to get me there, but it has one horrible disadvantage: The trip back is uphill all the way, sometimes cruelly so. That's doubly terrible when you're hauling groceries! As a result of that uphill return leg, you get the welcome tiredness, and as a result of the haircut a sense of freedom. It's a potent mix, like coal and herring.

Tonight, to plug the other endeavour, we're recording a fan commentary for Disney's 'Hunchback of Notre Dame'. In all likelihood, that movie will get its own entry here on 'The Quirky Muffin', but let us say for now that it provides a lot of scope for conversation, much more than my following choice of 'Condorman' in a few fortnights. Oh, 'Condorman', you're great but my sister is already complaining about you...

The landmark event of the week should have been getting the feedback for the required revisions to the mythical paper submitted in May, which is good, but in actuality it's the landmark of nearing the end of 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea', which is a ridiculous accomplishment. Ridiculous! In a week or so I'll attempt a massive 'Voyage' versus 'Star Trek' debate followed by a grand re-evaluation of this much-maligned and frequently daft and budget-starved show. So far, with only seven episodes left, the show has entered into the latest of the budgetary crunches that plagued its later seasons. We're seeing the big-eyed monster again, huzzah, for that old stock footage feeling! It's weird how it would ever be so acceptable for a show to so many sequences where the interiors are never matching the motion, position, or even sense of what's happening outside, but apparently that's how the 1960s worked.

The clock is ticking down toward recording time, and so this Quirky Muffin will have to be put to some kind of bed. The strange days continue but at least the burden of needing a haircut is gone, and now some creativity is seeping in to relieve the depravity for a while. In a post that is surely going to seem television references heavy, it's also nice to think that 'The Mentalist' season six DVDs will finally come out on Monday. It's been a long wait to see what happens, excepting the fact that I read all about it on ReviewBrain's blog, which focuses heavily on 'The Mentalist' when it's airing. Hence there will be no surprises at all except for everything I've forgotten. Blast!

That's a wrap! The four hundreds are going pretty well so far...

O.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Story: The Glove, IX

(Part I , VIII , X )

A mild and soft relaunch.

Steffan sat cross-legged in the woods and wondered where it had gone wrong. Somehow his path had become muddled and lost. He had learnt and practised for so long to be a piper, the bards of the moon of Troos, and then succeeded to a level he could not have even predicted, offered the rank of Master in the Guild, but something had swayed his hand from accepting it.

He lay back on the ground in his cloak and stared up at the blue skies to be seen through the small gaps in the tree tops. Was it all that likely that someone could be promoted so high so quickly on the basis of their Rite of Passage? Was it possible that it could have happened to him? It seemed so long ago now, as did the interview with Octavius himself, the Laird of Burgh. Octavius had wanted him to act as an investigator in the scientific capital of Edin, the other grand metropolis of their peaceful moon. Due to strained relations? And vanishing pipers?

The worrying thing was that from all he had seen the Pipers weren't so much entertainers and bards, as they were spies and agents. He had known they acted as couriers at times, and that the senior members were inevitably involved in some of the moon's politics but nothing of the Guild's second role, which was tantamount to being a secret police. Members of that secret police were being picked off, on a world where crime was almost forgotten. What was the need for a secret police on a world where crime was a rarity, a freak event? And would he get over how scary that might be?

Why was it that the Pipers did what they actually did? He would have known if he had accepted the job, but would he have gotten out again with his soul intact? He, confused, had instead said no, and then vanished. Vanishing why? To find something out, although he know not what. Tramping the roads of Troos, and heading inevitably toward the bustling and unknown to him Edin, he had thought deeply about his choices past, present and future, and he had slept a lot. The walking did him good, and although he had seen much of the countryside, no experience of any great mystery presented itself, although the omnipresent network of travelling bards was never far away. The moon was seemingly perfectly ordered, and at peace, even in the metropolis of Edin that he had finally reached a week before.

If the moon was in order, however, then how came there to be armed security forces in the village he had just left? And a dissident for them to shoot down in battle? What on Earth (it was a traditional saying for the colonists still) was there to rebel against?! The sounds of bullets ricocheted around his mentality, and the sights best left unseen hovered over his inner vision. Soon he would have to go back to his lodgings.

Getting up off the grass, Steffan wandered up and down a little as the light dimmed, and walked around the periphery of the village to the monorail stop. He palmed the sensor to tell the next train someone was waiting and stared blankly down the track. In one direction lay Burgh, capital of the arts, and in the other Edin, capital of the sciences. Between them was a demarcation, a profound one, a traditional one, and something that had persisted for centuries. Children and relatives moving from one side of the moon to the other depending on their talents, or families moving out into the countryside should they not care either way. It suddenly all seemed rather unnatural.

How did it all stay so separate?

To be carried further...

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Haircuts and a lack of suspects AKA Fuzzy headed blues

How on Earth to people live with long hair? I've never understood. Yes, women look extremely pretty with long hair, but I get incredibly fuzzy headed with much more than an inch of length standing up from the scalp. It's madness! Or is it possible that not everyone gets fuzzy minded? Now, that's a strange thought. Am I the strange one or am I the normal one in a world of oddities? Hard to tell, and in any case it's a flawed question, as we're all different and equally strange and normal. Except for writers of course, they're all madder than badgers in a wind tunnel.

Please don't put badgers in wind tunnels. That was only an illustration. Badgers do not deserve such torture. No-one does, not even weather forecasters or people who drive flashy cars with the music blaring. It's lucky that today is not a moaning day.

You know it's a fuzzy headed day when you spend an entire game of 'Mystery of the Abbey' (mentally substitute 'Cluedo' in if that helps) without having taken the murderer card out of the deck and put it in the secret folder, and without anyone realising that we're eliminating everyone extremely methodically. Oh, what fuzzy headed fun!

Oh, relatively long-ish hair, blast. How to deal with this mass for the last few days until slogging into town once again. It's as if a small gloomy cloud is being carried around with me, one that can be definitely felt to be moving in the breeze. My once-girlfriend liked the ginger locks, but she was mad. They drive me insane, personally. They might not still be ginger. It's hard to tell. Oh, a haircut can't come soon enough. Some people must just have more patience for these things, patience that in my own case has to be saved up for writing very long manuscripts and performing long and extremely boring computations, increasingly in three dimensions and ending badly, while looking for jobs in a faulty economy and with a lacklustre academic record.

An academic record is effectively a list of publications, and not the contents of all your lectures orchestrated and performed with the Vienna Symphony, sad though this omission might be. The next time I get a lecturing job I will try to rectify this startling omission. Do you think probability would be best taught to Strauss or Glinka? Oh, really, Shostakovich? Are you sure you're not out of your mind? Really? Interesting answer...

Yes, when you start talking to yourself in a blog entry, it is definitely time to stop and topple into sleep.

O.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Film: 'Holiday' (1938)

Despite writing so fervently about 'Bringing Up Baby' and the Katherine Hepburn career blip, it is certainly best to think about 'Holiday' in an isolated way. Again, it's Cary Grant and Hepburn, but this time it's a different beast entirely. This time the movie is directed by George Cukor, of the 'The Philadelphia Story', and romance is the order of the day as Grant is all set to marry the wrong sister in a rich elitist family of money makers extraordinaire. The wrong sister wears terrible hats, that's how you can tell, that and the fact she's not Katherine Hepburn. To be fair, Hepburn wears a terrible hat too, so it might be hard for Grant to choose inside the narrative.

So far so normal for a romantic comedy, but again we're dealing with what is nominally a classic screwball comedy, and those are another kind of beast entirely. Screwball comedies are often about culture clashes, and it becomes clear that Grant's Johnny Chase is a man of the people but his chosen fiancée is really a woman of the old money, while her siblings are trapped by it. Will Chase be caged and trapped or will he come to his senses before the end and escape with Hepburn's Linda? The core of the movie is the banter between Grant and Hepburn, who rapidly build up a remarkable chemistry, probably honed from their previous collaboration 'Sylvia Scarlett', again a movie by Cukor.

'The Philadelphia Story' is a film metatextually about rebuilding a career, but 'Holiday' is far more straightforward. The dialogue is snappy, and the supporting cast wonderful, with the only flaw being that you don't really understand why Chase would fall for the ultimately stuck-up and conventional Julia, who willingly conspires with her father to crush her sister and brother on occasion. The cultural conflict is really between people enhanced by wealth and those crushed by it, with Chase the fly to be potentially ensnared, and Linda the prisoner slowly withering away. Yes, that might be a tone of melancholy but it's one cancelled out by the grand halfway party amongst the good free guys.

I was going to write about how 'Holiday' is ultimately just a regular romantic comedy in the end, but then something happens in the final third as Grant absents himself from the narrative completely, after discovering the grand truths about the two sisters, and the film falls upon Hepburn's shoulders. Hepburn, the only actress around who could carry a movie entirely if she wanted, and it transforms into an entirely different kind of melodrama. No it's not a comedy, it's more of a drama, but it works anyway. And then at the end, a forward roll fixes everything. How strange!

So, as 'The Philadelphia Story' looms next on our list, it's time to wrap up. We have one more film of Hepburn and Grant, and then the inaugural 'Woman of the Year', the first Hepburn and Tracy vehicle. It's time to move on, but not by forgetting all those moments and banter, and by hoping Ned escaped too post-movie. Oh, Ned, did you make it out?!

O.

Note: Wherever I write forward roll or barrel roll, I really mean a forward or backward flip. It was a long day!