Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Mother of Romantic Comedies

Tracy (Katharine Hepburn): If you just face the facts squarely as I did.

Margaret (Mary Nash): We both might face the fact that neither of us have proved to be a very great success as a wife.

Tracy: We just picked the wrong first husbands, that's all.

I suppose it is tempting to call "The Philadelphia Story," which premiered on this date in 1940, the best of Jimmy Stewart's career. After all, he received his only Best Actor Oscar for his performance in that movie — although he was nominated for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Harvey" and "Anatomy of a Murder," all favorites of mine.

Frankly, if Stewart could only win Best Actor once, I would have preferred that he win it for any of those performances instead. Don't get me wrong. "The Philadelphia Story" was good, but it just wasn't unique, at least in the way those others were. Still, its influence was far reaching.

I suppose it can't really be said that "The Philadelphia Story" performance was the best by Katharine Hepburn, who was the star of the show and was nominated for Best Actress (she had a dozen Best Actress nominations in her career), but she didn't win (Ginger Rogers won for "Kitty Foyle").

Poor Cary Grant wasn't even nominated — and his performance in "The Philadelphia Story" is regarded as his best by many film critics.
In hindsight, I guess you could call "The Philadelphia Story" the mother of romantic comedies.

"The Philadelphia Story" certainly occupies an important place in the story of Hepburn's career. She won the Best Actress Oscar in 1934 and was nominated again in 1936, but her career had been on a downward spiral prior to this day in 1940. She had even been labeled "box office poison" so it could rightfully be said that "The Philadelphia Story" was what turned her career around — and made it possible for her to be nominated nine more times and to win three.

Without "The Philadelphia Story," which was the fifth–most popular movie of 1941 (earning more than $2.3 million in North America), it is quite possible that Hepburn's career would have vanished into oblivion.

So even though she didn't win the Oscar, she probably won something that she valued more.

It was the kind of romantic comedy that was most popular in the '30s and '40s — one in which a married couple get divorced, dally with others, make their exes jealous and then get back together. Well, that's probably oversimplified for most of the movies in that genre — but it pretty much sums up the plot of "The Philadelphia Story."

And there was probably no one better prepared for the role he played in it than Grant. What the earthy John Wayne was to the western the debonair Cary Grant was to the romantic comedy.

Hepburn and Grant played a couple who apparently had married on something of a whim, then got divorced. Two years later, Grant showed up at Hepburn's home just before she was to marry someone else. Hepburn's character was a member of a socially prominent family so, naturally, her wedding drew folks from the press, one of whom was Stewart.

The stage was set for some high–society conflicts. In fact, "the stage" is an appropriate noun to use because "The Philadelphia Story" began life as a stage play. Hepburn acquired the film rights to it with the intention of using it as her comeback springboard.

Mission accomplished.
Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart): Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven. Either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant): Shall we toss a coin?

If you've seen a documentary on the golden age of moviemaking, you have probably seen the memorable scene early in the movie when Grant's character, as he leaves Hepburn, puts his palm on her face and pushes her back inside the house. In conversations I have had with movie fans, that scene is probably second only to the one in which James Cagney grinds grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in "Public Enemy" on the Most Memorable scale.

Kind of similar scenes. But not entirely.

"Public Enemy" wasn't a madcap romantic comedy, though, and "The Philadelphia Story" was. I'll leave all its quirky twists and turns for you to discover for yourself. That's the real fun of it.