Friday, 28 March 2008

the philadelphia story (d. cukor)

The Philadelphia Story was presented as part of a season of women-friendly films at the NFT. A well known comedienne introduced it, and there was then a short two minute film with several other relatively well-known comediennes talking about how the film industry no longer creates interesting parts for women. Not like they used to.

But would any woman want to play the part Hepburn takes on in this most bizarre, wonderful film? She may be a strong, ballsy woman, but she's also brought to book by her ex-husband, and in one strange scene which wouldn't have got past the script editors nowadays, her father. She's shown up as a prig who gets her come-uppance, and though Jimmy Stewart doesn't take advantage of her in her drunken state, that's more a reflection of his values than hers. There's more than a hint of Taming of The Shrew about the narrative, and if Hepburn's Tracy Lord gets away with it all, that's in part because of the uber-privileged life she is shown to be living, where wealth insulates against tragedy.

There's so much which seems wrong about the narrative and the world the film, based on a highly successful play, creates, that it comes as all the more of a shock that it carries off whatever it's attempting to do. Not just carries it off, but runs away with it in a blaze of glory. (It's also notable that the piece was created whilst all hell was going on in the rest of the world, a hell which must have seemed a long way away in sunny California.)

For what it's worth, here are two opinions as to why the film works. Firstly, the film is a dazzling, wittily written comedy. But it would appear to be written by writers who have some knowledge of the pain which lies beneath the surface of all relationships. The film opens with Grant pushing Hepburn over. In a sense the remainder of the film becomes a treatise on the vicissitudes of marriage: what makes it work and what doesn't. There is a poignancy to all the fun, and the fact that C.K.Dexter Haven is going to get Tracy back, and go through with it all a second time, gives the love story a weight, as well as a freedom, that few love stories possess. Secondly, concerning the tradition the film emerges from. It has the wit of a Wilde play, and the perversity of a Shakespearian comedy. It seems like the very tip of a culture, which is part American, that brave new pioneering America, and part European - the two cultures colliding with such brilliance in the technological marvel hall which was Hollywood.

Watching it now is like being taken through the round window. The further into the distance the film recedes, as the luminous cast continue to fade away and die, the more this feels like a visit to an enchanted world. It's true, they don't make parts like Tracy Lord for women anymore. Then again they don't make parts like C.K. Dexter Haven or Macaulay Connor for men either.

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