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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

AFI FIlm Review: The Philadelphia Story

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.

George Carlin once said that all comedy is about exaggeration. Screwball comedies exponentially extrapolate on that idea. The plot, the characters and the dialogue are hardly believable so the films of the genre rely on performance and razor-sharp wit to distract the audience for 90 minutes. Why did the screwball genre die? Probably because of the general American appetite for realism. In the filmscape of 2014 you can be sure to see five to ten films about real people or true events that were tragic, meaningful, heart-wrenching and inspiring. Even the blockbusters are no longer original ideas, high-concept one-offs, or legends retooled and retold, but ever more increasingly they are pictures made from the pages of pulp for people already familiar with that pulp. Or they are based on 1980’s robots. Either way, the films hold root in reality: a literal reality or a jogging of the nostalgic memories of childhood when uber men fought for the youth’s collective moral code. The expectations of these films are that they follow the audience’s expectations exactly, that they mirror the reality that once was or was once perceived. The screwball comedy, however, mucks all that up. It gums up the works. It takes the silliest of scenarios and continues to pack on satire and farce until the story is blatantly incapable of being the least bit true.

I love Jimmy Stewart. I was going to like The Philadelphia Story as long as everyone else did a decent job with their roles. They exceeded expectation. But Jimmy, young Jimmy, curious in every part of his body. American audiences had the pleasure of nine years of James Gandolfini expressing discomfort through breathing, becoming intimate with the sounds of ethereal burdens  blocking the windpipe. James Stewart is recognizable by mannerisms alone, he managed to make his entire being implicit in the act of inquisition, cocking his head to one side, crooking his arm and holding his four digits as if the were one large index finger. In Philadelphia he is an author and reluctant tabloid writer, working for a Mr. Sidney Kidd who is blackmailing C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) so that he will help Mike Connor (Stewart) and Ruth sneak into the wedding party of C.K.’s ex-wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) who is marrying John Howard (a man of the people type). Of course the elements of farce don’t stop there. There is the precocious little sister, promiscuous father, high-society mother, drunken uncle, swapped identities, chance encounters,  a love triangle/square and unabashed spying and eavesdropping.

It is impossible to watch Philadelphia and not be charmed. Anytime two of the three heavyweight actors are on screen its enrapturing. Drunk Stewart and sober Grant. Hepburn and Grant trading barbs in a beach house. Stewart and Hepburn drunk and lovesick. Supporting these titans are great actors and witty repartee about class, sex and love.

Watching this film I couldn’t help but think about Kim Kardashian. Our modern socialites, if that is what Mrs. Kardashian is, do not abhor the spotlight like Hepburn’s Lord. If I told you that Reggie Bush, Kardashian’s former beau, attended Kim K’s private wedding ceremony and snuck in a photographer or, more likely, posted pictures online, would you even bat an eye? What if I told you she hired someone to pretend to sneak into her own wedding? Nothing would surprise us. Maybe that’s the reason for the demise of screwball comedies as much as anything else. With more access than ever before we are able to see all the truths and absurdities that have been in front of us the entire time.

I really liked The Philadelphia Story. It deserves to be on the list.

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