The Philadelphia Story (1940)

2015 #54
George Cukor | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The Philadelphia StoryKatharine Hepburn is the high society heiress getting re-married to someone dull from daddy’s company. Cary Grant is the husband from her tempestuous first marriage. When he turns up uninvited, screwball hijinks ensue.

There are even more thanks to James Stewart, the journalist covering the wedding who no one wants to be there, including himself. He won an Oscar for it, too, and well deserved it was.

The whole thing deserves such accolades, mind. It’s a hilarious, timeless classic, from an era when rich Americans still had class. I doubt they ever had what Hepburn, Grant and Stewart did, though.

5 out of 5

Holiday (1938)

aka Free to Live / Unconventional Linda

2011 #79
George Cukor | 91 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

HolidayHoliday stars Cary Grant as an everyday chap who falls in love with a girl who, it turns out, is a wealthy heiress type… but who it also turns out may not share his views on the future. Her kooky sister, played by Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand…

You already know how Holiday ends, don’t you? You may not even have heard of the film, but having read those two sentences, you know. I knew. We all know. Unless there’s a twist, of course. Sometimes there is, especially in older films where they weren’t as slavishly concerned with hitting demographics and all that. So I won’t say if there’s a twist or not.

What I will say is, I loved Holiday. I’d never even heard of it before it turned up on BBC Two in a week of similar stuff, like His Girl Friday (which I’d seen, and reviewed), Bringing Up Baby (which I saw, and reviewed) and It Happened One Night (which is still sat on my V+ box). I’d heard of all of those, but not this, but I’m glad I watched it by association.

It doesn’t have quite the hilarity of His Girl Friday, but I thought it had more substance than Bringing Up Baby (as much as I enjoyed that too). I suppose you would say it “spoke to me”, what with Grant’s character’s desire to go off and do something he wanted to do instead of get locked in to the dull corporate world, and the family’s insistence that a sensible city job where he’d earn a fortune is more appropriate. I can’t say I’m in the same situation — I wouldn’t mind the chance of a highly-paid job, if you’ve got one going spare — but I could relate well enough.
He's not going on holiday... or is he?
Holiday is not the funniest of comedies — though I did think it was funny — instead hitting a level of dramatic/character interest that I didn’t predict. I think it’s more a personal favourite than an objective Great Film (but then, one might argue, what is?), so the best I can do is encourage you to seek it out if this kind of film from this kind of era is your kind of thing.

5 out of 5

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

2010 #63
Stanley Kramer | 104 mins | TV | PG

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a white girl falls in love with a black man and brings him home to meet the parents. You can almost imagine this premise still being launched today, as one of those dreadful ‘comedies’ Hollywood pumps out every year, in which the parents are outrageous racists — played by some ageing stars who should really know better — and one of the young couple is a bit accident-prone and played by someone like Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler.

Thank God for the ’60s, then, when such a plot meant this was a brave film to make. Lest we forget, this is still the era of Martin Luther King Jr. battling for equality (he was assassinated while the film was still in cinemas) and when interracial marriage was still illegal in 14 states (though that was ruled unconstitutional between filming and release). Hollywood may be known for its liberal (in US terms) politics, but it’s not always so, which makes the outcome of the film — will they or won’t they be given permission to marry? — a constant guessing game.

To write off this genuine uncertainty of outcome — a factor that’s quite rare, now and then, I think — as just a product of the film’s era is distinctly unfair, however. The Oscar-winning screenplay is truly excellent. Taking place over just a few hours on one day, it’s effectively just a series of conversations between various people (no wonder it was later turned into a stage play), but there’s never the sense that that’s all it is. The characters are fully three dimensional, thanks to the writing and excellent performances from every cast member, though Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn is the stand out.

It could easily have been a simplistic message movie — these people are liberal, these people are racist, etc — but instead there’s complexity at every turn. There’s the liberal white parents who never expected to find themselves in this situation, and suddenly are struggling with their own ideologies; or the black characters, who you might think would be eager to move ‘up in the world’ but actually react even worse to the idea; or the Catholic priest being one of the few characters unwaveringly in favour of the union. And even then, these characters could just become ciphers for the arguments and debates; but they’re not, they’re characters, having believable reactions, and from this comes the debate.

Funny, dramatic, emotional, romantic, thoughtful, intelligent — there’s little more you could ask of a film. Exemplary.

5 out of 5

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is on BBC Two today, Sunday 3rd August 2014, at 2:40pm.