Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor)

Not the most lighthearted comedy in the world, beginning with the death of Katharine Hepburn’s mother, following with the death of her drunken crook father. Hepburn (already in her third film with Cukor) lives in France with her father Edmund Gwenn (the so-called bodyguard in Foreign Correspondent who keeps trying to kill Joel McCrea, also Santa in Miracle on 34th Street). They escape to England with her disguised as a boy for cover from dad’s embezzling crimes.

They meet con man Cary Grant (in his 20th film in four years) on the boat, and he teams up with the couple – which was our first complaint with the movie. When we meet Grant, he’s smuggling diamonds inside his shoes, which has got to be more lucrative than running con games in public parks with a busted drunk and his “son.” Grant (with a fun cockney accent) introduces them to an acquaintance named Maudie, a maid at a house where Grant hopes to steal some jewelery. Hepburn (very funny in her hat and suit) foils the heist, her dad ends up marrying Maudie, and the four go on the road as a vaudeville act.

Family portrait:

Kate falls for an artist (mustachioed Brian Aherne, title characters in Captain Fury and The Great Garrick) who’s being chased by some rich-looking Russian girl named Lily. The artist finds himself falling for Kate as well, much to his own confusion. Dad falls off a cliff while drunkenly searching for his cheating wife, and the same morning Lily tries to drown herself, rescued by Kate. After a brief sidetrack in jail, Kate and the artist escape on a train, running into Cary and Lily. My Katy thought it unfair that Kate didn’t get Cary Grant at the end, but he didn’t deserve her.

The artist and the princess:

The movie flopped so hard that Cukor was fired from RKO Pictures over it. It’s said that audiences thought Hepburn was awful as a boy, that they walked out in droves after Maudie tries to make out with her, but nobody ventures that crowds found the plot stupidly implausible – especially after the vaudeville bit. It’s all in good fun, I know. If Some Like It Hot was daring for messing with gender roles in 1959, I imagine it was completely unheard-of in films 25 years earlier. I thought that aspect and lots of the character and acting were much more successful than the overall story – it’s a good movie strapped onto a mediocre plot.

Grant’s noirish introduction:

TCM:

The role seemed a natural for [Hepburn]; she had already set tongues wagging as one of the first women in the U.S. to wear trousers in public. Not only did she make a very convincing young man with her hair cut short, but Time Magazine’s reviewer would quip that “Sylvia Scarlett reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than as a woman.”

Buy from Amazon:
Katharine Hepburn Collection DVD

Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Walter “no relation to Fritz” Lang had just come off a couple big musicals and been nominated for an oscar (George Stevens beat him with Giant). Written by Phoebe and Henry “parents of Nora” Ephron (Carousel) and shot by Leon Shamroy (Caprice, Leave Her to Heaven, You Only Live Once) in glorious Cinemascope. Seems odd for an office comedy which all takes place indoors, but it looked really nice so I’m not complaining. Katy liked it, too.

This massive wide shot of the research department, where the bulk of the film takes place, looks so sad shrunken down to web-size:

Katharine Hepburn heads the research department at a TV network, with her loyal coworkers Peg The Older One (Joan Blondell of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Footlight Parade, Nightmare Alley), Ruthie The Cute One (Sue Randall, whom I thought I recognized, but this was her only film before a busy ten-year TV career) and Sylvia The Nondescript Blonde (Dina Merrill of The Magnificent Ambersons [not the Welles], Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [not the Lang] and Catch Me If You Can [not the Spielberg]).

The girls, L-R: Hepburn, Blondell, Randall, Merrill. Notice anything about the actresses’ names when they’re strung together like that?

All is running smoothly until Spencer Tracy shows up muttering about computers and waving a measuring tape all over the place. Rumors fly that he’s planning to replace the girls with machines. Finally the mammoth computer is installed (thanks to the movie’s marketing partner IBM) along with its brittle operator (TV’s Neva Patterson), and worst fears come true when the researchers all get pink slips in their next paycheck. But it turns out everyone got pink slips – the computer in accounting is malfunctioning. IBM didn’t have the whole product-placement thing figured out yet – humorous or not, you’re not supposed to show your major new technological innovation causing massive problems at the company that installed it. To make up for that, Tracy explains that none of the girls will lose their jobs, and in fact their work will be easier than ever thanks to the new computer – a giant lie.

Wikipedia: “At that time IBM had not quite finished establishing its dominance over the computer market, but computers were already starting to replace whole offices of clerical workers, and most Americans did not know much more than that about computers. This movie would prepare them for what computers were about to do to their society.”

I know how Tracy feels. This weekend it took the Flying Biscuit twenty minutes to make my sausage biscuit because “the computer was down”. What computer??

Secondary conflict: Hepburn’s boss (Gig Young of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the George Sidney Three Musketeers) is also her occasional boyfriend. He’s a loser manager who can’t even do his own budget reports, getting Hepburn to secretly do them for him, and she’s a total brainiac, so it figures at the end she’ll dump the loser in favor of socially-awkward computer egghead Tracy.

Spencer Tracy knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Hepburn’s boss/boyfriend listens intently while she flashes a ghastly expression:

Why not buy it from Amazon?
Desk Set DVD

Holiday (1938, George Cukor)

Dreamer Johnny (Cary Grant, a year after The Awful Truth) is supposed to marry Julia (Doris Nolan, who wasn’t in the movies for long) but finds that he has more in common with her sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn, a few months after Bringing Up Baby and somewhat less manic). After his upcoming vacation with fiancee and friends E. Everett Horton (Astaire’s straight man in The Gay Divorcee) and Jean Dixon (the heroine’s sister in My Man Godfrey) Johnny plans to quit his job and spend a year rethinking what to do with his life. Turns out this is quite unacceptable to Julia, who has big plans for Johnny’s career in her father’s footsteps. Out of love for the girl, Johnny nearly accepts this boring and restricted new life for himself, but wait, free-spirit Hepburn, similarly imprisoned by class/career expectations, is also in love with him, so he and she go off on holiday together.

Cary, stuck between his witch-hatted old fiancee and flat-hatted new fiancee:
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KH impersonating her stuffed giraffe:
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Lew Ayres (Dr. Kildare himself) plays the girls’ tragicomic drunk brother. I thought he was E. Everett Horton the whole time because it turns out I don’t know who E.E.H. is. This was a remake of a 1930 version in which E.E.H. plays the same character he does here. Katy and I liked it a whole bunch, but I was looking forward to seeing a holiday, and the movie takes place between two holidays. I thought I’d seen this before, but may have been confusing it with Charade – a color movie starring Grant and a different Hepburn filmed 25 years later, oops.

Tragicomic Lew Ayres:
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EEH and Jean Dixon vs. the butler:
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Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)

I always feel like I’m missing something when I watch a movie by one of the Great Classic Hollywood Auteur Directors like Hawks. But I didn’t worry about it much this time… worried instead about the mild sexual undertones of a movie where the leading man is helping search for the leading woman’s kitty, while she is helping search for his bone. No wonder they fall in love completely unprovoked in the final scene.

Grant is a timid professor working on his dinosaur skeleton, engaged to marry an uptight girl, and Hepburn is a completely free, intelligent but breezily unaware-acting rich socialite determined to keep Grant occupied enough that he can’t get married. They were both wonderful in this, and the writing is super, and it’s a joy to watch, but as Katy pointed out, it’s a little TOO screwball. Grant stutters nervously and Hepburn talks over everybody and there’s just no stopping or even slowing down. It’s a blessing that there’s no incidental music cluttering up the soundtrack further. So it’s a bit tiring to watch, but still a magnificent comedy.

IMDB says the movie was a flop, and Hawks and Hepburn both lost jobs because of it. A missed reference to The Awful Truth, and I can’t believe neither Katy nor I noticed that George was the same dog as Mr. Smith in that movie. Grant and Hepburn were both terrific, and Charlie Ruggles (again playing a major) was funnier than in the Lubitsch pictures. Also good: a monocled german named Fritz (Fritz Feld played bit character parts in hundreds of movies) and Aunt Random (80 year old May Robson). Among the Hawksian favorite themes (via Senses of Cinema) found in the movie: nicknaming (KH starts calling CG Mr. Bone), screwing with gender conventions (KH has the more masculine, take-charge character) and social norms.

Wikipedia says it was (arguably) the “first work of fiction, aside from pornography, to use the word gay in a homosexual context.”

Didn’t learn a terrible lot from P.Bog’s audio commentary, but gained a greater appreciation for the movie just by watching (actually listening) to it again, with Peter going on about how great everything is. One gem: “It’s easier to watch on a big screen because you see it bigger.”

Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Co-written by Maude. Maude!

Husband and wife lawyers defend opposite sides in a legal case of husband vs. wife. Both relationships get pretty rocky during the case. Good movie, and funny, but not a wacky romantic comedy like the DVD box would have you believe.

Judy Holliday is Doris, who shot her husband. She was great in this, later starred in Born Yesterday and It Should Happen To You before her career died thanks to meddling by the junior senator from wisconsin.
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Hepburn & Tracy. IMDB calls this Hepburn’s last performance before she moved into “middle-aged spinster roles.”
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Tracy, 13 years after Fury and still a bad-ass.
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Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch, American Guerrilla in the Philippines) is Warren the wounded husband
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Hepburn with David Wayne as Kip, their obnoxious musician neighbor. He’s sort of an annoying Donald O’Connor. What a sorry choice to play Peter Lorre’s character in the remake of M two years later. Also appeared in Hell and High Water, which I’ve seen twice but I still don’t remember him in it.
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Jean Hagen as the other woman. She played the comically terrible silent film actress in Singin’ in the Rain.
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The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)

George Cukor: My Fair Lady, Adam’s Rib, Bhowani Junction, fired from Gone with the Wind the year before.

Katharine Hepburn: after Bringing Up Baby and Sylvia Scarlett, before Adam’s Rib, Summertime and The African Queen.

Cary Grant: after His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings and The Awful Truth, before Suspicion, Notorious and Arsenic & Old Lace.

James Stewart: after Shop Around The Corner and Mr. Smith, before Wonderful Life, Northside 777 and Rope.

Philadelphia Story: in the IMDB top 200, won two oscars (screenplay and jimmy stewart), nominated for four more, got beaten by Rebecca, John Ford, and Ginger Rogers (also playing a girl from Philadelphia).

Everyone who worked on this movie is dead (Ruth Hussey died last year).

Just putting things in context.

Delightful comedy, light and funny. Jimmy is a serious writer stooping to cover a society wedding with photographer Ruth. Katharine is marrying some schlub and Cary is her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, intent on making everything difficult for everyone. Katharine has important rich parents and a typically movie-precocious younger sister. K. almost falls for Jimmy at the end, but decides to remarry Cary, leaving Jimmy with Ruth and the schlub to wander off alone. Exactly the kind of movie they don’t make anymore (sorry, Intolerable Cruelty). Katy watched with me and was delighted.