Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story (1940) gets better every time I see it.

My latest viewing was focused on Katherine Hepburn's performance, which was sublime and amatory. I've never considered Hepburn an actress who imbued eroticism but, then again, I didn't grow up in the 1930s and 1940s, which is when she was starting to come into her own as a leading performer having starred in more than a dozen films before The Philadelphia Story. And it was only a couple years prior to this film that she stopped the show in the Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby - a movie highly regarded by auteur theorists as well as modern filmmakers when they talk about their favorite and most influential films (Quentin Tarantino, for one, gushes when discussing his love for Hawks movies in general and Bringing Up Baby specifically).

Hepburn's character of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story is referred to (either verbally or myopically) as a "goddess" by the men who surround her: Cary Grant, James Stewart, and John Howard. But Tracy wants to be seen as more than merely a "goddess."

Yet, while Tracy denounces her "goddess" stature (when she speaks she express a self-aware and shrewd intellect), director George Cukor - with the help of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg - represents Hepburn in the most goddess-like fashion possible. Her features are shadowy softness - due to Ruttenberg's exemplary lighting - and she's often lit from behind, allowing her statuesque figure to show through diaphanous white clothing, which pops in gorgeous black and white photography. Its not by accident that Hepburn's wardrobe (designed by Adrian) pays homage to the clothing often ascribed to the goddesses of Greek mythology.

I don't believe the film is (or was) a sexist affair and, in 1940, attitudes toward women were different. Instead, I find The Philadelphia Story armed to battle sexism in its own way but from the point of view of its own time. And it is from that perspective - especially viewed through the ironic lens of George Cukor - that the movie succeeds.

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