“With the Rich and Mighty,
Always a Little Patience…”
– Spanish Proverb
There is only one true American genre. Film noir doesn’t stand up, because it can’t be pinned down to anything substantial. You could, if you wished, have Iranian film noir, with all the same conventions and quirks. And the Western is not about America, or not exclusively. It is about wilderness, and it is about honour and power and poetry. A Western filmed in Outer Mongolia could be just as effective as one filmed in outer Montana.
No, there is only one true American genre. They named it after a pitch in baseball, just to nail the point home. Ironically, it started with the ‘Lubitsch touch’, that sophisticated continental sultriness that suddenly pervaded Hollywood in the early 1930s, and blossomed uncontrollably. And it ended…well, it probably ended with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witnessing bloody gangland murder. Wilder had obviously read James Agee, that angelic critic, who stated that the great essence of American comedy was its unpredictability. Laurel and Hardy could walk across a bridge with a piano and encounter a gorilla. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant can hound a leopard around the New England countryside without batting an eye. The possibilities are endless. This is screwball. This is Americana. Anything can be done (if the Production Code will allow it).
Yet Cukor made cocktails, and The Philadelphia Story is no exception. It takes that traditional elegance of Lubitsch and blends it up with a wonderful crassness. It is a comedy of ‘remarriage’; a couple (Hepburn, Grant) divorce, become hate-filled, flirt and vamp with each other, and then remarry in bizarre circumstances. But first, of course, a woman must play her way through this film, and, eventually, she must make a choice: the literary stranger, Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression), her new suitor George Kittredge (John Howard) or Dexter Haven, Cary Grant himself. In retrospect, it’s hardly any wonder she chooses the latter.
Hepburn was disliked intensely by the movie-going population, a position many brilliantly talented women find themselves in. Here she plays delightedly on popular opinion, being by turns defiantly unlikeable, close-minded and stubborn. She is referred to, repeatedly, as a ‘goddess’, unreachable, untouchable, and ultimately unforgiving of the human condition. Yet each character here represents a particular variety of this rigidity: of prejudice, snobbery, denial and self-interest. Mike Connor rallies stupidly against the foibles and fripperies of the upper class, but caves in the face of sexual possibilities. Kittredge, the suitor, seeks direct access to their world, even as he declares them to be ‘on their way out‘. We see that nobody, truly, has any very real politics in America. The 1%, hell, they’re us, turned up to eleven. This is screwball. This is whimsy, and no place for real discourse.
Only C.K. Dexter Haven, Cary Grant himself, represents any form of psychological entitlement. Hepburn delights in showing up her critics, but Grant slides into the background. His character struggles are, for the most part, internalised. He simply, as we do, stands and watches ‘the prettiest sight in this pretty world: the privileged classes enjoying their privileges.’
It’s (almost) enough to make you vomit.