Movie Project #41: The Philadelphia Story [1940]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

The Philadelphia Story [1940]
Director: George Cukor
Genre: Comedy/Romance
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard
Runtime: 112 minutes

While researching The Philadelphia Story, I came to the startling realization that I had never seen any of Katharine Hepburn’s work. Despite 51 films to her name, the incredibly well-regarded actress had somehow eluded me over the years. It was perhaps fitting that The Philadelphia Story became my first Hepburn film, as not only was this her first big hit, but the screenplay was written specifically for her.

Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a wealthy, strong woman who is getting ready to marry a lower class — but on his way up — gentleman named George Kittredge (John Howard). Just days before the wedding, a publisher at Spy magazine gets the idea to cover the wedding, and he assigns reporter Macauley Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to write the story. Their introduction to the wedding comes via C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who just so happens to be Tracy’s ex-husband. With the introduction of these unexpected patrons, not to mention appearances from members of Tracy’s eccentric family, the pre-wedding weekend suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

It doesn’t help that there is an underlying unsettled romance between Dexter and Tracy. Their marriage was rocky at best, but there is still a clear connection between the two. Further difficulties arise when Tracy begins to discover some of Connor’s more appealing traits (apparently she is a sucker for good poetry). Now, the day before her wedding, she finds herself in a bit of a love triangle.

While Katharine Hepburn is very much the center of the film — and she delivers a phenomenal performance — she was fortunate enough to be paired with the unbelievable 1-2 combination of James Stewart and Cary Grant. Stewart is as charming as ever, and he has a lengthy section in the film where he is flat out drunk — played with sterling effectiveness. Grant seems keen to stay in the background (surprisingly), but he is crucial to many important moments in the film. Special mention must also be made of Ruth Hussey, who delivers a strong performance that is unfortunately often overlooked when compared with the three leads.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

For all its star power, The Philadelphia Story is backed by a sharp, witty screenplay that ultimately won an Oscar (the film itself received six nominations, winning two). The dialogue moves at a brisk pace with plenty of snappy one-liners, though there were a handful of lines with dated 30s/40s slang that had me scratching my head. Even if I didn’t know exactly what something meant, I was able to understand it somewhat thanks to the conviction these lines were delivered by the strong cast.

Ultimately, this is a clever little film with plenty to like. It would have been hard to mess up a film with the trio of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant starring, and thankfully this lives up to its classic billing. Consider me a new fan.

8/10

Movie Project #45 and #46: It’s a Wonderful Life [1946] and The Prestige [2006]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

It's a Wonderful Life [1946, Frank Capra]
It’s a Wonderful Life [1946, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.

It blows my mind that somehow this slipped past me despite being played repeatedly during every Christmas season. It’s easy to see why this is a holiday favorite — it really is the quintessential Christmas film. Equal parts heartwarming and inspirational, It’s a Wonderful Life takes us into the life of George Bailey (Stewart), a man on the brink of suicide. Lucky for him, his guardian angel (Henry Travers) is sent from the heavens to intervene and show him all of the lives he has changed for the better over the years. It turns out that his life isn’t so bad at all.

Admittedly, I was a little worried when the guardian angel appeared. I was concerned that the movie would become overly preachy and attempt to shove religious beliefs down our throats. Thankfully, that never happened. This is just an all-around good-hearted film that is anchored by timeless performances by James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of the cast. I will give this a slight edge over the other Capra film from this project, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I could easily see it becoming a yearly Christmas tradition in my household. I still don’t know what took me so long to see it. 10/10

The Prestige [2006, Christopher Nolan]
The Prestige [2006, Christopher Nolan]
Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine.

When it comes to Christopher Nolan, I am generally a fan of his work, though I do not hold him in as high of regard as most. The Prestige, however, damn near succeeded in making me a fanboy. This intricately detailed portrayal of two magicians (Bale and Jackman) who continually try to upstage each other really impressed me. The movie starts off fairly tame, with both men sabotaging each other’s magic shows, but it quickly grows lethal to the point of multiple fatalities. This culminates in a twist ending that I did not see coming at all, and it is one that warrants extra viewings of the film in order catch on to hints and tricks.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the film’s sudden dip into science fiction (aided by a terrific performance by David freakin’ Bowie as Nikola Tesla), but I quickly grew into the idea and embraced it all the same. The fantasy aspects may turn off some viewers, but I really enjoyed the ride. Bale, Jackman and Caine are all wonderful, and the smaller roles from the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Andy Serkis are all great additions as well. The Prestige is a thoroughly fascinating movie, and may be my new favorite from Nolan. 9/10

Movie Project #29 and #30: Sunset Boulevard [1950] and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950, Billy Wilder]
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim.

Holy hell, what a film! The fact that such a biting satire about the film industry was made in 1950 blows my mind. The movie opens up mysteriously with a dead man floating in the pool. This man, Joe Gillis (played by the brilliant Holden), proceeds to narrate the film from beyond the grave, and the movie follows the events that led up to his demise. While on the run from repo men, Gillis pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Well, it turns out that the long-retired silent film star Norma Desmond (the scary-good Swanson, a former silent film star herself) is living there, and she sparks up an interest in the failing writer of Gillis. What transpires is truly bizarre, as Gillis becomes involved in a love triangle with Desmond and a young writer (Nancy Olson).

The world that Norma Desmond lives in is beyond fascinating, as she has clearly lost her mind and is stuck living in the past. She believes she will make a great comeback someday, and her reassuring butler (von Stroheim) refuses to tell her otherwise, fearing she will commit suicide. Her descent into madness culminates with one of the most memorable closing lines ever uttered on film: “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Sunset Boulevard also has some terrific moments of dark humor, and I particularly loved the brief cameos from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. This was the first time I had heard Keaton speak! There really is a lot to love about this movie, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 10/10

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.

It says something about a movie’s power when a statement made 70+ years ago still holds relevance today. The always awesome James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive Boy Scout leader who is oddly selected to take over as a US Senator after an incumbent passes away. When he gets there, he is enamored with the sights and sounds of Washington D.C., even getting himself lost in the process. He quickly finds out that he doesn’t belong there, as he has no interest in the political bullshit that goes on every day. Still, he perserveres, especially after he finds out about a scandal that would build a dam over his proposed Boy Scout campsite.

As a story of one man fighting for what’s right, it’s hard not to admire the movie. Smith, aided by his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), is a likable guy, and his big moment — a very, very long fillibuster — is quite brilliant. Superbly acted with a great screenplay to boot, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still holds up today. 9/10

Movie Project #18 and #19: The Exorcist [1973] and Vertigo [1958]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Also, I am quite a bit ahead in this Movie Project at the moment, so I am going to be doing more 2-for-1 specials until I get caught up all the way. The project has been a blast so far, but it has become quite exhaustive to write full posts about each film. Hope you guys don’t mind!

The Exorcist [1973, Friedkin]
The Exorcist [1973, Friedkin]
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair

No idea what took me so long to finally watch this horror classic. I have had so many people tell me that this is the scariest movie ever made, and many friends refused to even watch it with me because of this. Something about demons and possessed children really gets under the skin, eh?

I liked the movie well enough, though I didn’t find it scary at all. I found The Exorcist to be more disturbing than anything — that little girl sure did some fucked up shit! Perhaps some of the effect has worn off due to all of the pop culture references over the years — there were a few scenes that I was quite familiar with beforehand, despite never having seen the film.

It took me a little bit to really get into the movie due to its slow pacing, but I feel that this helped with the character development. I cared about the characters, especially since the actors played them so convincingly. It was a real treat to see Ellen Burstyn this young, as I had previously only seen her in more recent titles such as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain.

While not necessarily “scary”, The Exorcist still holds up today as a great film.

8/10

Vertigo [1958]
Vertigo [1958, Hitchcock]
Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Man, I love Hitchcock. As I continue to move through his filmography, I become more and more impressed. The man knew how to tell a story while keeping the suspense growing and growing.

With Vertigo, James Stewart delivers another brilliant performance, this time starring as Scottie Ferguson, a police detective with a terrible fear of heights. After recovering from a tragic accident that left his partner dead, Scottie is hired to investigate an old friend’s wife (Kim Novak), who has been walking around as if in some bizarre type of trance. As he follows her around, the detective becomes obsessed with the woman, taking an unhealthy liking to her. Then, of course, in typical Hitchcock fashion, there’s a huge plot twist about halfway through that changes the course of the film.

What ultimately takes place is a dark and haunting love story, one that shows one man’s obsession with something he cannot have. The depths that Scottie goes to accomplish his dream are frightening, and at times it seems the only sane character is his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes).

In short, this is another fantastic psychological thriller from the master of suspense, and it’s easy to see why it is always recognized as one of Hitchcock’s finest. From Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score to the wonderful plot twists and turns, Vertigo is exceptional.

9/10