Film Studies

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The Independent Culture
In 1940, the Germans invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Holland. The British Army scrambled off the shore at Dunkirk, and the Nazis stomped down the Champs-Elysees. But Hollywood produced three of its highest comedies - The Shop Around the Corner, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story - pictures that believe in talk, the endless manipulations of sex and romance, the redemptive potential of the rich and the spiritual glamour - the halo or halation - of black and-white high-key lighting. Indeed, 1940 is close to the nub of Hollywood's golden age - except that the lustre of these films reminds us that the active mineral in film's emulsion is not gold, but silver. Silver light - or Philadelphia done as a country estate somewhere in the Forest of Arden.

You may not believe this, but Katharine Hepburn was unpopular in the late 1930s. She had won her first Oscar (Morning Glory). She had played Alice Adams and Mary Queen of Scots. She had done what is maybe Hollywood's wildest comedy, Bringing Up Baby, and she was a strong contender at being Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. If she could only be sexy - as opposed to just classy and stuck-up. That was how the public saw her. And theatre-owners voted her "box-office poison".

Kate vowed to be vindicated. She took up simultaneously with the agent Leland Hayward and the tycoon Howard Hughes - she'd have married one of them, she said, if there'd only been the one. Then the playwright Philip Barry came to her with an idea for a play: a Philadelphia heiress, Tracy Lord, is about to be married (for the second time) when her home is invaded by a reporter from a gossip magazine - and she falls for the reporter. Hepburn liked the idea. Hughes told her to buy it up, including the movie rights, and he gave her the money. (Howard Hughes was something in those days.)

The play was a hit, with Joseph Cotten as her first husband, CK Dexter Haven, and Van Heflin as the reporter. That's when Kate offered the movie rights to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, a studio run by Louis B Mayer, monster, tyrant and father of one of Kate's best friends, Irene Selznick.

The film was set up. Hepburn's old friend, George Cukor, would direct. Joseph L Mankiewicz was producer. For the two male leads, Hepburn had asked for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy - she had not yet worked with or really met Tracy. Mayer haggled. These are my top stars, he said - take Cary Grant and James Stewart, instead. (Even Mr Mayer was something then.)

You might have thought the tracks were laid for perfection. Not quite. The movie is different from the play, and better. Thanks for that go to Mankiewicz (the man who, 10 years later, wrote and directed All About Eve). In the play, there was real doubt as to whether Tracy would choose her betrothed, the stuffy George Kittredge, go off with the writer, or regain her first husband, Dexter. But Dexter's role was thinly done. Mankiewicz took the part of Tracy's brother - a witty onlooker - and folded it into that of Haven. And thus we arrive at Cary Grant's luminous and tender portrait of a man hoping to get his ex-wife back, if she can be persuaded to behave - naturally.

That's why I urge you to take advantage of the re-release of The Philadelphia Story. Hollywood can be a bad, crass place. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, at least, it hired some of the smartest people in the world, and it delivered a collection of comedies that are grown-up, very funny, terribly touching, and devoted to how men and women do behave, and how they should or might. There is an ethic within the fun. But never forget that Hepburn brought this work into being and wanted the great role of Tracy - headstrong, arrogant, a young phoney worthy of Jane Austen, in need of comeuppance if she is to get the hang of life.

You can thank God for the musical, the film noir - that's fine. For myself, I think the romantic screwball comedy of that era is unmatched. And in the genre as a whole we meet a very testing idea: that in most societies, the rich have the best chance to be good examples and true romantics. It is an encouragement to us: always to take care of our rich.

The Philadelphia Story won Oscars for its script, by Donald Ogden Stewart, and for James Stewart. That's fine, too. But in hindsight, it's clear that Cary Grant is the flame at the heart of the film, and Hepburn its moth - enticing, but dangerous, most of all to herself.

The group who made the film are all gone now. Except for Hepburn. At 91, she is still physically strong; but she sits in a room in Connecticut, gazing at the wall. I spent a day with her once, in 1990. We drove from Manhattan over into New Jersey and her car got a flat on the great web of freeways. Her chauffeur changed the tyre, and we sat on the kerb, while trucks as large as warehouses hurtled by, discussing Thirties comedy. One trucker called out. "Hi, Kate!" She turned and said, "I don't know why. They love me." I did my best to explain.