The Decalist #2 The Screwballs Strike Back

When Stanley Cavell introduces his book Pursuits of Happiness, which contains chapters on both The Philadelphia Story (1940, directed by George Cukor) and Bringing Up Baby (1938, directed by Howard Hawks),  he asks an important question: why do we love and revisit these classic films?

I love old Hollywood; I love its class and its wit.  From my early years, it taught me how to talk.  That’s ironic, as Hollywood came of age in the 1930’s, when American slang had become it’s own distinct language.  Sound films became the norm at that time, and New York writers headed west, taking Prohibition colloquialism with them. America began to talk like the movies, and having grown up with them as well, by film proxy my own use of language was also shaped by the those forces. Which is why I say “good golly” without batting an eye.  Maria DeBattista’s Fast Talking Dames probes a cohort of actresses who charmed and challenged their screen partners and their audiences using words.  Among them are Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosaline Russell and Irene Dunne.  Also getting her due by DeBattista is the only actress to win six Oscars, Katharine Hepburn.

Hepburn mixes dialog with physical comedy in "Bringing Up Baby"

She costars with Cary Grant in both PS and BUB.  Both of those stars are worth note, even more so when a comparison between the films is made.  BUB is a classic screwball, one that defines a genre hallmarked by energy, physical comedy, verbal repartee, and cross-class love stories.  PS is a late screwball, made, as critic Jeanine Basinger notes, at the end of the thirties and just prior to the war.  That sets PS apart as a uniquely serio-comic and important.

That critics like the ones mentioned above have these discussions is what answers Cavell’s question: the reason these old, black and white, somewhat dated, special effect-less films are revisited is because 1)They are a part of our culture 2)Their humor, and even more so, their humanity, is timeless 3)The integrity with which these films were put together is a model of good filmic storytelling.  They are great stories, well told.  From both of these films I learned storytelling, humanity, and myself.   But the most important reason is that any movie we come back to time and time again is one that means something to us.

Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story"

To return time and time again, I also have to love the film craft that shapes the narrative.  It impacts me because of its excellence.  In all films, it is the moments which make a difference.  Read any film textbook and you will come across countless movies used as examples because one moment in the film is worthy of note (for instance, you can wade through three hours of Pather Panchali just so the rain scene has impact).  Bringing Up Baby is full of moments where the story (or situation), the dialog and the characters are three perfect tastes in perfect combination; like peanut butter, chocolate, and a pretzel.  Please note: it’s not just having situation, dialog, and character, it’s having the right ones, in the right combination.  If the situation is fish, the dialog ketchup, and the characters cookies, it just won’t be the same.  I believe that film is Out To Sea, by the way.

David (Grant) and Susan (Hepburn) help George look for the lost bone.

The elements are set up by a situation (the screwball is the immediate precursor to all situation comedies): a scientist needs to make a good impression to gain a grant for his museum.  This is objectified by a rare dinosaur bone, the last one needed to complete his brontosaurus, which Grant’s David Huxley spends the vast majority of film trying to find. The complication in the situation is the love interest (making it a clearly character driven story), Hepburn, whose Susan Vance plays dumb while completely in control of the entire situation.  Susan continually steers the plot in order to shape or teach David.  Witness the scene where she calls David to apologize for the misadventures of the previous night (which include hitting the above mentioned lawyer in the head with a rock, to which she responds “Jeepers!”).  In order to get David’s attention, she pretends to be attacked by the pet leopard currently in her apartment.

Howard Hawks’ work is defined by character driven narratives in which physical action pushes as much as verbal action to develop both narrative and relationship.  In other words, his characters always both work together and talk together in order to fall in love.  Susan and David chase leopards and dogs, build fires, steal cars, and try to get out of jail together.  By the end of the film, David says he’s “never had such a good time in his whole life.”

Susan catches David. The adventures she sets up annoy him, until he realizes he's stopped taking himself so seriously.

The ludicrous elements are salted with such sparkling dialog as:

David: “I bet Miss Swallow knows poison ivy when she sees it”

Susan: “I bet poison ivy runs when it sees her”

And are spoken by characters who are at the same time relatable, ridiculous, and fully embodied in Grant’s stilted and awkward acrobatics, and Hepburn’s silly energy and latent charm.  The stars, two of “Hollywood’s Brightest” play against what would be come their defined type.  Those types come to fruition in The Philadelphia Story. 

A modest two years after their silly Connecticut antics, Grant’s C. K. Dexter Haven had become the kind of suave sophisticate he would develop the rest of his life, and Hepburn had toned her youthful energy with wisdom and poise that would become her hallmark.  The film also stars James Stewart, who was given the Oscar he deserved for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for his turn as Macaulay Connor.  Stewart’s buffoonish charm and everyday grace are put into pinstripes and cynicism for the role, but as with situation, dialog and characters, the three actors as the three characters balance each other and serve exactly the purpose they should for the story.

The mighty Tracy (Hepburn), about to fall

Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is based on the Phillip Barry play that won Hepburn back into the entertainment world’s good graces when she originated the role of Tracy Lord on Broadway.  Her embodiment of that character is the lynchpin of the film’s success, and that grasp of humanity is what makes the film so special.  The story/situation is essentially this:  Tracy and Dexter are divorced.  She is about to remarry.  Dexter knows the man she is marrying is the wrong one.  He has learned how to accept his own faults.  She needs to learn this.  In 48 hours, with the help of Connor and others, Tracy becomes no longer a goddess nor a statue but a human being with “feet of clay, feet of clay, did you know?”

Without going into great detail, the film is for me essentially about the process of Holiness.  To know our faults, to see others not for what they lack, but for what we all are trying to overcome, is a process that has great personal meaning for me.  When I found, expressed in the situation, clever dialog, and classy characters of old Hollywood, a story that truly expressed Socratic wisdom and humility, it was no longer just a good film, it was an old friend.  It was staring at the screen, thinking, “Yes.  That’s it exactly.”

Grant and Hepburn, self wise and serio-comic

The great impact of these films is my experience of them, which made me love stories, and their excellence.  It is not just the good elements, it is the apropos choices; the perfection of execution.  They are not incredibly “filmic” in that their camera work or editing is of note.  Those things are utilized well by the artists who rendered them, in order to serve the story (the definition of classic storytelling).  Those are stories and scripts I can hear time and again, drinking in Grant’s smile and Hepburn’s eyes.


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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