"The love impulse in man," says a psychiatrist in Bringing Up Baby
, "frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict." That's for sure. For a primer on the rules and regulations of the classic screwball comedy, which throws love and conflict into close proximity, look no further. A straight-laced paleontologist (Cary Grant) loses a dinosaur bone to a dog belonging to free-spirited heiress Katharine Hepburn. In trying to retrieve said bone, Grant is drawn into the vortex surrounding the delicious Hepburn, which becomes a flirtatious pas de deux that will transform both of them. Director Howard Hawks plays the complications as a breathless escalation of their "love impulse," yet the movie is nonetheless romantic for all its speed. (Hawks's His Girl Friday
, also with Grant, goes even faster.) Grant and Hepburn are a match made in movie heaven, in sync with each other throughout. Not a great box-office success when first released, Bringing Up Baby
has since taken its place as a high-water mark of the screwball form, and it was used as a model for Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc?
Re-creating the role she originated in Philip Barry's wickedly witty Broadway play, Katharine Hepburn stars as the spoiled and snobby socialite Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, one of the great romantic comedies from the golden age of MGM studios. Applying her impossibly high ideals to everyone but herself, Tracy is about to marry a stuffy executive when her congenial ex-husband (Cary Grant), arrives to protect his former father-in-law from a potentially scandalous tabloid exposé. In an Oscar-winning role, James Stewart is the scandal reporter who falls for Tracy as her wedding day arrives, throwing her into a dizzying state of premarital jitters. Who will join Tracy at the altar? Snappy dialogue flows like sparkling wine under the sophisticated direction of George Cukor in this film that turned the tide of Hepburn's career from "box-office poison" to glamorous Hollywood star.
MGM originally promoted Dinner at Eight by touting the "all-star cast," but this is no run-of-the-mill omnibus picture. On the contrary, rather than cramming as many big names as possible into a lumbering vehicle, the movie's impeccably crafted script (by Edna Ferber and Herman J. Mankiewicz) and direction (by George Cukor) gave some immortal screen luminaries a chance to shine. For sheer bravery, John Barrymore's achingly poignant performance as Larry Renault, a washed-up matinee idol who has "outlived everything but his vanity," is unmatched. Barrymore's brother, Lionel, is equally touching as shipping magnate Oliver Jordan. Oliver vainly tries to save his family's century-old firm, at the same time hiding his financial and health troubles from his wife, Millicent, played to hysterical perfection by Billie Burke. The Great Depression is presented in microcosm as Millicent frets about throwing the ultimate society dinner, oblivious to the world tumbling down around her. She is forced to invite to her precious party such undesirables as crass financier Dan Packard ("He smells Oklahoma!"). Even worse in Millicent's eyes than Packard (Wallace Beery, doing an impressive steamroller imitation) is his social-climbing wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow, never funnier). Be sure to watch for Harlow's brief encounter with Marie Dressler, who brings an extraordinary winking wisdom to the role of aging star Carlotta Vance. As the two enter the dining room in the film's final scene, Harlow makes an offhand remark that elicits from Dressler one of the great screen double takes of all time. Like so much of Dinner at Eight, the moment is priceless.
Newspaper comedy doesn't seem like an MGM genre--ink-stained wretches don't go with Adrian gowns and white deco furniture--but Jack Conway, the designated bull in the Metro china shop (Boom Town, Too Hot to Handle) does what he can to bring some dash and flair to Libeled Lady's wildly complicated script. Spencer Tracy is the tough city editor who goes to some spectacular extremes when socialite Myrna Loy files a $5 million libel suit against his paper for calling her a notorious home-wrecker; he hires celebrated ladies' man William Powell to seduce Loy and asks his long-suffering fiancée, Jean Harlow, to marry Powell temporarily so she can play the wronged wife when Loy and Powell are discovered together. The couples crisscross, with frenetic and not entirely unpredictable results, but much of the pleasure here lies in seeing these iconic stars being so thoroughly themselves. The dialogue strains for champagne wit, but the movie's most memorable moment is pure, rotgut slapstick--Powell's bout with an unruly fly-fishing rod.
This one's all about the ladies. In Stage Door, an absolutely terrific 1937 gem, a Manhattan boardinghouse for aspiring actresses houses an amazing roster of golden-era performers--some of whom, like their characters, were just breaking in. It's hard to say who's in best form here: Katharine Hepburn in blueblood mode, Ginger Rogers streetwise, Andrea Leeds suffering, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller impossibly young, and Eve Arden being, well, splendidly Eve Ardenish. The sassy comedy and sober life lessons are wonderfully mixed by the underrated director Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), who captures the brashness of '30s female chatter in a much pleasanter way than the more famous The Women. Hepburn's sublime attempts to wrestle with the line about calla lilies being in bloom will make you smile long after the movie's over.