Judge Daryl Loomis wears the parachute pants in his family.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), Bringing Up Baby (published March 29th, 2005), The Philadelphia Story: Special Edition (published April 18th, 2005), and Tracy And Hepburn: The Definitive Collection (published April 20th, 2011) are also available.
The love impulse in man very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.
Warner Bros. has started releasing a lot of collections from their vault under The Greatest Classic Movies banner. Four great films for a budget price is a fantastic idea, and I hope they keep coming out with them. This one, under the subheading of "Romantic Comedies," may as well be called a Katherine Hepburn (African Queen) collection. I'm not complaining, but could they really find no romantic comedies that didn't star Hepburn? No matter, these are four brilliant films that comprise a decade in the career of one of the finest actresses Hollywood has ever put on film.
Facts of the Case
Bringing Up Baby: Paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace) has two things to do tomorrow: receive the last bone to complete the four year reconstruction of a brontosaurus and get married to his cool and distant assistant Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker, The Caribbean Mystery). He didn't expect, however, to (literally) run into Susan Vance (Hepburn), a ditz of the highest order, but a charming ditz, and one who might hold the only key to a million dollar endowment that he could really use for his museum.
The Philadelphia Story: Tracy Lord (Hepburn) has been divorced from CK Dexter Haven (Grant) for long enough and she's getting remarried to blue-collar tycoon George Kittredge (John Howard, Prison Farm). She hates publicity and demands privacy for her wedding, but the couple's combined stature makes that difficult. The editor of Spy Magazine has blackmailed Haven to get paparazzo Macaulay Connor (James Stewart, Harvey) and his photographer girlfriend Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey, Another Thin Man) into the proceedings, but Lord is all too in on the secret.
Woman of the Year: Tess Harding (Hepburn) is America's most important reporter, but when she mocks baseball in a radio interview, sports beat writer Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous) has something to say about it. Craig, instead of angry, finds himself in love with Harding at first sight and they're quickly married. Tensions build, however, when Craig can't handle the fact that Harding is not only a much better reporter, she has no time to be a traditional wife.
Adam's Rib: Adam and Amanda Bonner (Tracy and Hepburn) are husband and wife working for different law firms. When a woman shoots her husband while in the arms of another, the public is outraged. Adam is hired to make a fast conviction against the woman, but Amanda, hired by the defense, wants to use this occasion to make a statement about the inequality of the sexes in the courtroom. Needless to say, Adam is less than happy about this development.
I was lucky enough to never have seen any of the films in this collection before. My experience with Katherine Hepburn rested almost exclusively in her later career and the only Hepburn/Tracy film I'd ever seen was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. With that lack of knowledge of her work, I'm extremely impressed with the ability, charm, and diversity of style Hepburn displays in these films. While each of the four characters she plays maintains similarities, each one shows different levels of sensitivity, brains, and heart and each one is a master performance.
It's funny to think that, at the time of Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn was known as box office poison who would take two years off from the screen to go back to the theater. The film was not a resounding success, but nor was it the bomb it had sometimes been made out to be. It is one of the funniest screwball comedies I've ever seen, causing genuine laughs seven decades after its release. Hepburn's classic persona would gel with Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story and, as a result, she really seems to be playing against type here. In reality, there was no type for her yet. Though she plays a wealthy debutante, she is aloof and silly, just as comfortable nuzzling an unwilling, and absolutely outstanding, Cary Grant as rolling around with a leopard (no ASPCA in those days). Performing her own pratfalls and sinking her own 20-foot putts, her performance in Bringing Up Baby, directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, is one of the purest comic performances of her career.
Given how good that film is, it is amazing that she would be forced to the stage. For her career, however, it may have been for the best. She came back with a vengeance as Tracy Lord as The Philadelphia Story was a huge hit on the stage. She retained film rights to the film version of the production and Hollywood swept right in on it. She demanded to star in the role that gave her so much success and, not only that, despite being "box office poison," was allowed to choose her co-stars and director. She made the absolute right choices and quickly became box office boffo. With George Cukor (Gaslight), Grant and Stewart at her sides, and herself in the lead, The Philadelphia Story is one of the great high comedies of all time. Sometimes verging on screwball, the film grounds itself in the actions of the rich next to people who plain don't belong there. Much more than just a star vehicle, The Philadelphia Story is great fun and just as amusing now as it was then. Special commendation goes to Ruth Hussey in the role of Stewart's girlfriend and photographer. Her part is not large, but she is absolutely appealing in her role and, hands down, wins the Best Supporting Actress award for this set (she was nominated for an Oscar for the role).
With the Tracy Lord persona set in people's minds, Hepburn went on great acclaim and greater success, especially after finding on-screen fire with her future lover, Spencer Tracy. Tracy's gruff, blue collar persona played a perfect counterpoint to Hepburn's cool high society charm and, together, they soared. Directed by George Stevens (Giant), Woman of the Year, their first film together, shows the volatile chemistry of the duo and, while it is a very good film on every level, it does feel somewhat dated today. Hepburn is confident and powerful as Tess Harding, displaying true feminist ideals in action instead of talk. Unfortunately, Tracy's Sam Craig refuses to accept that a woman should not be subservient and demands that she become a "real" wife. Movies at this time would never end with divorce, so it's easy to see what those feminist ideals really mean to her. Not as much as frying bacon, that's for sure.
In an interesting turn on the same token, Adam's Rib, with Cukor back to direct, is a brilliantly written courtroom comedy about a husband and wife who can't leave their case at the courthouse. Hepburn makes another stand for women's rights here and, though Tracy accepts it about as readily as he does in Woman of the Year but, this time, doesn't have a lot of choice in the matter. Adam's Rib features some of the best pure acting in the set and, though the laughs may not come quite as often, it serves as an excellent finale to this collection.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies presents these four films on two double-sided discs. The prints on all are generally very good, especially considering the age of the films. There is a little dirt and grain on each, but it's barely noticeable. The transfers are near perfect, with only a little flickering on Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib, which have not received the same stellar treatment of the other two. The mono sound is equally good, clear and vibrant on each with little background noise to mar the brilliantly quick dialog. Only the films with Cary Grant contain extras beyond the original trailer, and these amount to nothing more than audio commentaries which are not very exciting. For Bringing Up Baby, we have Peter Bogdanovich, who directed What's Up Doc, inspired by the earlier film. Bogdanovich has the distinct problem of saying something is happening onscreen when it is not. For instance, Hepburn barges into Grant's room while he is getting dressed and he does not have his glasses on (this was the first time audiences had seen him bespectacled). She comments on how handsome he looks without them. At this point, our commenter says that this is the last time Grant would have the glasses on during the film. About halfway through his statement, Grant puts the glasses back on, where they stay until they break about two-thirds of the way through the film. Does Bogdanovich acknowledge this? No, and he goes on to discuss his point oblivious to the reality onscreen. The only worthwhile thing about it is his Howard Hawks impersonation, which is funny the first time but gets pretty old by the twentieth. Accompanying The Philadelphia Story, we have Jeanine Basinger running the alternate audio. She obviously knows a significant amount about the film and, while it is not nearly as irritating as the Bogdanovich commentary, it is a snoozer. I would love to read one of her books, but listening to the commentary is a trial.
All four films in this set are inarguable classics of the genre. Some feel more dated than others, but all are worth watching multiple times. If you don't already own the films, this is a great collection at the right price.
Not guilty, now where's my butler?
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