09 February 2010

"she was madly in love with Charles Darnay and no other man measured up"

"If you haven’t seen The Philadelphia Story, stop what you are doing, rent it, and watch it. It’s probably overstating the point to say that until you watch it, you will have been living a partial and colorless life. However, it is definitely on the list of perfect things. You know what I mean, the list that includes the starry sky over the desert, grilled cheese sandwiches, The Great Gatsby, the Chrysler building, Ella Fitzgerald singing 'It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing),' white peonies, and those little sketches of hands by Leonardo da Vinci.

If you have seen it, then you know there’s a moment when Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord steps from a poolside cabana. She’s got a straight white dream of a dress hanging from her tiny collarbones, a dress fluted and precise as a Greek column but light and full of the motion of smoke. A paradox of a dress, a marriage of opposites that just makes your teeth hurt it’s so exactly right.

I was fourteen when I first saw it. It was three days before Christmas, which in my family’s house meant, means, and will always mean, Yuletide sensory overload: every room stuffed to the gills with garland and holly, the whole place booming with Johnny Mathis, and a monstrosity of a tree towering in the living room, weighed down with ornaments of every description, including dozens defying description that my brothers, sister, and I had made in school over the years.

Fourteen was not a good year for me. I was the latest of late bloomers, of course, about two feet high and scrawny as a cat, still shopping in the children’s department, profoundly allergic to every member of my family, and convinced that nothing could make me happy.

But then my grouchy channel-surfing landed me in the middle of a black-and-white heaven: Tracy, the dress...

I slid my fingers over my face, feeling for Tracy’s winged cheekbones. And when Dexter (Cary Grant) took Tracy to task, saying, 'You’ll never be a first-rate woman or a first-rate human being until you have some regard for human frailty,' I recognized it as wisdom and wondered whether I had it, that kind of regard, and just how to get it if I didn’t.

In college, I took a film studies class subtitled something like 'Turning the Formula on Its Head' in which the professor talked about the trick The Philadelphia Story pulls off. It should never have worked: creating a fantastic love scene between two characters whom you know are not in love with each other, getting you somehow to root for them wholeheartedly during the scene, but then to feel completely satisfied when they end up with other people.

Before you get the wrong impression, you should know that I’m not and never was one of those film people, the kind who argue into the wee hours about the auteur theory and whether Spielberg is the new Capra, or whether John Huston impacts, in unseen ways, every second of American life. I don’t know from camera angles, and I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-World War II German cinema, but I fell a little in love with the film professor when he looked upon us with shining eyes and proclaimed, 'No, it should not work. But work it does!' because he was so passionate and right.

When I heard Mike (Jimmy Stewart) say to Tracy in that tender, marveling voice, 'No, you’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy,' I clasped my hands under my pointy chin, prayed that she would run away with him, and swore to God that someday a man would say those words in that voice to me or else I would die. But then, at the movie’s end, my father heard cheering and left water running in the sink to watch his lately distant, disaffected teenage daughter bang her fists on the arms of her chair and turn to him crying, 'with a face as open as a flower' (my dad’s own improbable words), saying breathlessly, 'She’s marrying Dexter, Daddy.'

I’ll admit it. I’ve always been more than a little proud of myself for having been fourteen and deeply benighted about almost everything, but having had the sense to recognize what is surely a universal truth: Jimmy Stewart is always and indisputably the best man in the world, unless Cary Grant should happen to show up."

~Love Walked In, Marisa de los Santos~


Chesley said...

Oh the fabulousness of Old Hollywood! Now go rent High Society - it's the musical version of Philadelphia Story, with Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby as dashing Dexter. And Satchmo's Jazz band all strewn in. You'll love it!

adi said...

This movie has been on my to-watch list for nearly ten years now, but I think this review has just moved it to the top. I love Katharine Hepburn's films; thanks for the great review.
Stop by my blog sometime if you get the chance? adioctober.blogspot.com