For the past two nights I have fallen asleep on The Philadelphia Story, and I’m beginning to despair of ever getting through the thing.
It’s not entirely the fault of the movie: after dinner with a full tummy, I turn out the lights, throw a light blanket over myself, settle in to my comfy chair, and inevitably a pussyquat or two or three (rarely, all four have been known to pile on) will settle down onto my lap, and in such relaxing circumstances I guess it’s a wonder that I can stay awake for anything.
But the sad fact is that after a lifetime of anticipation no movie could probably live up to, I am finding The Philadelphia Story to be a disappointment. The first let down comes right up front: Its most famous scene is the first scene in the picture — and nothing that follows matches it. The show stops before it even begins: now I see the wisdom in Merian C. Cooper’s ruthless deletion of King Kong’s infamous Spider Pit sequence.
Beyond that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Philadelphia Story, and a lot that’s right. Kate, of course, lets her light shine blindingly, and Cukor creates what’s probably the perfect atmosphere for such a thing. But there isn’t one single character to like or care about, and a good number of them are just plain loathsome: especially including the Jimmy Stewart character. This “sophisticated” comedy is perhaps too sophisticated for me, if “sophistication” means something that feels totally superior to its audience and the world.
Abbott and Costello aren’t faring much better with me. It took me two nights to get through their largely dismal Mexican Hayride — in which neither Mexico nor hayrides make any appearance. The picture is at pains to keep the pair apart from each other, and Bud is moved into the sidelines for an alarming amount of the picture’s runtime. Without Bud on hand, Lou is just tiresome, much as he tries to cultivate our sympathy with his coy, cutesy cow-eyes. The songs are dreadful and the big “comedy” finale with Lou being chased by a bull (accomplished through obvious stock footage, an even more obvious mechanical bull head and terrible optical effects) is laughless beyond belief. By this time, bull fights had been done to death by comedians including the Stooges, Eddie Cantor and even Bugs Bunny; this one is the bottom of the barrel.
Speaking of Eddie Cantor (his feature The Kid From Spain climaxes with one of the best comedic bullfights), this past week TCM ran one of his later features, Strike Me Pink. I’m glad to see TCM airing his movies, and gladder still that Warner’s and Fox have both started to release the tiniest trickle of his output onto DVD, in their “Vault” print-on-demand lines. I’ve lamented his fall from grace a time or two on this blog: he’s one of my favorite movie comedians, in his day a giant in the entertainment world — and no one remembers him anymore. His pictures are light as air, genuinely charming (Cantor does the Horatio Alger thing better than anyone), laugh-out-loud funny and endearingly entertaining after all these years. I never, ever fall asleep on a Cantor picture! Strike Me Pink is not his best, but despite some unexpectedly lousy songs by Harold Arlen it still hits all the comedy marks, and is a heckova lot better movie than Mexican Hayride — this is how a climactic comedy setpiece should be done.
I’m almost certain that TCM chose this over some of Cantor’s better pictures (notably the great Kid Millions and Roman Scandals) because it’s probably the only one that does not contain a musical number performed in blackface! Cantor, not to put too fine a point on it, has been a victim of White Guilt: modern audiences tend to be shocked — shocked! when the burnt cork comes out and Eddie dresses up in full Minstrel Show regalia. I say now, as I have on many occasions, Get Over It. The Past cannot be changed to suit the political and social mores of The Present. What Cantor did was in no way mean-spirited. The proper thing to do is to be amazed that anyone ever considered this sort of thing acceptable as a mainstream entertainment: and then relax and enjoy it on its own terms, as a record of the past that should not be forgotten.
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