The Philadelphia Story: Triumph of the Transatlantic Accent

If you watch a lot of movies made in the 1940’s, eventually you’re going to ask— 

Why do they talk like that?

You know what I mean—that half British, half American sing-song way of clipping out words and extending the vowels.  It indicates an upper crust, old money,  ivy-league sensibility, and doesn’t sound like anyone who ever actually lived.

I introduce you to the Transatlantic accent.

The Transatlantic (sometimes called Mid-Atlantic) accent is unusual in that it was not developed naturally based on the peculiar region where one grows up but was instead deliberately taught in fancy, northeastern boarding schools in the 1920’s-1940’s to indicate one’s place in the upper class.  The Hollywood studios loved it and encouraged their stars to take elocution lessons to perfect it.  

If you want a masterclass in the Transatlantic accent, you need go no further than The Philadelphia Story.

This film lets three of Hollywood’s greatest stars—and two of the best examples of the Transatlantic accent—talk and talk and talk for nearly two hours.

Perhaps that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t.  The great charm of The Philadelphia Story is in the talking.  It’s a movie that started out life as a play, and is full of snappy dialogue— innuendo, subtle jokes, and those wonderful accents.  Most everything happens—the advancing plot, the expression of emotion, the twist ending—through dialogue rather than action.

The great Katharine Hepburn, who is said to be the only person ever born speaking with a Transatlantic accent, plays Tracy Lord, a haughty Philadelphia heiress who has divorced one husband and is on the verge of marrying another.

Hepburn’s voice is one of the most recognized in the world.  She had a lot in common with Tracy Lord—she too was a bit haughty and aggressive and had the air of the wealthy progressive Bryn Mawr girl that she was.

Tracy Lord is judgemental but not icy cold, and she has a soft side that is uncovered through the course of the film.

Cary Grant is her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, another rich American aristocrat who likes teasing Tracy but is still very much in love with her.  Grant was British himself, but had developed a Transatlantic accent that is nearly as recognizable as Hepburn’s.

But it is third-billed Jimmy Stewart who steals the film as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a reporter sent to cover the wedding who at first disdains Tracy’s high society ways but grows smitten when he learns there is more to her.

Jimmy Stewart’s accent is just as recognizable, though not a Transatlantic.  It is a one-of-a-kind stutter-step that he would perfect throughout his career.  

On the eve of Tracy’s wedding, Mike and Tracy—who never drinks—get drunk, go for a swim, and are discovered in a way that while innocent, looks quite indecent.

A hungover Tracy cannot remember exactly what she has and hasn’t done, and the haughty goddess of Philadelphia is laid low.  She learns the lesson that not everyone can be perfect, and despite her fiance’s willingness to forgive her indiscretions, and Mike’s proposal of marriage to quell the scandal, it is her mischievous and flawed first husband Dexter whom she truly loves and can now appreciate.

It’s amazing that Katharine Hepburn won four leading acting Oscars—more than anyone else—and did not win one for this film that so typified her and her career.  It was Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal that earned him the only acting Oscar of his career.

The Transatlantic accent fell out of fashion after World War II, even if Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn didn’t.

A study of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart is incomplete without The Philadelphia Story.  The film  is a charming story that is artificial in speech and setup but always satisfying. 

In Name Only: Crying Clowns

Even if you haven’t watched them, you’ve probably heard of most of the best films of 1939.  It’s the birthplace of some of the most beloved, quoted and remembered films.  In 1939, every major star we think of from the Golden Age made a film—Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphre Bogart…I could go on.

Nineteen-thirty nine gave us Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

And it’s perhaps because it was released during the year that was an embarrassment of riches that we often forget about a wonderful melodrama called In Name Only.

We might also forget about it because it defies expectations—in 1939, if you put your quarter down for a movie starring the two greatest screwball comedians ever to have lived, you expect to laugh.

And yet Carole Lombard and Cary Grant deliver two quietly lovely performances as an earnest couple in love despite the fact he is married to someone else.

It would be like casting Melissa McCarthy and George Clooney in a Nicholas Sparks movie.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet In Name Only is a tender gem that should not be overlooked.

Grant plays Alec Walker, a wealthy man who’s been emotionally dead since discovering his cold-blooded wife married him only for his money and no longer pretends she ever loved him.  He’s resigned to his loveless marriage until he meets Julie Eden, an open hearted widow with a young daughter.

Desperate for the moments of happiness he finds with Julie, he doesn’t tell her he is married.  Once she inevitably finds out, the love between them becomes equal parts joy and sorrow.

Carole Lombard, deprived of all her physical comedy tricks, is quite convincing as a good, moral woman caught between her heart and the strictures of the time.  It is clear that she never would have entertained a romance with Alec had she known he was married.  And yet once she loves him, she finds it impossible to either stay with him or to give him up.

And it’s hard to blame Alec for misleading her, as he is stifled in his loveless home and at first just looking for some afternoons filled with light and laughter.  Cary Grant can never be anything less than charming, but he tones down his mischievous side so that we know Alec has nothing but respect for Julie despite deceiving her.  This is no casual fling, and he is no cad.

Alec’s wife does all she can to paint Julie as a common tramp, and Julie agonizes over her disgrace of carrying on with a married man.  Alec demands a divorce, but his wife finds one reason after another to delay until it becomes clear she will never free him.

Julie leaves Alec, breaking her heart to salvage her self-respect, but when Alec grows deathly ill both wife and mistress rush to his side.

In true soap opera fashion, Alec’s viper of a wife keeps Julie from seeing him.  Without Julie, Alec has lost the will to live and is near death.  When Julie finally reaches him and promises him they will be together, he turns the corner for the better.  His wife is exposed as the viper she is, and a happy ending is assured.

Cue the dramatic music.

It’s a sentimental, dramatic tear-jerker.  

Just the kind of movie I’m a sucker for.

Silver Linings

#18 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

Part III: Screwin’ Around

Thus far, I’ve painted the Hollywood censors as the villains of our piece.  I’m justified, I think, in mocking their obsession with showing women’s hemlines, violence, and sex.

When the censors finally got their way in 1934, we didn’t just lose Jane’s loincloth, or steamy kisses, or gangsters riddling each other’s cars with bullets.

We lost—at least for a time—a depth in storytelling.  In making all movies suitable for everyone, producers had to put more mature themes on the shelf.  Gone were the movies questioning the nobility of war (Hell’s Angels), the double standard between men and women (The Divorcée, Anna Christie), or the limited ways in which a poor uneducated woman has to make her way in the world (Baby Face).

Movies got sillier, filled with treacle and drained of substance.

In the end, the great tragedy of the production code is that it forced movies to show the world the way it ought to be, rather than the way it is.

And yet.

The challenge of telling good stories within the constraints of the code unleashed a whirlwind of creative energy in the writers, directors, and producers of Hollywood.

The best, most enduring product of that creativity is the screwball comedy.

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s continue to be some of the most beloved, and most rewatched classic movies.  Most people who find their way into classic movies are hooked by a screwball.  Almost every legendary actor, actress, and director has made a screwball.

And they would’ve never happened without censorship.

The screwball comedy is the biggest, brightest silver lining of the production code.  

See, a screwball comedy is a romantic comedy that tells a love story without breaking the rules of the code—no steamy kisses, no couples shown in the same bed, no frank foreplay.

The screwballs are sex comedies without the sex.

In lieu of sex, they manipulate each other, pull each other into harebrained schemes, and almost always someone falls down or gets wet.

But most of all, they bicker.

And drive one another insane.

And thus, prove their love.

It’s the perfect mix of physical comedy and romance.

They range from wry to out-and-out and slapstick.

And today, we’re going to cover two of the most outrageous examples, with heroines who are practically deranged and the men who have the misfortune to fall in love with them.

Bringing Up Baby is the story of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a scientist trying to secure a million dollar grant for his museum, and the chance encounter with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) that will change his life.  The flighty Susan soon charms and exasperates David into a series of misadventures revolving around her quest to deliver a pet leopard to her aunt.

David is to be married to someone else the day that Susan whisks him away, and fortunately he discovers he loves Susan before it’s too late.

Screwballs are best when the leads are playing off one another, a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of words ping-ponging between the two.

Bringing Up Baby is a beloved screwball comedy today, but it was a flop back in it’s day.  It was one of the movies that would label Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison” and send her temporarily back east before her triumphant comeback.

Katharine Hepburn had such a persona of a strong woman both on and offscreen that audiences just couldn’t quite buy her as a ditz.  And while her Susan successfully irritated David, she also irritated the audience.

Bringing Up Baby was the first classic film I ever watched, and I remember loving it.  I was probably nine or ten at the time, and I’d never seen anything like it.  I was mesmerized by the black and white film, by Hepburn’s crazy accent, by Cary Grant’s charm.  I fell in love with old movies right then.

But I have to admit that rewatching it, I can understand why audiences turned away from it.  Katharine Hepburn will never be flighty, and she is irritatingThe shenanigans go on for a bit too long and at times the film is just too crazy.  There are so many truly outstanding screwballs that I regret to say that I can’t really recommend you start with this one.

My Man Godfrey is a much better deranged dame screwball (the dames aren’t always deranged, as we’ll see in future posts).  Carole Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a spoiled rich girl who employs William Powell’s Godfrey when she discovers he is a down-on-his-luck man living in the town dump during the Depression.

Godfrey watches the hysterics of the Bullock family with a detached amusement.  He wants to keep his job and his face straight.

Lombard and Powell are marvelous in the film.  Lombard was born to play screwball dames, the crazier, the better, and Irene Bullock was the craziest she ever played.  Powell is a screwball comedy fixture as the straight man, and he is wonderful as Godfrey.

Audiences and critics alike loved the film.  It was nominated for six Oscars, including director and screenplay.  It was the first movie to ever receive nominations in all four acting categories.  Sadly, neither Powell nor Lombard would ever win an Oscar.

We’re going to spend the next few posts exploring more films from this fascinating subgenre.

There can hardly be a better way to spend our time than screwing around with Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Wild Wild West

#15 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The studios were running wild, flaunting the production code by glorifying criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and gold diggers.  

And the men and women who’d demanded the code were taking notice.

The clashes between Hollywood and the Catholic priests and Women’s Groups who wanted them to clean up their act were growing in frequency and intensity.

Catholic priests labeled certain films sinful and threatened boycotts.

Martin Quigley, one of the original authors of the code, was incensed that Hollywood had no intention of honoring their end of the bargain.

Hollywood may have tried harder to work within the confines of the code but for two inescapable facts—first, the country was in the throes of the Depression and most of the Hollywood studios were struggling for survival.

Second, and most important— audiences loved sexy, violent, and naughty films.

Despite what they told their priests, they plunked down their increasingly limited dollars to watch them.

The oncoming censorship war was likely inevitable.

But the match that lit the fire and turned the Catholic opposition into a full blown crusade?

It wasn’t James Cagney’s gangster films.  Or the beautiful young starlets over at MGM running around committing adultery and demanding divorcees.

It wasn’t even Jean Harlow’s gleeful home-wrecking.

It was a forty-year old playwright from Brooklyn.

Mae West made the would-be censors positively apoplectic.

Mae West—like her character Lou in She Done Him Wrong—was a woman in charge.  She made her own money and decisions, spoke her mind, and used her sexuality wherever and however she could.

She was a quadruple threat—actress, writer, singer, businesswoman.

She’d been a successful playwright in New York, and adapted her plays for the screen.

Her plays had previously been passed over by Hollywood for being too racy.  But in 1933, Paramount was on the verge of going belly up and decided to go for broke.

Her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were so successful they literally pulled Paramount out of bankruptcy.

We remember her today—and audiences loved her then—for the wry sexual innuendo in her films.  She wrote and spoke all the movie’s famous lines.

Lines like:

Woman: Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman.

Lou: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.

Or the famous, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” said in her come-hither way to an impossibly young (and unknown) Cary Grant.

Or my favorite:

Captain Cummings: Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?

Lou: Sure, lots of times.

I could go on and on.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong is little more than a vehicle for Mae West to strut around and be, well, Mae West.

She sings, she zings, she has all the good lines, and rules every scene.

Even Cary Grant can’t steal a scene from her.

Mae West knew exactly what her audience wanted from her, and gave it to them both on and off the screen.  In a time when stars were much more reserved with the press, Mae West could always be counted on for a colorful interview.

I love the myth of Mae West.  I love the fact that she stormed Hollywood in her forties and made her mark as a sexpot.  I loved that she wrote her own films.  I love that she was shrewd businesswoman.  I love that she was always playing the character of “Mae West.”  I love that while people thought she was selling sex, she was actually selling wit.

But I can’t honestly say I love her movies.  I fell asleep repeatedly through She Done Him Wrong, and would recommend that if you want a taste of Mae West, you’re better off watching a compilation video of all her best lines on You Tube rather than one of her films.

Despite the huge box office success of She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel, Mae West faded quickly from the Hollywood scene.  Once the production code was enforced, Hollywood could no longer make the exaggerated, bawdy films that were West’s forte.  

But her impact went far beyond her movies, for they led to a nationwide mobilization of Catholics and other groups who were fed up with Hollywood’s supposed filth.

And as we’ll see next week, they won a battle that would give the censors control of films and change the face of Hollywood for decades.