Hitch and Grace Act III: To Catch a Thief (1955): A Romp Through the Riviera

Cary Grant starred four times with Katharine Hepburn, including heavyweight classics The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.  He made three absolutely delightful films with Irene Dunne (recognized classic The Awful Truth, its unofficial sequel My Favorite Wife, and the underappreciated and surprisingly tender Penny Serenade.)  He also made three each with Deborah Kerr and Myrna Loy, two each with Sophia Loren and Jean Arthur.  

Let’s not forget Charade with Audrey Hepburn.

He absolutely adored Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Indiscreet.)

But you’ve been listening, so I don’t have to tell you who he repeatedly named as his favorite leading lady.

Grace Patricia Kelly, of course.

They made only To Catch a Thief together, but remained lifelong friends, so much so that when Grant died (four years after Kelly), he willed some items to Kelly’s daughter Princess Caroline.

Having found his muse, Hitch wanted to begin filming on Thief immediately after Rear Window, but Kelly wanted to do The Country Girl and she had MGM contractual obligations to fulfill.  

All in all, Kelly released five films in 1954 and was named actress of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Everyone wanted to see what she’d do next.

She decided to team up once again with Hitch.

To Catch a Thief is sometimes called Hitch-lite, as it involves jewel theft instead of murder and avoids exploring the mud on the bottom of the rock of human nature as his best films do.  Instead, the audience watches Grant and Kelly romp through the French Riviera in gorgeous clothes, charming one another and everyone else as they search for a jewel thief whose crimes involve stealing only from those who can afford to lose.

It’s a good film, but it isn’t the best work done by Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Hitch leans on one double entendre after another for humor, Kelly serves mostly as a fashion model, and Grant—well, he looks old as he is fifty romancing (or more accurately being romanced by) the twenty-five year old Kelly’s character.

It is, however, perhaps Edith Head’s finest hour.

Head was the legendary costume designer, winner of eight Academy Awards (and thirty-five nominations) for Best Costume Design.  To Catch a Thief was among her nominations, and All About Eve and Roman Holiday among her wins.

And truly, the outfits are what one remembers from To Catch a Thief.  Sure, there’s a cat burglar on the loose, but the real suspense is waiting to see what Kelly will be wearing in the next scene.  She plays a rich socialite, so Head could run wild with the glamour.  

In her biography, Edith Head’s Hollywood, the woman who had dressed all of Hollywood’s royalty said that Grace Kelly was her favorite actress.  Head had dressed her in Rear Window and The Country Girl in addition to Thief.

Grace Kelly and Edith Head

“We don’t have that many great women stars anymore,” Head writes.  “But in the 1950s Grace was tops.  She was an ex-model and she knew how to wear clothes.”

Nor did Head neglect Grant, who wears a memorable striped sweater with loafers in addition to a tuxedo and an all black cat burglar suit.

Grant stars as John Robie, a reformed jewel thief who sets out to catch a copycat burglar before the police throw him back in prison.  In anticipating the true thief’s next mark, he cozies up to Jessie Stevens, a rich woman who drapes herself in expensive jewels, and her daughter Frances, played by Kelly.

Frances is immediately onto Robie (she is suspicious when he lavishes all his attention on her mother and virtually ignores her) but she initially believes he intends to rob them.  Seeing it as an adventure, she initially is excited by the prospect.  Eventually convinced of his innocence, she and her mother help him set a trap to catch the real thief.

To Catch a Thief has its charms and is worth watching, especially for fans of Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Sometimes you want to sit in the dark, forget your problems, and watch the beautiful people romp around a gorgeous location and fall in love.

To Catch a Thief scratches this itch quite nicely.

Neither Hitch nor Grace knew at the time this would be their last film together.  Certainly, if she had not retired at 26 to marry the Prince of Monaco, she and Hitch would’ve made Vertigo together and probably more.  (Perhaps even The Birds, but that would’ve been an entirely different film with Kelly in the lead.)

Hitchcock never got over Kelly leaving Hollywood, and he was always trying to entice her to come back and make another picture with him.

What would Hitch and Grace Act IV have looked like?

We’ll always wonder.

Sources:

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Indiscreet (1958): Ingrid’s Triumphant Return

Despite delighting audiences with her work in such classics as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), Casablaca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), and Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman was banished from Hollywood when her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini became public.  

Because of the pure and innocent characters she played onscreen, the public felt betrayed.  Becoming pregnant with Rossellini’s child added fuel to the fire.  In a fit of manufactured hysteria that would be right at home in today’s political climate, democratic Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced her on the senate floor as “a powerful influence for evil”, and that she had “perpetrated an assault upon the institution of marriage.”

“People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint,” Bergman said later.  “I’m not.  I’m just a woman, another human being.”*

She ran off to Italy and spent the next seven years making Italian films in between marrying and divorcing Rossellini.  (And having three children with him, including actress Isabella Rossellini.)

In 1956, she filmed Anastasia in Europe for Twentieth Century Fox to test the waters.  Her Academy Award win for the film paved the way for her return to Hollywood.

Though Anastaisa revived her career, it was her next film, Indiscreet, that endeared her once again to American audiences.

Off-screen friends Bergman and Grant

She paired up for the second and final time with her Notorious co-star and good friend, Cary Grant.

Notorious is the better film, of course, but it has more tools in its arsenal—an inherently tense premise, life and death stakes, and the master of suspense in Alfred Hitchock behind the camera.  

Indiscreet, by contrast, lives or dies solely on the chemistry of Bergman and Grant.  Not their individual talents, which are unquestioned, but how much the audience believes they are besotted with one another.

The film more than lives.  It thrives.

The premise of this romantic comedy is simple—Bergman plays Anna Kalman, an actress in her early forties (as Bergman herself was) who has given up on love meets Cary Grant’s diplomat Philip Adams and finds the man she has been missing.

Philip is handsome, considerate, and fun.  The rub?

He’s married, of course, and he can’t divorce his wife.

He tells Anna this right off the top, and so she goes into their relationship with her eyes wide open.

When a romantic comedy falls flat, it’s nearly always because the filmmaker is in such a hurry to get to the relationship’s roadblock that he neglects to show us what the two leads see in one another and why their relationship is worth saving in the face of that inevitable roadblock.

Indiscreet doesn’t make that mistake.  It strolls along at a pleasant pace, letting us see how and why Anna and Philip fall in love.  There is a cozy conversation at a restaurant table that goes on so long they miss the ballet.  There are late night conversations, and a great split screen showing them saying goodnight over the telephone in their respective beds.  Eventually, we see her cooking breakfast for him, the first nod that their relationship has reached sleepover status.

We know why Anna loves Philip—he’s charming, discrete, considerate, and so obviously her perfect match.  We know why Philip loves Anna—she’s beautiful, beloved by her fans, confident but not clingy, and has a great sense of humor.  She takes what Philip can offer but doesn’t ask for more.

When Philip is ordered to New York for five months for his work with the United Nations but Anna must stay in London to star in a play, she shows the first signs of strain.  In a heartbreaking scene, Anna beseeches Philip to leave his wife and marry her.  She apologizes, but it’s too late—she’s shown Philip that no matter how perfect their relationship seems, it is humiliating to be a mistress and not a wife.

And now, finally, when we’re fully invested and having a ball watching Cary and Ingrid flirt and play, the bomb is dropped.

On-screen magic

Philip isn’t—and never has been—married.  It’s a lie he tells his prospective lovers because he believes he’s not the marrying kind and doesn’t want to give them false hope.

The reveal of this fact to Anna—by her sister, and not Philip himself—has her shouting, “How dare he make love to me and not be married!”

The film’s comedy comes in the second half, when Anna pretends not to know of Philip’s deception and plans his comeuppance.  Watching Anna secretly seethe behind Philip’s back at a party while he dances and drinks and generally has a grand old time is the highlight of the film.

Her plan goes badly, of course—she convinces him she’s been seeing another man just as he decides he’s the marrying kind after all—but it all turns out right in the end.

It’s the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood has given up on—it doesn’t have two leads who are constantly bickering until the final reel, doesn’t substitute sex for romance, and doesn’t have to cut down a strong woman by making her a klutz. 

It’s a love story of two mature adults—Ingrid with the first hint of lines on her face, Cary with silver in his hair—but youth doesn’t hold a candle to the charm these legends exude with every breath.

And even at forty-three and fifty-seven, Ingrid and Cary look damn good in technicolor.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

*Quote from Notorious:  The Life of Ingrid Bergman, by Donald Spoto

Notorious (1946): Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Cary Grant.  Ingrid Bergman.  Alfred Hitchcock.

Combine any two and you’ll find a good film.  Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman).  Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch).  North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).

But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.   

The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.  

T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.

Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil.  While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair.  Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.

Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint.  In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films.  “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long.  To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation.  They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone.  They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.

It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.

It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins.  She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love.  Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman.  Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.

There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.

Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.

Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.

Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.

The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.  

Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?

It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.  

Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films.  Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.  

It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is.  Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note.  It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.

No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.

When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.

The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.

That’s certainly the case with Notorious, which would entail filling Hitcock’s, Ingrid Bergman’s (who really runs away with the film) and Cary Grant’s shoes.

Who would dare even try?


I’m shocked to say that this classic is available for free in its entirety on YouTube.  Watch it before it’s gone.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

My Favorite Wife (1940): The Charm of Cary and Irene

When the world shut down last March, I decided to spend the extra time on my hands watching and writing about classic American films.  I added this weekly Wednesday morning post and dubbed it the “Golden Age of Hollywood blog.”

And many of you took the journey with me.  In Part I, we explored the legend of Garbo and the thrill of the early talkies.  In Part II, we learned about the early and mostly unsuccessful efforts to clear the movies of violence and sex.  When the censors finally had their way, the sex and violence was hidden beneath hilarious layers of innuendo and physical comedy in the screwballs of Part III.

I made my case for the greatest actress to never win an Oscar (Barbara Stanwyck, Part IV), and the greatest year in movies (1939, Part V).  We rounded out the year with a romp through the fabulous forties (Part VI) and paid tribute to Bette Davis (Part VII), the brightest, brashest star that ever burned in Hollywood.

I never thought the pandemic—or this blog—would last so long.  I figured we’d be back to normal by June and I’d be lucky to get to fifty films.

Instead I’ve watched ninety-five films and written about sixty-two of them.

And aside from not having time to watch Bridgerton or Outlander Season 5, I have no regrets.

Though not as quickly as we’d like, the pandemic is winding down.

Not so for the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  I’m having way too much fun.

As the blog enters its second year, we’re going to try something a bit different.  I’m doing away with the strict Parts of the blog.  We’re going to cover things a little more loosey goosey.  We’ll still dip into some themes now and then, but we’ll jump back and forth between the great stars, directors, and genres.

This will allow me to both keep the blog fresh, cover great films that don’t fit into a neat category, and revisit categories where I’ve made new discoveries.

Don’t worry—there will still be a mix of movie reviews and Hollywood history.  And most of all, this blog remains a celebration of the stars and the time.  Always honest, but focusing on what’s right with these films, not what’s wrong.

And now, let’s get to one of the films that inspired this new approach.

Can you believe I covered screwball comedies and didn’t include a Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film?

That’s an omission screaming to be addressed.

And thus I’ve scooped My Favorite Wife off the cutting room floor, a place it never belonged.

Whether or not you’re a film buff, everybody knows Cary Grant.  Charming, confident, and elegant onscreen, even when falling over and bumbling around in a comedy.

He made wonderful screwballs with Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Marilyn Monroe, but for my money, his best onscreen partner was Irene Dunne.

This was the second of three films they made together, and followed their smash hit screwball The Awful Truth (1937).

The plot is simple, if silly—Ellen Arden (Dunne) is lost in a shipwreck and presumed dead.  After being missing for seven years, her husband Nick (Grant) has her declared legally dead and marries another woman.  On the first day of his honeymoon with his new bride, Ellen turns up very much alive after spending the time on a deserted island with a very attractive man.

Grant and Dunne have a lovely chemistry.  Dunne is pure charm as Ellen, who ricochets between amusement and annoyance as Nick tries to figure out how to extricate himself from his current predicament.  He doesn’t want to do wrong by his new bride, but his heart is so clearly with Ellen from the moment he realizes she’s alive.

A series of complicated hijinks ensue, but true love wins in the end.

The film has the best ending of any screwball I’ve seen—Ellen and Nick are spending the night in a cabin together.  Nick wants to sleep with Ellen, but she wants to wait for his annulment to come through (and torture him a bit more, if she’s being honest.)

When he asks when they can be together, she tells him Christmas, which is months away.  Nick leaves her alone in her bed.  Soon, there is clanging and banging coming from the attic as Nick rummages around.

Moments later he emerges into her room dressed as Santa Claus.

The film ends on her laughter as Santa climbs into bed with his first—and favorite—wife.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

The Philadelphia Story (1940): 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. 

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

In Name Only (1939): 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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.