The Breen Code and its’ impact on Hollywood

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by Paul Batters

Any industry has a code by which it operates. At its’ birth and during its’ infancy, any new industry or undertaking operates like a frontier town in the old West – laissez-faire and making and/or breaking rules as they go. At some point, however, any industry, for better or for worse, will regulate itself for a whole range of reasons. It could be to improve productivity, to regulate problems that have emerged, to establish some sense of order or because of pressure from government and society standards.

Hollywood, both literally and metaphorically, was like a frontier town in the old West. Ambitious men and women decided to determine their own paths in the world of entertainment, when they headed West from the U.S East Coast in the very early 20th century. The new film industry which emerged heralded a new type of entertainment which audiences clamoured to see in darkened theatres, not only in the U.S but across the world. But with success came a demand for change in how Hollywood operated. The reasons for that change include some of the reasons already mentioned.

Scandals and outrage in Hollywood emerged in the 1920s to shock people around the world and the studios’ concerns were not that their stars had engaged in pre-marital or same sex encounters, were gay or lesbian, used drugs, drank alcohol (think Prohibition) or had affairs. However, they were concerned that audiences would be outraged if they found out that their favourite stars were and turned away from the movie houses. More importantly, powerful conservative voices, including the Catholic Church, politicians and others were concerned that the subject matter in films would corrupt America’s youth, erode morals and values and cause civilisation to collapse. As Gregory Black points out, those conservative voices had managed to recruit millions in their cause and the threat of losing audiences, particularly in the midst of the Great Depression was all too much. Better that the industry regulate itself and keep control, then hand it over to someone else and lose autonomy.

As a result, a ‘film code’ was introduced which would tell the studios what they could and could not depict or infer on screen. From the sublime to the ridiculous, this Code was to assure that civilisation would not go off the deep end. However, it would not truly be enforced until 1934 when Joseph Breen came to the helm of regulating the film industry. Censorship perhaps but also the reality that Hollywood had to deal with.

Censorship can be an abhorrence and stifles, crushes and blunts creativity and freedom of thought. Yet the Breen Code did encourage a new creativity not because that was the key aim of the new Code but because film makers took the initiative. The fact is; they had to. What emerged was, as Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood states, the ‘much vaunted golden age (which) began with the Code and ended with its’ demise’.

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This article does not intend to outline what the Code was and how it operated. For the record, I am not an apologist for the Breen Code nor an expert on it. Nor am I a particular fan who believes the Breen Code was one of the best things that happened to cinema. However, it did create a platform for the studios – and writers, producers and directors in particular – to find new and other ways to tell their stories. To borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese, some had to become ‘smugglers’, finding creative and interesting ways to make movies. In some ways, new genres, sub-genres and stylistic techniques were born from the enforcement of the Breen Code.

The screwball comedy was certainly born from the fallout of the Code’s enforcement. Sexual tensions, premarital sex and adult relationships were now under the microscope of the industry watchdog and had to be either avoided or be very carefully approached. However, the screwball comedy found a beautiful way around this; through the use of humour, sophistication and wit, and a chance for actors and actresses to broaden their appeal as well as their abilities. Actresses such as Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow broke the stereotypical roles they found themselves in up to that point (which arguably accentuated their physicality more than anything else) and gave them a chance to expand their repertoire and become some of the most loved stars of the 1930s. For Myrna Loy, it would be The Thin Man series, as well as some wonderful pairings with Clark Gable and William Powell. Lombard would display her talent for comedy and Jean Harlow likewise.

Recently, I reviewed Libeled Lady (1936) with the MGM powerhouse cast of Loy, Powell, Spencer Tracy and of course Jean Harlow. As I mentioned in the article, the plot is nonsensical and would be impossible to sustain, without the sharp dialogue, charismatic presence of the stars involved and high production values. At the end of the day, the film is much farce as it is screwball, and the whole point is to simply enjoy the comedy and watch glamorous people fall in love. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the screwball comedy would become an institution of the cinema, with stars such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray and Rosalind Russell, leaving a new and indelible mark on screwball comedy. For Katherine Hepburn, who by the late 1930s was called ‘box office poison’, films like The Philadelphia Story gave her a chance for revival and a rebirth of her career.

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Like the Thin Man films, Libeled Lady is as much about sexual roles as roped in sexuality. The couple can match each other in every way; sophistication, glamour, wit and panache. The earlier Pre-Code films were grittier and at times even cynical regarding sexual power-plays and dominance in gender roles. Yes, the strong, feminist tropes that emerge in Pre-Code films are fascinating and perhaps the challenge to traditional roles and sexual dominance is what also scared stake-holders into pushing for a film code.

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But strong women emerged after the Code as well. As time went on, there was the development of ‘women’s pictures’ for which artists such as Bette Davis would make their mark and assure their stardom. Interestingly, enough Joan Crawford – perhaps one of the most enduring stars who transformed successfully from flapper to the Pre-Code to the Breen Code – would survive being called ‘box office poison’ (like Hepburn) and re-emerge as a star in ‘women’s pictures’.

Actors such as Clark Gable cemented his stardom and showed his comedic chops in his Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night, the film which established the screwball comedy and garnered in a new age of sophisticated comedy. The film still stands as one of Hollywood’s most loved films. It deftly dealt with sexual tension, the concept of ‘opposites attract’ and a host of other relationship obstacles with some unforgettable and hilarious moments. The two stars never even shared a kiss yet audiences had no problems with watching the couple fall in love, without an embrace. Getting back to Clark Gable, the role of Peter Warne also gave him a chance to break from the typecast tough-guy/heavy and ‘gigolo’ roles which had defined his career in the Pre-Code era.

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There is a strong argument that none of this would have occurred without the establishment of the Breen Code.

To point, studios discovered and developed a new way of telling stories about love, romance and relationships – even illicit relationships. True, they had to be careful but it meant that a sophisticated and witty film genre was formed, which audiences fell in love with.

Additionally, the gangster film had truly taken form during the Pre-Code era, with tropes, characterisations and storylines firmly in place. But the Breen Code challenged those tales and auteurs who found new interpretations and channelled their efforts into expanding on the genre. Warner Bros, home studio to the best of the gangster pictures of the 1930s, were particularly adept at doing so, taking the gangster story far beyond the ‘rise and fall’ plot to looking at social issues that had shaped the gangster and the neighbourhood that they had arisen from. Indeed, the themes and plot that had defined the gangster film in the early 1930s were almost cliched before the Pre-Code days were over; so much so that even E.G Robinson parodied his Little Caesar role in The Little Giant (1933). Time, changing values and the events of history would see the end of the ‘classic gangster cycle’ by the end of the 1930s, not so much the establishment of the Code. Yet Hollywood used the gangster story to reveal social ills and the plight of the underprivileged in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1939).

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Considering social issues, the Breen Code certainly didn’t blunt the sharpness of how film portrayed those issues, particularly in films such as The Grapes Of Wrath (1940). Corruption and apathy in government and the concerns over the rise of fascism found a powerful and still poignant voice in the films of Frank Capra, such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Perhaps still one of the most films on politics, All The King’s Men (1949) seems just as relevant today as it did in the post-war period. The Breen Code in some ways had film-makers thinking beyond the scope prior to 1934.

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Another interesting result of the Breen Code was that ‘wholesome’ family pictures began to boom at the box office. It becomes almost unfathomable that in the space of a year, Shirley Temple at Fox would take over from Mae West as the biggest star at Paramount. Yet family films lifted box office receipts and the impact of the Great Depression on the industry began to wane. Musicals became something the whole family could enjoy and their popularity would continue into the 1950s, expanding on the way that stories were told, as well as the stories themselves. The great literary classics of the past had always been appropriated and interpreted for the screen since the earliest days of film but now they became even more prominent. MGM were particularly adept at presenting the classics on film with top-notch production values and the use of their biggest stars in films such as David Copperfield (1935), A Tale Of Two Cities (1935) and Pride And Prejudice (1940). Other studios and producers would also bring literary classics to the screen such as Wuthering Heights (1938) and a remake of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939) that arguably outdoes the original 1925 version. True, some of the deeper and darker themes were sanitised but these great stories were brought to the screen.

Historical events and figures, even the mythical ones would also become fodder for the studios and result in some of cinema’s most loved classics; The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) are but two examples of such classics. The aforementioned Clark Gable would star as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), a huge hit for MGM and a further opportunity for Gable to extend his abilities and move beyond the roles he was caught in during the Pre-Code era.

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The Breen Code would provide many challenges to the film industry in the stories that would be told, as well as how they would tell them. Eroticism had been heavily draped but could never be completely covered – instead it simmered. The horror film still sent shivers down the collective spine of its’ audience and indeed found greater depth and expression, particularly evident in the films produced in the 1940s at RKO in the Val Lewton unit. Despite the limitations of budget, Val Lewton was able to produce some of the most memorable supernatural thriller and horror films of the 1940s, with storylines and thematic concerns that went far beyond what was being told elsewhere. And eventually, crime and mystery would find a deeper expression in film noir, which again worked best with subtleties and richer subtexts than explicitness.

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The Breen Code may have presented Hollywood with a whole range of problems and by no means was it a ‘godsend’ which ‘saved’ cinema nor ‘cleaned up’ Hollywood. There are certainly levels of hypocrisy and fault in the Code, which have been dealt with elsewhere. Yet the Breen Code did see, as Doherty describes, ‘an artistic flowering of incalculable cultural impact’. The industry was able to maintain some semblance of ownership over itself, even if it did have to succumb to the personal viewpoints of Joseph Breen. It gave Hollywood the boundaries in which it could express itself but it also gave opened up new possibilities in expression.

This article is the first for the What The Code Means To Me’ series, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.  The series focuses on an exploration on of the Breen Code era, with a number of articles sharing experiences and opinions on the Code and the films that were produced during that era. To read upcoming articles from some fantastic bloggers for this series, please visit the following link: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/. 

A special thank you to the Tiffany Brannan for the opportunity to participate! It’s been a great pleasure!

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters

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You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)

There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.

Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.

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Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall.  Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.

The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.

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The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.

Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.

In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.

So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.

With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:

Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”

Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”

Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.

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Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.

There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.

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The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.

Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.

Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.

Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.

However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Philadelphia Story (1940): One Of The Greatest Comedies Ever Made

by Paul Batters

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“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” Mike Connor

One of the great enjoyments of being a classic film fan is discovering films that you have either never seen or rediscovering films that had been previously dismissed or ignored (for one reason or another). Regardless of the reason, it means experiencing something new when finally viewed and something new is learned about the classic film era. For myself, it was a combination of both reasons when I finally watched The Philadelphia Story (1940). I was certainly not disappointed!

Released through MGM and directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) is a classic screwball comedy. By the end of the 1930s, the market had seen a near surplus of screwball comedies of which are a number are easily forgotten. Yet The Philadelphia Story (1940) doesn’t fall to formula whilst still maintaining the deep, healthy irreverence in tone and style, which was a key convention of the genre. Additionally, it uses another oft-used plot device of the love triangle/re-married couple, which had in some form or another been a popular theme in films, particularly during the Production Code Era.

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The aim of this review is not to outline the plot but to look at the film’s strengths and offer some points of admiration from this review that may prompt the reader to engage with the aforementioned joy of discovering or re-discovering classic films!

In brief, the story revolves around Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) a wealthy previously divorced socialite who is about to re-marry Gordon Kittredge (John Howard), a rich individual who has made his fortune rather than inherited it. It is roughly two years since she divorced her first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), which ended acrimoniously and their break-up is brilliantly depicted in the opening scene. It’s a testament to Cukor as director and the writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, who sum up the end of a marriage using slapstick humour, the loud silence of a couple not talking to each other and one of the best physical falls ever shown on film.

With the context established, the audience finds that Tracy and Gordon will marry the next day and as the activities of the rich make great fodder for the reporters, Spy Magazine sends two reports to cover the story – Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). However, to get access to the Lord household, they need her former husband Dexter to assist.

To add a complication to matters, Dexter blackmails Tracy into allowing the reporters and him to stay as guests, by telling her that he will reveal the extra-marital affair her father had with a dancer. With her hands tied, Tracy has no choice but to let the stay for the wedding.

What follows is classic comedy, as Tracy will find herself torn between her former husband Dexter, her fiancé George and the reporter Mike. The lead-up to the wedding will see all characters caught up in all manner of situations with Tracy in particular asking questions of herself. The rest is for the reader to discover by watching the film!

So what makes The Philadelphia Story a bona fide classic?

The story initially sounds formulaic but it reaches far beyond what may be expected from such a plot. There’s a combination of factors, which allow for this to occur and the first port of call when discussing needs to be the script. Phillip Barry’s play (written for Hepburn) is perfectly transformed to the screen by Ogden Stewart, with pitch perfect pacing and dialogue that snaps with sharpness and sophistication. The script doesn’t just flow; it weaves. Ogden Stewart channels and interlocks moments of slapstick with pandemonium, romance and satire – and I have no doubt that the chaotic splendor of Paramount era Marx Bros has been thrown in for good measure. Note the brilliant rendition of Lydia The Tattooed Lady by Virginia Weidler as Dinah, Tracy’s younger teenaged sister. The dialogue fits the characters to a tee and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the astute point that ‘the fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances’. The ‘deceptive strength’ is ever-present in the moments we least expect, such as Dexter’s honest and devastating appraisal of Tracy delivered with a serrated sharpness that eviscerates Tracy with its’ truth. There’s nothing stilted or stiff in the dialogue and it never falls flat. Wendy Ide in The Times states that The Philadelphia Story possesses a ‘blue-chip screenplay…with fizz and spark’. It’s no mistake that Donald Ogden Stewart would win the Academy Award For Best Screenplay.

But the script doesn’t come alive without the sterling performances of the key players and the brilliance of the outstanding supporting cast. It’s well known and part of film lore that Hepburn needed the film to be a success after being declared ‘box-office poison’ and Holiday (1938) failing at the box office. Howard Hughes had helped with acquiring the rights to the play but Hepburn knew it would take exceptional talent to deliver the characters. Gable and Tracy were her desired actors but they were apparently tied up with other commitments. However, Cary Grant biographer Marc Eliot has stated that neither Gable nor Tracy wanted to work with her because of her status as box-office poison and Gable didn’t like the script at any rate. (Tracy had not met Hepburn at that point). Cary Grant’s previous work with Hepburn had chemistry and it culminated in their perfect partnership in The Philadelphia Story.

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Grant brings to the role of Dexter his exceptional comedic timing, charm and wit, as well as an exceptional and uncanny ability to physically react to his opposite number with both and subtle and overt expression. Hepburn shows incredible range and conveys the haughtiness, strong will and arrogance of the character whilst shaping the character arc with depth and perfectly balancing this against Tracy’s frailty and vulnerability. She gives all of herself to the role and this was recognized by John Mosher in his review at the time in The New Yorker, pointing out the film was a triumph for Hepburn. The third primary character (and love interest), Mike Connor, is a win for Jimmy Stewart, who had just come off his success in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Stewart is strong as the cynical reporter who regards the Lord household with contempt whilst falling for the statuesque Tracy. Stewart would not only win great reviews from critics such as Bosley Crowther but would also win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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At the helm of the film’s direction, as already mentioned was one of MGM’s finest directors George Cukor, who had worked with Hepburn in four films. Cukor crafts a film, which leaves no dead air nor fills up time for the sake of it. There’s depth and meaning in moment and Cukor draws outstanding performances from the cast, and intertwining the complex relationships across a thematic climate of class war, truth to self and love. Demetrious Matheou describes the film as ‘an effervescent social satire that pokes fun at all sides in the class war. It’s wickedly witty, gloriously romantic, whip-smart and complex, even verging on the unsavory at times – all in all, something of a complete entertainment’. If so, it’s in great part due to the sensitivities of Cukor and his vision in shaping the film into the classic comedy that it would become.

The supporting cast is also a joy to behold on the silver screen, offering layers to the stars’ performances but more importantly helping to shape and create the world in which the film exists as well as buffering the relationships between the prime characters. As wonderful as they all are, for my money the two standouts are Mary Nash as Tracy’s mother Margaret and Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s sister Dinah. Their interactions on screen are hilarious and the dialogue shared is sidesplitting and rounded out with a naturalness borne of the talent of the actresses delivering their lines. The young Weidler never seems to be out of depth nor dazzled working closely with the primary stars of the film, and proves absolutely delightful on the screen. She steals the scene with her Groucho-inspired moment singing ‘Lydia The Tattooed Lady’ and what follows is hilarious interplay in near-flawless French with Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story is far from your run-of-the-mill screwball comedy, with its’ satirical core still as fiery as it was in 1940 but avoiding clichés with dollops of farce in the story. But the near fantastical setting of the rich household of the Lords doesn’t mean that there are real life lessons missing in the story. The Lords may be rich but rather than snobbish, they appear as too far removed from the realities of life and they are far from being bad people. As Connor also discovers, the character of a person does not depend on the class they were born into. It becomes a learning curve for all the characters but especially for Tracy, who will finally be honest with herself about who she is, how she views the world and whom she truly loves.

Having a star cast, a top director and a brilliant script does not guarantee a hit film let alone a classic that stands the test of time. Yet The Philadelphia Story has transcended being a hit film and is without doubt a classic and deserves to be acknowledged as such. It would be a win for all concerned. For Hepburn it was a return to form and she was able to shed the ‘box-office poison’ tag attached to her. Cukor enjoyed a top hit after his unceremonious dumping from Gone With The Wind the year before. Stewart would win an Oscar, as would Ogden Stewart and the film would be a top hit for MGM.

But the real winners are classic film fans, who can enjoy the sparkle, wit and brilliance of one of the finest comedies ever made.

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This post is part of the 2018 Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini.  Visit her page to see more great articles!

 

 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

‘It Happened One Night’ (1934); The First Film To Win The Big Five At The Oscars

by Paul Batters

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‘A film about the making of ‘It Happened One Night’ would have been much funnier than the picture itself’ Frank Capra, Director

In Academy Award history, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) stands tall and is part of cinema folklore. It is one of those films that, as legend has it, simply shouldn’t have happened. No one at the time guessed that it would be not only the biggest hit of 1934 but stand the test of time as one of cinema’s best comedies. The critics weren’t as scathing as is often reported but they weren’t exactly over the moon about it on its’ initial release. The cast and crew never dreamed it would be anything special either. As Peter Van Gelder in ‘Off Screen, On Screen’ states, it was the public that showed good taste. Capra’s gem would also be one of the pioneering films of screwball comedy, spark all sorts of fashion trends and even inspire the birth of one of animation’s most loved and enduring cartoon characters.

Perhaps one of Gable’s lines in the film sums up why it was such a success, when he says to Colbert’s character that it’s ‘a simple story for simple people’. The story sounds simple enough. A rich and spoiled heiress, Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), marries an opportunist named King Westley against her father’s will. The father arranges to have the marriage annulled but his daughter escapes her father and takes a bus from Miami to reach her new husband in New York. On the bus she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who eventually recognises her and makes an offer – he’ll help Ellen get to New York but she must give him the whole story or he gives her up to her father. Ellen agrees but what follows is not what either expected. They fall in love. However, as always – love is not so simple.

Filmmaking is not so simple either and a number of important factors combined to make the film such a success. Susan King in the L.A Times mentions an interesting quote in her review of the film:

‘Capra told Richard Schickel in “The Men Who Made the Movies“: “We made the picture really quickly — four weeks. We stumbled through, we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business.”’

One of its’ most incredible achievements occurred at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel. Here, the industry having finally caught on rewarded the film for what the public already knew. It Happened One Night would win the five major Awards – Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. The film’s Academy Award success has become a benchmark and film fans, critics and punters still wonder each year if any film will achieve the same success.

Audiences loved it. It’s worth having a look at each category in reference to the film and discovering how It Happened One Night, just happened to become one of cinema’s great classic films.

Best Actress – Claudette Colbert

The role of Ellen Andrews was reportedly knocked back by a bevy of actresses including Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan and Myrna Loy, who would later say ‘they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the film. But there were also actresses who would have played the part. Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn had suggested Loretta Young but Capra rejected this. Bette Davis actually wanted the role but Warner Bros. refused her, perhaps as punishment for her pushing to star in Of Human Bondage at RKO. Carole Lombard was interested but was already involved in another project.

Colbert was another Harry Cohn suggestion, which Capra never imagined would work. Colbert had worked with Capra back in 1927 and vowed never to do so again. Additionally, she was a star at Paramount and appearing in a B-Picture studio like Columbia was unheard of. The now oft-told story recounts how Colbert made a huge demand for $50,000 and would only commit to the four-week shoot. Incredibly, Cohn agreed.

According to Joseph McBride in his autobiography of Capra, Colbert fit the role perfectly. The director believed that Colbert had the best figure in Hollywood and channelled her reticence and combativeness on the set to his advantage. Colbert certainly did not endear herself to the cast, with Capra’s cinematographer, Joe Walker resenting her ‘angry sulking’. But this works in the opening scene, when as Ellen she overturns a tray and her later bristling when Ellen reveals her love for Peter to her father. Despite Colbert’s difficulties on the set, she is wonderful in the role and her performance was called ‘lively and engaging’ by the New York Times. Her talent for comedy became apparent and her career would re-ignite, starring in a series of successful comedies throughout the 1930s.

Yet when she completed the film, Colbert got away quick to join friends in a holiday and exclaimed ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world’. 

Colbert was genuinely stunned when she won the Award for Best Actress. Convinced she would never win it, she was boarding a train for New York, when informed she would be receiving the Award. Somehow the train was delayed and she made it to accept the Award. She seems to have been quite emotional upon accepting and added that she owed her award to Frank Capra.

Best Actor – Clark Gable

How Gable ended up in Capra’s film is also part of film folklore. It wasn’t strictly a form of punishment handed down from Mayer for Gable’s apparent complaining of poor roles, although this was part of the reason. Originally, Capra wanted Robert Montgomery but Mayer rejected this, as he wanted to use Montgomery in his own ‘bus picture’. Gable was Capra’s next choice and he got his wish. At that time, Gable was not yet movie royalty and found himself often being cast as the ‘heavy’ or in ‘gigolo’ roles. However, he was not impressed being sent to Columbia to take a role in a B-picture. And he made this known to Capra by being belligerent at first and even turning up drunk. In addition, he had been quite ill before filming which didn’t add to his demeanour.

Like Colbert, Gable never dreamed he would win the Award for Best Actor. He scoffed at the idea and was humbled when he did receive it, stating “There are too many good actors in this business. But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me”. His ability to loosen up, feel natural and discover his own rhythms and comedic timing, allowed Gable to deliver an excellent performance, which stands tall in film history.

Best Screenplay – Robert Riskin

Riskin would be a long time collaborator with Frank Capra, despite there being some animosity over creative ownership. Adapted from Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story Night Bus, it was a story, which no one was particularly keen on filming and the crew initially just saw the film as a job that they needed to get through. Riskin himself, instead of Capra, pitched the film to Cohn at Columbia, which perhaps sealed the deal.

Both MGM and Universal had produced their own ‘bus pictures’ and they had not fared particularly well. Riskin, however, added his own touches to the script, which heightened the comedy and helped drive the story forward with a naturalness that audiences loved. Most importantly Riskin tapped into the key themes that the audience of 1934 Depression-ravaged America understood and found appealing. To quote Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride:

‘ The appeal of the film…was the profoundly satisfying and encouraging spectacle of the proletarian hero humbling, satisfying and finally winning over the ‘spoiled brat’ heiress, a story that not only provided a fantasy of upward mobility, both sexual and economic but…represented the leveling of class barriers in the Depression’

Riskin did this a number of ways in the script. He drew on one of his early poems ‘A Dollar Ninety Three’, which was a satirical look at trying to enjoy a romantic holiday on an empty pocket. As a result, the comedy works as the audience watches the two, especially Ellen Andrews, trying to get by on very little. How would that have resonated with audiences during the Depression? Peter’s integrity, at a time of desperation, is the perfect indicator of his love for Ellen. When meeting her father over a ‘financial matter’, Peter only wants the $39.60 he had to spend on getting Ellen home. Her father is astounded and sees this as a sign of true love.

Riskin and Capra both played up class differences but Riskin was also careful to not completely demonize the rich. Walter Connolly’s role is certainly a sympathetic one, who can see through King Westley as an opportunist.

Riskin’s dialogue is snappy, funny and at times risqué without seeming lewd, and a major strength of the film. The story is not particularly original or even complicated. But even as any well-written comedy has, the moments of drama are well placed and lift the story when needed. Riskin would bristle at Capra’s repeated mantra of ‘one film, one man’, as the collaborative efforts of any film attest. Riskin’s contribution to this classic cannot be overstated.

Best Director – Frank Capra

Capra is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and rightfully so. He had worked and struggled for years at Columbia, a studio that was beneath the contempt of majors such as MGM and Paramount. His success with It Happened One Night put Columbia on the map and out of Poverty Row.

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Capra’s direction of the film is masterful and this is evident in the pacing of a film that isn’t exactly brimming with action and excitement. Yet the audience is captivated by the route the story takes and cares deeply about the characters. This is in great part due to the magic and freshness of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple but also because Capra knew how to exploit and bring out the best in them both. Capra’s natural eye and feel for what would work shapes the film into a comedic and romantic delight. Some of the most memorable scenes become timeless because of Capra’s sensibilities; the ‘Walls Of Jericho’ scene with a shirtless Gable and Colbert in her slip played on the sexual tension needed without the scene being overcooked or exploited pointlessly and the hitch-hiking scene had Capra coax Colbert to show a bare leg. The scene which perhaps illustrates Capra’s fine sense of direction and pacing is the ‘The Man On The Flying Trapeze” scene – a folksy and joyous scene which seemed natural, warm and spontaneous. It provides an intimate moment of singing and music, without the usual big budget and fantastical production that was typical of a musical scene. Gable seems to be enjoying it immensely although Colbert stated that she initially couldn’t see how it worked into the story. Capra gently alleviated her concerns and it was afterwards that Colbert saw the appeal of the scene and realized that ‘I knew we had something’. Capra had sensed this whilst filming the scene, as extras and even the bus driver joined in. Extra cameras were brought in and the scene also provided a reason for the bus crash. Capra saw the appeal of the scene and worked to bring it into his over-arching vision and feel for ‘the people’.

The critics appreciated his work. Kate Cameron in The Daily News exclaimed ‘The direction is excellent. Frank Capra never lets his picture lag for a moment. It is never very exciting, but it moves along snappily and it is full of amusing situations’. Today, critics have been just as appreciative. David Kehr in The Chicago Reader has stated, ‘This is Capra at his best, very funny and very light, with a minimum of populist posturing’.

Winning his first Academy Award had a sense of the bittersweet for Capra. He has been terribly ill prior to the ceremony and would for some time suffer what he called the ‘catastrophe of success’ in spite of future classics such as Mr Deeds Comes To Town (1936) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) to come.

Best Film – Columbia Pictures (Harry Cohn and Frank Capra)

The category celebrates and acknowledges that film is a collaborative art-form and It Happened One Night combines the best elements of the artform. Again, not many expected the film to win any awards, yet it snagged the biggest prize of all and there are few who would argue today that it didn’t deserve it.

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Capra acknowledged that comedies at that point in time were not something that many stars were aching to work in. It Happened One Night changed all that and the fact that major studios now rushed to produce romantic and screwball comedies. The appeal of the film was not merely an audience fad – it had something and it still has today.

Eric Melin in his review for Scene-Stealers.com sums up the lasting appeal of the film brilliantly:

‘Viewed even today with all of its plot elements recycled ad nauseam by Hollywood (for rom-coms, road trip comedies, odd couple/buddy films, etc.), the film still holds up because we believe Gable and Colbert and can identify with them both right away’.

Capra’s direction, Riskin’s script and particularly the magic of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple all combined to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and special films.

When the Award for Best Picture was announced, it was Harry Cohn who accepted the award. After 11 years, playing second fiddle to the majors, the studio he headed had finally made it. Incredibly, Cohn produced an infinitely rare moment of humility, generosity and deference to Capra and Riskin, where he thanked them and stated about himself ‘I was only an innocent bystander’.

The film that never should have been has remained beloved by many and deservedly so.

Special Mentions

  • The Supporting Cast

There are a number of faces whose time on the screen is limited yet add memorable and valuable performances to the film. Walter Connolly is wonderful as Ellen’s millionaire father, who is anything but a heartless baron. That’s Ward Bond as the bus driver, who will later appear with Gable in Gone With The Wind and would have a long career in film and television. Roscoe Karns as Oscar Shapely ‘from Orange, New Jersey’ is as annoying as always and the delightful Alan Hale has a short moment as a small-time grifter. My personal favourite is Charles C. Wilson as Joe Gordon, the tough, brash newspaper editor with a heart of gold.

  • The Inspiration for Bugs Bunny

Both Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett have gone on record stating that the Gable’s eating a carrot and talking with his mouth full inspired the creation of everyone’s favourite rabbit. Additionally, the name ‘Bugs’ could have been inspired during the scene where Peter scares Oscar Shapely off by mentioning the terrible fate of ‘Bugs’ Dooley.

  • The Sets

Most of the scenes were shot without purpose built sets. The budget simply wasn’t there. The bus scenes were filmed on a cut-away and perhaps the most interesting scene from a technical point of view was the scene where Peter and Ellen almost kiss whilst sleeping in hay. That scene was actually filmed inside a circus tent during the day, with the sounds of crickets edited in later. This sound technique was very new and would become normal practice soon afterwards.

A special thank you to Kellee at Unspoken and Freckled, Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula (aka @Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, for the opportunity to be part of the ’31 Days Of Oscar’ Blogathon. For links to the this event, please click on the following link: 

https://kelleepratt.com/2018/02/23/day-one-31-days-of-oscar-blogathon/

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.