Thursday, August 6, 2015

Movie Love in '38

"What the camera does, and does uniquely, is photograph thought." -- Orson Welles

Both star Hepburn and Grant. Both are monuments to Screwball ~ one earthbound, the other very much in the air. And both, even while allowing us to wallow in wealth, are anti-rich. Yet Holiday and Bringing Up Baby are as different as ground and vapor, as apart as consequence and anarchy.

By 1938, Roosevelt's time had passed. His Supreme Court packing plan had been routed by a US Senate overwhelmingly of his own party. The so-called Second New Deal was given up on before the fight even began. Because of a largely universal isolationism toward Europe and the Far East, the country and culture felt quiescent, even stagnant. The proletarian intensity, speed, blistering wit, and radicalism of the early and middle parts of the decade were gone, never to be seen or heard from again. The swooning Deco elegance and romanticism were also at low tide. The wheel had turned. In movies, fashion was now splashy appliqués, witch hats, snoods, turbans, Chinese peasant clothes. Present was the muted, almost embarrassed luxury of many settings: outdoors often, white and light-colored woods and fieldstone, with only now and then a glimpse of the streamlined urban glitter from the decade's past. There's a new obsession with psychoanalysis. The lighting is lower-key, the photography softer. Almost all of Baby is shot out of doors; it breathes of freshly turned earth. But there was no new Deco planting. This really was the end.

Bringing Up Baby is, in many ways, echt '38; Holiday a throw-back. The verbalized obsession in Holiday with Vested Interests and how they get that way, and how to escape them, is rare in late-30s American movies. Holiday's Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and wife Susan Potter (Jean Dixon), best friends of Johnny Case (Grant), are dowdy Leftist academics, running off to Europe (in 1938!), while pining for the sentimental dreams of Roosevelt; they are trying to escape the approaching nightmare of history's on-coming night, inspired by a terror of the future as much as a revulsion toward the present. Grant's Johnny Case remains one of the strongest figures in Thirties movies because he is the voice, the passion and good humor, of everything in America which was defeated, idealistic, innocent, alienated, outside. He is a cry from the Thirties when Time was simple. He is the enemy of the slick Technique, the oiled gears and the superior generals of the oncoming Corporate armies. He is the plea of the bewildered who hunger for innocence again. He is what we have lost.

The two movies share things beyond their stars, more because of the pictures' time and genre than in particulars: smart dialogue, elegance, bounce, glamour, recognizable humans (mostly), grace, and a faith in transcendence and in how all things of the heart somehow work out. More specifically as well. Both are about a man who is eagerly engaged -- to the wrong woman. Both Johnny Case and Baby's Dr. David Huxley (Grant) earnestly ride the pre-nuptial rapids 'til the end. At the end, the pictures split. David Huxley is manipulated throughout by Susan Vance (Hepburn) so he will dump fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). (Another difference. Baby is full of sexual innuendo, while Holiday remains sexless, as always with Cukor.) Yet it is Alice, once exposed to the mess of jungle cats, criminals, arrests, jails, and the losing of a $1,000,000 museum grant, who dumps David, forlorn about his dumping in the final scene. Johnny Case in Holiday is thrilled at the end, making us feel it was he who manipulated fiancée Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) into dumping him. Both movies give us the taste of riches beyond our dreams. Both give us the Manhattan of the late-1930s. And both are, despite an obsession with wealth, intensely apolitical.

The differences are enormous, as large as the space between the talents of directors George Cukor and Howard Hawks. Cukor in Holiday contributes little beyond the level of stage director, letting playwright Philip Barry dominate. (Barry's play had been filmed once before in 1930, nailed to the floor with little to recommend it.) Yet Cukor's minor genius, a beautiful way with actors against a master's touch which heightens the emotional tone of whatever time and place he's working with, is perhaps born with Holiday. He captures the post-New Deal loss of idealism and faith, with no idea what would be around the corner. All the actors, particularly the special Lew Ayres as brother Ned, are beyond Barry's types. And Grant. . . . Under Cukor's direction he is revealed in a way he is not in any other movie. While Grant in Baby is pure (perfect) performance, in Holiday he is often caught unawares, distracted and fretful, pondering what to do, always thinking, trying to keep it all together. (It is Johnny Case who is thinking, not Dr. David Huxley.) Johnny Case loves his freedom, it turns out, more than anything else. Grant gives us that in a magical, haunted, and healing way -- an embodiment of freedom itself, as Grant must have been in life (for he is the most intelligent of movie actors), second only in greatness to his C.K. Dexter-Haven of two years later, also under George Cukor. Cukor's limitations are here as well. For all his massive body of work, who was he? What did he think and feel about life, the world, his art? In service to material and actors when they were good, he was good, even at times great (The Marrying Kind, Grant in Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, It Should Happen to You). Beyond that service, there is nothing. His movies are normally about couples, yet strangely sexless. And Cukor's service comes with a major flaw. He was way too kind to his leading ladies, most especially Hepburn, and not just in Holiday: Sylvia Scarlett, Philadelphia Story, most of her pairings with Tracy. ('Though the dreadful Woman of the Year must be pinned on George Stevens.) All the false notes in Holiday come from Hepburn's Linda Seton. Cukor gives her her head (in a way not present in the play or the 1930 version) and what we get at times -- all the times when the naturalizing genius of Grant is absent -- is artifice, archness, self-regard, and self-righteousness. Qualities not present under her directors in Stage Door, Alice Adams, or the lovely Quality Street.

Or under Howard Hawks. There isn't a single false note in Bringing Up Baby. How did this miracle movie happen? It feels to have exploded into existence one bright morning: there it is. While as Screwball (and screwy) as a picture could be, it is incomparable, unlike anything else in the genre. The craziness we experience is craziness erupting from its two lovers, David (Grant) and Susan (Hepburn). They aren't actually up against anything, not poverty or society, not family or community. (It is that rarest of Hawks masterpieces, a work without a bonding group.) No worries about health or position. The only force endangering David and Susan is time itself: the game ending, exhaustion, boredom, responsibility and consequence. Keeping them together, beyond their perfect romantic pitch, is a sweet leopard, a crazy dog, and a missing Brontosaurus bone. So why does Bringing Up Baby feel like the couple -- and the movie itself -- could jump the rails at any moment?

It is director Hawks's first great work. A dozen years into his career he was already a master, having made many unforgettable pictures, 'though mostly in parts: The Criminal Code, Today We Live, Louise Brooks in A Girl in Every Port, The Dawn Patrol, The Crowd Roars; all of them now feeling like sketches of greater works to come. Scarface is too butch and nasty, at times hysterically so. (How much can one take of Paul Muni?) Twentieth Century comes closest, as Barrymore and Lombard take flight. Yet the original Hecht/MacArthur play weighs it down. (Compared to His Girl Friday, what wouldn't feel heavy?) We can guess that Come and Get It, Hawks's work previous to Baby, would have been a full-blown masterpiece if the director had not walked off set, leaving it to William Wyler (and Sam Goldwyn) to blow it. It is the most tender of Hawks movies, Frances Farmer being perhaps the ultimate Hawks heroine.

Bringing Up Baby cannot be imagined outside the world of movies. It is Hawks's first full embrace of the art's magic, leading the way toward Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, on and on. All magical atmospheres where life and death are equal, movement finding its way beyond good and evil, toward elation and transcendence. It is his most romantic movie, not perhaps in the content or thrust of its narrative (Big Sleep would be that), but in its total courtship of an artist with his art.

Money, and not the directors, is the great divide. Among other divisions, Holiday's look is flat with four-square framing, a refusal to glitter or glamourize a story which renounces money power. Baby hates money too, but not its front: the Ritz Plaza, country clubs, a Park Avenue penthouse, a Riverdale mansion, white-tie and tails, and Westlake, CT. How could it not glow and glisten? Until it doesn't. Once Susan Vance and David Huxley and leopard Baby and terrier George escape into the wilderness, the atmosphere becomes as dark and miasmic as Only Angels Have Wings. Sex, too. Holiday is Cukor-sexless. Bringing Up Baby begins with these lines:

Shhhh. . . Dr. Huxley is thinking...

(after a pause, holding up a dinosaur bone)
Alice, I think this one must belong in the tail.

Nonsense. You tried it in the tail yesterday and it didn't fit.

Oh yes, I did. Didn't I?

Holiday has the structure of what it was: a three-act play, occurring over three days. Christmas ('though strangely the only sign in the movie is the singing of "Come All Ye Faithful" in the Protestant cathedral. The Seton mausoleum is decorationless.) New Year's Eve. And a day in middle-January. Baby has all the structure of a windstorm. "The wind bloweth where it listeth. . ."

But money in '38 stays put, says the two pictures. Both tell us what Americans knew in their bones up until Reagan: the American very rich are very stupid, humorless, in-bred pigs capable of holding onto money and power only because of their single-minded opportunity and obsession to do so -- a brood that knows itself to be above others by right, and beneath them in fact. (My Man Godfrey, from two years before -- another Screwball masterpiece -- must've been more comforting to the slumming wealthy part of its audience.)

In Holiday, concerns are very real and very daily. For all of Grant's charm, grace, and joy, it remains low to the ground. It touches on the consequences of a money-rejected life, yet playwright Barry and director Cukor pull the gimp-string by having Johnny Case depart on his holiday only after a Wall Street gold strike. (Something to do with Seaboard National.) Johnny's wish to depart is heartfelt, but he runs off to Europe with his Red friends -- and with a huge wad in the bank. Holiday's solution is not confrontation and battle, but a greased escape.

A couple years later, Preston Sturges would create a more honest comedy about the horrors of unmoneyed life, with Christmas in July.

Like Holiday, Sturges's folks are obsessed with money. Unlike Holiday, no one in Christmas in July is defined by it. And there seems no way out. All definition in Holiday is shaped by one's attitude toward money. On one side we have father Edward Seton (Henry Kolker), fiancée Julia, and the noxious Seton Crams (Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes), who are very much for it. Johnny, Linda, Nick and Susan Potter, and baby brother Ned -- agin' it. It leaves us nowhere, on a moral or political level. But for Grant, who gives us everything.

Johnny Case is one of the key characters of classical Hollywood; and largely forgotten. His eyes in Holiday are far-seeing, haunted, engaged, melancholy. Case holds the secret of life, embodies the democratic nature of movies itself: joy, magic, movement, thought, energy, intelligence, luck, charm, grace, quality, hopes, dreams, and freedom. His spirit is the polar opposite of all that is seen in Holiday as anti-life and anti-spirit: money, and those who have it. If Case hates the suffocations of riches and The Rich -- that's good enough, without consequence or solution. Holiday's most famous lines are: "Whenever I have a problem, whenever I feel a worry coming on, I ask myself: 'What would General Motors do?' Then I do the opposite." To view Holiday in an era in which the conspirators and Vested Interests Johnny seeks to rid himself of have completely won out, is a revolutionizing experience.

The anti-money world created by Howard Hawks in Baby is a strange one, with the local community normally the ballast of that world absent. How does one triumph over the money world? How does one immunize oneself against it? Escaping to a moneyless community as in Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings, El Dorado, Red River, The Big Sky. Escaping through honor and professionalism: The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Hatari. Finding the perfect partner: Twentieth Century, Angels, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Sleep, many others. Bringing Up Baby has no group. And Dr. David Huxley's lack of professionalism is the chief running gag of the movie, as he at last drops all pretense in order to escape the suffocations of his profession. In its place: joy, speed, silliness, having fun from dawn 'til dawn. Leading to what must become cheerful violence and cut-throat anarchy. There is madness in David and Susan's method, one that keeps the simmering dark side of what we see under control while we see it. Here there is lawlessness, talk of gas chambers, kidnappings, maulings, guns and jails and theft and murder. In the most astonishing moment in this whirlwind of astonishment, David barely restrains himself from strangling Susan, when she's at last gone too far. It is real. Beyond their beautiful bubble is little but danger and death.

Another scene surrounding a jungle cat hits it.

Hawks goes all the way. It is his greatness. When one goes all the way, in his world, the only survival is communal love, honor, professionalism, and the right partner.

Both movies begin with Cary Grant engaged to the wrong woman. In Holiday, with glee. Rather grimly, in Baby.

George Cukor filmed a Lake Placid scene he did not use, so we do not see Johnny Case meet the wrong girl in Holiday. We see David meet the right one in Bringing Up Baby.

Johnny's long-remembered reunion with Julia Seton, fiancée. Not a good start.

David Huxley's reunion, at the Ritz Plaza, with Susan Vance.

Johnny talks of hopes and dreams to Linda Seton, Julia's older sister. His real match.

Dr. David Huxley tells Susan Vance his hopes and dreams.

Johnny Case meets the enemy.

David meets his enemy, Susan's Aunt Elizabeth (the wonderful May Robson).

Holiday's dark side.

A glimpse into Baby's darkness.

To Linda Seton, Johnny shows his heart. And to his "fiancée" and future father-in-law. . .

David wins over Aunt Elizabeth -- and Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles), in his way.

Johnny and Linda come together, against conspiracies and Vested Interests.

In the midst of madness, Susan tells David she loves him.

Johnny Case says a final goodbye to a relieved Julia Seton.

Alice Swallow says goodbye to David.

Baby embodies the one force most dangerous to money: anarchy. Holiday, not at all. David and Susan's trip is the very holiday Johnny Case yearns for. At the end of Baby, David decides to try to make the holiday permanent. Not a chance. Even though Baby is the energy suppressed by all money, it is the consequence-free energy made possible by money. Hawks springs the trap. Dr. David Huxley is a determined Professional; Susan Vance's life is a workless one. How would it be possible for them to stay together for as long as a year, or even a month? Just as it's impossible to imagine Johnny Case and Linda Seton remaining together after a return from their European escape. But Johnny Case and Susan Vance keeping alive a madball world? You bet. And Dr. David Huxley would survive, not needing the Seton riches, a life with Linda Seton, as both take themselves and all around them very seriously.

Both pictures are tonic, both run riot over what is anti-life, over the forces now seen not only as the Paragons of the Earth but as the only Paragons possible. There Is No Alternative. Murderers of the Spirit, indeed. Forget confrontation. At last, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby are one:

Escape. 1939 is coming. . . .