Cool Things: Charades

Welcome back to classic movie month! All through the merry month of May we’ll be looking at films new enough to be in color but old enough that you may not have heard of them. Today’s film features two of the greatest movie stars of any era: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

Charades is a story of two people who meet in odd circumstances and have to learn to trust one another and somehow work together – or else. Regina Lampert (Hepburn), or Reggie to her friends, is on vacation with a friend and without the husband she’s seriously considering divorcing. But when she gets back to Paris she discovers someone’s saved her the trouble. Charles Lampert has been murdered trying to leave the city.

Thus begins a twisted yarn of murder, treason, theft and impersonations. At the center is Carson Dyle, a man left for dead during the Second World War, and thousands of dollars of gold intended to finance the Underground movement that was stole by it’s couriers. Among those couriers were Lampert and Dyle.

Of course, Reggie didn’t know about any of that. But Charles seems to have done something with the money and the surviving couriers from the theft all want their piece of the pie. Also among them is a dashing stranger (Grant) who she met at the beginning of the movie and she’ll know by a number of names by the time its over. The goal: Find the money and her husband’s killer and get out with her own skin intact.

There’s a lot going on in Charades. As the name implies, not everyone is who they first appear to be, and neither Reggie or the audience is in on who’s who, so the confusion and distress she feels is easily transmitted to the viewers. As you might expect from a tale of greed and revenge not everything that happens here is pleasant, in fact I would not recommend this as a movie to watch with young children. But the story’s not all dark. It does contain great quantities of Cary Grant being Cary Grant and that’s bound to ammuse. In fact, what might otherwise be a drab movie about characters we aren’t particularly invested in is transformed by the skill and charm of the two leading actors.

But no, that’s not true. For all the romantic overtones and moments of humor, Charades is a thriller at heart and from the moment we see the first corpse things start flying. The legacy of the stolen gold and an abandoned man are not going to be settled easily and the movie drags us along the whole story at a breakneck pace. We get only the occasional breather, a moment for a small smile and a romantic interlude before new discoveries are made and the rules change once again. Yet still, what keeps us caring about the outcome is the warmth and humanity of the central characters.

If you like normal people in surprising circumstances, mystery and action mixed together or tales of the past come back for a reckoning, then Charades may be the film for you.

Cool Things: His Girl Friday

Okay, time for another black and white movie spotlight! This week’s selection is His Girl Friday, another film staring the impeccable Cary Grant as the leading man. This time out, Rosalind Russell takes the leading lady’s role. If you’ve never seen this film, there will be a brief summary in the next paragraph. If you have, feel free to skip it.

Walter Burns (Grant) is the editor of The Morning Post, in an age when newspapers were Serious Business and getting that story justified anything and everything in the eyes of the newspaper man. In fact, Burns has managed to alienate his wife and star reporter, Hildegard Johnson (Russell) with his demanding nature and total devotion to the job. Now they’re divorced and Hildy is looking to settle down with a nice quiet man instead of coming back and remarrying Walter like he wants her too. Worse, the accused murderer that the Post has been defending from it’s editorial page is about to be executed. Sure, he might have shot someone but the only reason to hang him for it is to score the corrupt sheriff and mayor a few political points. Clearly this is a grievous insult to truth, justice and the integrity of the Post’s editorial page! Walter Burns will have to stop the hanging, scare off Hildy’s new suitor and win her heart back – and do it all in one night!

His Girl Friday is a delightful romp. For the most part it enjoys poking fun at people in authority, be they the police, politicians or psychologists, they’re all up for some good natured ribbing. But no one gets it more than the newspaper reporters that form most of the cast. While journalists today seem to view themselves as a very dignified, important profession, the newspapermen in His Girl Friday are just a step above cutthroats, and they know it. I suspect that their two-fisted, winner takes all attitude might still be around in many newsrooms today, just with less of a manic glee for the hunt to go along with it.

Thematically, it’s not a terribly deep movie. Walter suffers from a serious case of misplaced priorities. Yes, his newspaper is a great business and has a clear effect on the people it serves (whether that effect is good or bad is hard to tell). But he’s let his joy in his work override his responsibility to serve the needs of his wife. It shouldn’t take divorce proceedings and her nearly marrying herself to another man to realize her value, but this is Hollywood so that’s what happens.

For her part, Hildy is a bit of an escapist. She flees directly from Walter to a man who’s his total opposite – boring instead of charismatic, stolid instead of ambitious. But she also gives up on using her talents and passions, something that Walter always loved her for and encouraged her in.

By the end of the show, they’ll have learned to appreciate each other again. Even if they haven’t learned anything else.

From a writer’s perspective, His Girl Friday is a study in dialog. The movie is unique in the frantic pacing of the spoke word, with many of the characters simply talking on top of one another. It reflects the lightning pace of the news world that the characters live in, but could also become confusing very quickly. That it doesn’t is a testament to the skills of the writers and director who put the film together. An astute watcher can learn a lot about punchy dialog that informs the listener (or reader) while keeping things moving along.

If you love writing, humor or both, His Girl Friday is a movie for you.

Cool Things: The Philadelphia Story

I mentioned a while ago that I do love me some black and white movies. I’ve mentioned Casablanca before, and I figured that I might as well take advantage of this spot to mention a few others that you may not have heard of.

The Philadelphia Story stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, names you’ve hopefully heard of (and if you haven’t, this ain’t a half bad film to watch as a beginner’s primer to their work.) In modern times this movie would probably be considered a romantic comedy, but it has very little in common with the films put under that heading today. A brief synopsis of the story runs something like this:

C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and Tracy Samantha Lord (Hepburn), decidedly upper crust Americans with significant privacy issues, get married (not shown) and quickly get divorced again. Fast forward a bit.

Tracy is planning on getting married again, this time to George Kittredge (John Howard). The editor of a major tabloidesque magazine dispatches a reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Conner (Stewart), and photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to cover the wedding, armed with some juicy blackmail to get the family to play along. Dexter goes along, officially to provide an introduction to the family but unofficially with the hope of winning his ex-wife back. What results is a train wreck of conflicting objectives and personalities.

The Philadelphia Story is great for a plethora of reasons. It’s funny. Really funny, the kind of funny that is timeless in the way it relies on strong, believable and openly conflicting personalities. All of the stars, and the supporting cast, nail their parts, giving performances of a quality that many modern day stars seem to only manage once every four or five movies. But most importantly, the story manages to tackle issues without being in your face about it and without sacrificing the story.

Mike is a solid, proud working man. But at his heart he’s an artist. While he spends most of his time pounding out meaningless social drivel for a second rate gossip rag he once wrote a series of short stories that he published – and sold abysmally. (My sympathies, Mike.) Even so, he views himself as a member of the proletariat, solidly against the bourgeois in all forms. Problems arise when he finds himself attracted to Tracy Lord, very much not a member of the proletariat.

Tracy is a strong, confident woman with little patience for people who can’t match her own level of foresight and character – or so she seems to tell herself. In truth, she’s stand-offish and harsh. She has tossed Dexter for his drinking habit, which disgusted her, and she finds Mike’s insight and sharp wit a match for her own standards.

Dexter stands in the middle of the whirlwind. He still loves Tracy, despite her shrewish behavior towards him, and he hopes that some day she will learn that with high standards must come mercy, or she will wind up cutting herself off from humanity and end very, very alone. He never makes excuses for his bad behavior, but he’s dried out since his drinking days and can’t quite understand why he is still being punished for them. So, with grace and humor he has to gently rebuke Tracy’s excessive zeal, finagle some way to get the Lords out from under the blackmail threats with Mike’s help and hopefully walk away with the girl and a few new friends in the end.

The Philadelphia Story is a great story, well told, but more than anything it’s great for the way it shows the ways in which romance continues after a visit to the wedding alter. Thankfully not all relationships are as rocky as Dexter and Tracy’s. But, with this story in mind, it’s a little easier to believe that, with a little grace and a lot of dedication, even the rockiest can turn out fine in the end.