After failing to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (he lost to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which is a very good performance in a fine film, but come on), James Stewart was rewarded by the Academy the very next year for The Philadelphia Story, in which he plays third lead to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in George Cukor’s monumental screwball. He might better have won for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, released earlier that same year, in which he co-starred with Margaret Sullavan as a pair of feuding store clerks who don’t know they’re pen pals in love. Both films are playing this week at the Grand Illusion, on 35mm (the GI continues to be the last great bastion of repertory-on-film in the Seattle area).
The Philadelphia Story is Katharine Hepburn’s story much more than it is Stewart’s (she was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, in a stacked field that included Joan Fontaine in Rebecca and Bette Davis in The Letter), literally so in that she owned the rights to the play, which was written for her (though not specifically about her), and she handpicked the director, screenwriter and cast for the film version, which was designed to rehabilitate her image with audiences after having been declared “box office poison”. She plays a socialite on the eve of remarriage to a drip, juggling her reformed alcoholic ex-husband (Grant), her womanizing and mostly absent father, a daffy younger sister, a drunk uncle and a pair of reporters who’ve snuck into her house paparazzi-style (Stewart and Ruth Hussey). There are long speeches about her imperious hard-hearted arrogance and independence, but the whole proceeding is never quite as misogynist as it would be in lesser hands (or as it is in Hepburn’s 1942 hit Woman of the Year, in which she’s made to humiliate herself by failing to make breakfast for Spencer Tracy).
No such extra-textual complications haunt The Shop Around the Corner, which is simply Hollywood romance at its best. Remade (poorly)with Judy Garland as In the Good Old Summertime and again with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as You’ve Got Mail (haven’t seen it), Shop is a rarity among screwballs for being set not amongst the idle rich, but rather the gray workaday world of a small curiosity shop in a Budapest out of time. Lubistch had pioneered the fanciful worlds of 30s comedies with his early Ruritanian musicals with Maurice Chevalier and daring masterpieces like Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living and Ninotchka but here he sets all of that aside for the simple purity of Boy-Meets-Girl, Boy-And-Girl-Hate-Each-Other, Boy-and-Girl-Fall-In-Love. The insinuating double entendres of earlier Lubitsch are replaced with a genuine melancholy (led by a career-best performance from all-time great character actor Frank Morgan): the romance all the more powerful for the sad, dark, lonely world it ever so slowly overcomes.