Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1938. Columbia Pictures. Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, based on the play by Philip Barry. Cinematography by Franz Planer. Produced by Everett Riskin. Music by Sidney Cutner. Production Design by Stephen Goosson. Costume Design by Robert Kalloch. Film Editing by Al Clark, Otto Meyer.
Cary Grant comes back from a ski vacation with great news for his best friends Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, he’s found the love of his life and is on his way to her house to finalize their engagement. When he gets to the address that his lady love Doris Nolan gave him, he discovers that she lives in a palatial mansion and is the daughter of a billionaire industrialist and old scion of New York society. He befriends his fiancee’s alcoholic brother Lew Ayres and feisty, free-spirited sister Katharine Hepburn, the member of the family dubbed “the black sheep” because she longs for more than just sitting around her golden cage in fine gowns. Grant struggles at first to win over his prospective father-in-law (Henry Kolker) but eventually he does, for while he might not be part of their smart set, he’s worthy of them thanks to his qualifications for upward mobility, he works in finance and is already proving himself a whizz at printing money through savvy business deals. What he truly longs, for, however, is life experience, not acquisition, and only plans to make a pile of cash so that he can afford to quit working and wander the earth in search of himself. He believes, and this is where you can tell that this movie is based on a play, that if he gains wisdom and experience while still healthy and young enough to roam, he will be able to settle for going back to work later on. Hepburn is enchanted by the idea as it is perfectly in line with her own ideas of life as being more than just material stockpiling, but will his fiancée and her father agree? Films that examine the morality of wealth are not unusual in the thirties, Depression Era audiences were often soothed by the sight of rich people finding out that there’s more to life than collecting coins, but few of them have the incisive bite of this adaptation of Philip Barry’s play (previously filmed with Horton in the same role in 1930). Samuel Taylor’s later, similar Sabrina Fair also examined the notion of individual integrity in a country thoroughly obsessed with uninterrupted financial growth, but when it was brought to the screen (by Billy Wilder, as Sabrina) under the watchful eye of the Red Scare’s instant suspicion of any criticism of capitalism, it was so thoroughly rewritten that its origins were barely recognizable. Here, McCarthyism had not gained ground yet and what you have is a film that is as nakedly judgmental about the greediness of the American Way as it is thoroughly indulgent in the beauty of its settings and costumes and the glamorous charm of its stars. Made the same year that Grant and Hepburn co-starred in Bringing Up Baby, you might expect something light and fun but what you get is a lot of witty, charming humour housed in something that, in its search for the meaning of life, finds a lot that is devastating.
The Criterion Collection: #1009
Academy Award Nomination: Best Art Direction