We’ve all had moments in our lives (at least I hope we have) when something or possibly someone we once regarded very highly suddenly doesn’t “do it” for us. And if we’re lucky we might have the reverse experience where something that didn’t work suddenly does. I really suspect that these minor epiphanies are actually long-in-the-making affairs capped by that moment when the penny finally drops into the slot. Such things almost certainly say more about ourselves and where we are in life than they say about the thing or person in question, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s been a noteworthy change in perception, nor that those changes impact our lives in other ways.
Having recently reconnected with a very old and very dear friend—after a break of nearly 20 years (owing entirely to circumstances and not a falling-out of any kind)—this has been brought forcefully home through a series of long conversations of the catching-up variety. Though John and I go back (dear God!) 40 years, meaning that a lot of our tastes were formed and informed when we were very young, much has naturally altered during that gap—a fact that seems to throw him slightly more than it throws me.
This became very obvious when somehow or other Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) crept into a conversation. This, of course, is a classic screwball comedy—one of the most often cited examples of that sub-genre—and when I first saw it when I was in high school, I thought it was absolutely wonderful. In the meanwhile, things have changed—which perhaps merely means that I have changed—and I now find the film tiresome to the degree that I will actively avoid watching it. Whatever changed for me hasn’t changed for him.
I’m tempted to say that all this is due to my growing lack of affection for Katharine Hepburn (more on this in a minute), but there’s more to it than that. What once seemed clever and funny to me now seems something else. Hepburn’s screwy heiress has over the years come to seem more and more like a stalker in comical clothing. This, I think, is borne out by the fact that Peter Bogdanovich’s reworking of the same basic material with What’s Up, Doc? seems as fresh and funny and even charming to me today as it did when it first appeared in 1972.
There isn’t perhaps all that much difference between Hepburn pursuing Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Barbra Streisand chasing Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up, Doc?, but the later film offers a shrewd change by keeping O’Neal’s cringe-inducing fiancee (played by Madeleine Kahn) around during the entire proceedings. Baby relegates Grant’s fiancee (played by Virginia Swallow) to a couple of scenes where she barely registers. With What’s Up, Doc? we’re allowed to see just what Streisand is saving O’Neal from by going after him.
Truthfully, however, a lot of this does stem from a growing disenchantment with Hepburn. Her early performances have come to seem forced, false and mannered to me with increasing frequency over the years. (I know this is heresy in most circles.) This became an inescapable conclusion—that epiphany moment—for me when I finally saw the 1930 version of Philip Barry’s play Holiday with Ann Harding in the role that Hepburn more famously played in the 1938 film of the same material. Harding’s genuineness contrasted so sharply with Hepburn’s approach to the role of Linda Seton that it was a revelation. Unfortunately, it’s housed in a less well-made film and Robert Ames is no Cary Grant, nor is Monroe Owsley a Lew Ayres. On the other hand, you get Edward Everett Horton in the same role in both films—only he gets more of the original play’s lines in 1930.
The problem—to the degree there is one—with all of this is that not only has John not become put off Bringing Up Baby, he’s still pretty keen on Hepburn. Compounding this—in his eyes—is the fact that (in his words), “You’re the one who got me to watch these movies in the first place.” This is true. I also more or less introduced him to Hepburn—at least from this era—if it comes to that, and I introduced him to her when I was just myself enthusiastically discovering these movies and the people responsible for them. I reckon I passed that enthusiasm on. I almost feel guilty that I don’t still have the same enthusiasm.
I was able—thankfully—to mitigate that sense of quasi-guilt by being able to say that I still like everything about George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940). And when I say “everything” I’m including Hepburn. Here’s a case where she’s perfectly suited to her role—as are Cary Grant, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey suited to their roles. In fact, when the film was remade as the musical High Society (1956), Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra made for pleasant variants on Grant and Stewart, while Celeste Holm is a worthy replacement for Ruth Hussey. The real hole in the remake—apart from Charles Walters’ flaccid direction—is that Grace Kelly doesn’t own the role of Tracy Samantha Lord the way Hepburn does. So there’s this inconsistency in my cooling towards the actress that oddly provides a consistency with my earlier enthusiastic self.
Now, I’ve offered reasons for my loss of affection for Bringing Up Baby, but it might as easily be said that it simply stopped appealing to me one day. Had I just seen it one time too many? Had I gotten all the good out of it there was to get? Some movies are good one time only. Some are good for a great many times. Others you may never get to the bottom of. Maybe I just got to the bottom here. Then again I might one day bump into Bringing Up Baby and find that there’s something there for me once more. I can’t imagine it from here, but there was a time when I couldn’t have imagined not liking the film. There was also a time when I completely dismissed High Society, come to think of it, and I’ve come to terms with appreciating for what it is rather than fixating on what it isn’t (The Philadelphia Story).
All of this makes me curious about others and their experiences with movies over the year. Ifind it hard to believe that I’m the only one who’s ever fallen in and out—and sometimes back in—love with a movie or a performer. Anyone else have some similar tales?