Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Changing Tastes

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?

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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29 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Changing Tastes

  1. Rufus

    A while back I got IT’S A GIFT thinking it would be fun to revisit and laugh over a W.C. Fields movie as I hadn’t seen one in some time. I figured I would laugh, or at least chuckle over Mr. Muckle, kumquats, “capital L, small a”, ect…but I didn’t. I haven’t decided if this was due to mood, or the company present at the time, but I didn’t find the humor.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t decided if this was due to mood, or the company present at the time, but I didn’t find the humor.

    Mood can certainly be a factor — and with Fields in particular I find the sense of a resistant audience particularly troublesome. People who don’t like Fields tend to really not like him and the vibe can be a decided point killer. Maybe you should try it again without the audience some time, or try something of a slightly different flavor like International House. (I know someone who made the case — rather persuasively — that one need own no other movie than International House.)

    I’ve had some e-mail responses to this column that addressed the overall issue in much the same manner, though one went the other direction (which is the same procedure). The first writer had finally come to like (though not love) Bringing Up Baby. The second had gone from loving The African Queen to finding it “irritating.”

  3. Bill Milestone

    High Society is one of my favorites. Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly singing “True Love”, still gives me goose bumps. Satchmo and his band …wow! I must say that the classics stay classic. It would be grand if these types of films were screened so that a roomful of people could watch together. It is always more fun to screen a movie with others.

  4. Fran

    I’m trying not to feel betrayed by this startling news. I certainly do have my own authors and theories that I have loved and then left, and I imagine if I thought about it, I would think of movies that this was true about…but…but…not Bringing Up Baby. And definitely not Katherine Hepburn. So what happens to such movies as The African Queen?

  5. Ken Hanke

    I’m trying not to feel betrayed by this startling news.

    Ah, but is it the news itself, or the dent it puts in fond memories of youth?

    I imagine if I thought about it, I would think of movies that this was true about…but…but…not Bringing Up Baby. And definitely not Katherine Hepburn.

    If I could suddenly like them again for your sake — and John’s sake, come to that — I would, but for now I can’t.

    So what happens to such movies as The African Queen?

    Well, I didn’t weigh in on The African Queen (though I’ve always — going back to high school — found it overrated in the extreme), but I don’t suppose that anything is going to actually happen to them. They’ll go on as they always have. If anything, they might benefit from a little dissent about their unimpeachable classic status — possibly blow the cobwebs off and get people to actually thinking about and discussing them.

  6. Nick Jones

    It may have been as long as (or longer than) twenty years ago that I started saying, “If you live long enough, your heroes start turning out [common epithet for excrement].” My list includes Stephen King (after he became an assembly line with no “Off” switch), Clive Barker (while he’s a fantastic writer of short stories, his novels are generally ill-formed and ill-paced), Stanley Kubrick (although I loved it in 1968, after re-viewing the Stargate sequence in “2001” last year, I quipped that that is where Kubrick confused the words ‘profound’ and ‘prolonged.’ (Cf. “Barry Lyndon”)), and, forgive me, most of what KR has done since “Altered States” – I could have died happy without having seen “Whore,” “Dogboys,” and “Trapped Ashes.”

    My antipathy for Hepburn is due to the fact that I first saw her in “Suddenly, Last Summer.” It’s lessened over the years, but with THAT VOICE, I’ll never be a fan.

    On the up side, I thought for the longest time that Bogart was just a player of gangsters, until I actually saw “The African Queen” and “casablanca.” I thought the same of Cagney and Robinson until I saw them in non-gangster roles.

  7. Ken Hanke

    and, forgive me, most of what KR has done since “Altered States” – I could have died happy without having seen “Whore,” “Dogboys,” and “Trapped Ashes.”

    I wouldn’t mount a huge campaign for these — and none at all for Dogboys. I don’t dislike Whore and I like several things in it, but it’s not major. Trapped Ashes has two things I really like — Lisi’s entrance and Ken’s Liz Taylor impression as Dr. Lucy — but it’s not exactly a serious work. On the other hand, there are Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome’s Last Dance, The Lair of the White Worm, The Rainbow, The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner, The Mystery of Dr. Martinu and The Secret Life of Sir Arnold Bax in this period. Are they in the same league as the 60s and 70s films? Mostly not, but in nearly every case neither were the budgets.

    On the up side, I thought for the longest time that Bogart was just a player of gangsters, until I actually saw “The African Queen” and “casablanca.” I thought the same of Cagney and Robinson until I saw them in non-gangster roles.

    These things can make a difference, though The African Queen is just a little too “precious” for me. I know when I first saw an early 30s movie with Maurice Chevalier, it was a revelation after those Disney things I saw when I was a kid.

  8. Nick Jones

    “The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner, The Mystery of Dr. Martinu and The Secret Life of Sir Arnold Bax in this period.”

    Which, unfortunately, like the “Clouds of Glory” films and “Classic Widows,” I will probably never get to see.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Which, unfortunately, like the “Clouds of Glory” films and “Classic Widows,” I will probably never get to see.

    You know, all this might be surmountable.

  10. Brian

    The initial comments regarding It’s a Gift remind me of recently watching A Night at the Opera. It was during a Marx fest where I showed DVDs of Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and then Opera. I don’t know what it was but after the first 3 Paramount movies it just seemed like Opera was a bit….dull. The music numbers were snooze worthy (especially the ship number Cosi Cosa, which stops the film’s momentum dead), the dreaded MGM romance plot first reared its head, etc.

    These were faults I always found in the film, but I always loved the routines. But watching again? Some of the routines really felt overly rehearsed and scripted compared to the anarchy of the Paramount movies. The routine where the cop searches the hotel for Harpo, Chico, and Jones comes to mind. Chico still had the fun “party of the first part” routine, but Harpo seemed to take a back seat.

    Anyone else feel this way about A Night at the Opera, or was this a result of watching 4 Marx Bros. movies in the same day?

  11. Ken Hanke

    It was during a Marx fest where I showed DVDs of Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and then Opera. I don’t know what it was but after the first 3 Paramount movies it just seemed like Opera was a bit….dull.

    I’m probably the wrong person to weigh in on this, because for me none of the MGMs are as good as any — yes, I include The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — of the Paramounts. That said, I like A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, too, come to that.

    Some of the routines really felt overly rehearsed and scripted compared to the anarchy of the Paramount movies.

    I’ve never particularly noticed it with Opera. I do often feel that way about A Day at the Races.

  12. Steve

    I really loved the film ‘Wizards’ when I was in high school. At the time it seemed like both a biting satire on religion and a sage commentary on the evils of war and the Nazi regime. I showed the movie to several of my friends after I discovered it. Years later I rented it to show my sister when she was visiting from LA. I was shocked to see how juvenile and hackneyed it seemed as an adult.

    Just the opposite in the movie ‘Girls Will Be Girls’. I really thought it kind of died in the second half the first time I saw it, but the more I watch it the better I like it. The rapid-fire witticisms remind me of The Women.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Just the opposite in the movie ‘Girls Will Be Girls’.

    I have to admit that the very existence of this movie escaped my notice. It sounds like it might be worth a look.

  14. Steve

    Be warned, this is a bit of a reach, comparison-wise. Think a VERY foul-mouthed, drag-queen-bitchery-fueled version of The Women. With a Brady-esque color scheme and set design. The plot is better than ‘Mamma Mia’, although I’ll concede that ain’t saying much. The guys do play women’s roles.

    You might hate it. But you might love it. There pretty much is no middle ground here.

  15. Ken Hanke

    You might hate it. But you might love it. There pretty much is no middle ground here.

    Well, you haven’t scared me.

  16. Steve

    Well I hope you enjoy.

    Also, I was just thinking this morning – prime example of falling in love with a movie later, for me, was ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. The first time I saw it I couldn’t keep the plot straight, largely because I had a hard time telling Uma Therman and Michelle Pheiffer apart in period French drag. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s true. I caught it later on cable by accident and absolutely fell in love with it. I consider it Glenn Close’s best performance (yes, better than ‘Fatal Attaction’) , and now consider the movie as my personal standard against which all new movies are judged (I know you’ve heard me say this before, and don’t agree). I’ve loved the movie so long now that I forgot how confused I was by it the first time I saw it.

    I kind of hate the roles that Glenn Close is doing now. She is kind of personifying the old adage that “If you live long enough, you become a caricature of yourself”.

  17. Mary

    Bringing Up Baby is the film with the large black cat (panther, is it?), right?

  18. Steve

    I thought it was a leopard. But yes, Katherine Hepburn has a large feral cat as a pet in the movie.

  19. Ken Hanke

    Bringing Up Baby is the film with the large black cat (panther, is it?), right?

    It’s large, but it’s spotted and a leopard.

  20. Sean Williams

    As a young man, I hated meandering, “plotless” movies. Now, I appreciate atmosphere more than plot. The turning point was when I saw my first Altman film and realized that Altman’s naturalistic approach brought out in the best in all of his actors.

  21. Adam Renkovish

    When I was in high school, I decided to turn my back on big, Hollywood blockbusters. I developed an interest in independent and art-house films, and even now, I am very strict about what I will allow myself to watch. If I do not feel that the film will benefit me in some way by investing two hours (or more) of my life into it, then why bother? I haven’t seen most of the rom-coms or teen flicks that have come around in the last few years, either. My friends tell me that I am a film snob. Don’t know about that, but I’d rather watch something that will stay with me afterwards than something that I will instantly forget. I do realize that every now and then, you need to park your brain and have a little fun – just the other day, I saw REEFER MADNESS for the first time, and on occasion, I love to laugh at MOMMIE DEAREST – but for the most part, I’d rather watch something enlightening, something that will challenge me, such as THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. As a Christian, I was scared of this film for such a long time. I’d heard so much about the controversy, and people at my former church told me to avoid it like the plague – most of them had never seen it. I finally decided to watch it, and I actually liked it. I mean, sure it was the Gospel according to Martin Scorsese, but I thought that it was an interesting character study about Jesus. It was challenging! It’s not such a bad thing to be taken out of your comfort zone. Whenever I feel the temptation to sit around and watch junk, I’ll immediately grab a classic film and move on from there. As a student of film, I feel that it is necessary for me to indulge the classics, the art-house films, basically, the films that most of my friends loathe. You won’t catch me in GI JOE anytime soon! Once again, some people think that I’m a bit extreme, but I would have to disagree.

  22. Ken Hanke

    My friends tell me that I am a film snob.

    As a student of film, I feel that it is necessary for me to indulge the classics, the art-house films, basically, the films that most of my friends loathe.

    Has it occurred to you that maybe you should broaden your circle of friends?

  23. Nick Jones

    “Which, unfortunately, like the “Clouds of Glory” films and “Classic Widows,” I will probably never get to see.”

    “You know, all this might be surmountable.”

    I found a clip from “Bruckner” on YouTube, but nada on the full film, or any of the others, although I was able to find “Hell On Earth” and “The Devils” with the “Rape of Christ” scene restored.

  24. Steve

    No no, I’m too proud for charity, LOL.

    Actually I did write a letter to the X about you a couple of years ago, in praise. It was published, but a guy there told me you never read your fan mail.

    I was crushed, but I am now a sadder but wiser person I guess.

    Actually, I love actually posting comments that are read, and taken fairly seriously, by a reviewer. It’s a unique thing, and very cool.

  25. Ken Hanke

    Actually I did write a letter to the X about you a couple of years ago, in praise. It was published, but a guy there told me you never read your fan mail.

    I don’t know who told you that, but that’s not true. I also try to answer any such mail, but — and this is key — I rarely manage to get my Xpress address checked and then I can’t always make the reply function work, so…should you want to contact me directly the best bet is XpressMovies@aol.com

    Actually, I love actually posting comments that are read, and taken fairly seriously, by a reviewer. It’s a unique thing, and very cool

    Is it unique? Maybe so. I’ve said before that I tend to be impressed with the level of discourse on the site and am thankful for it and glad to respond.

  26. Ken Hanke

    By the way, you apparently have to copy and paste that address. It doesn’t seem to work as a link.

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