Thursday, February 23, 2006

Favourite Movies #37 & #41: Metropolitan & The Philadelphia Story

"People see the harm excessive candor can do"

Two very candid portraits of upper class social types are found in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990) and George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940). While these films were made 50 years apart, they serve to teach the same lesson: social stratification is alive and well in the United States.

Stillman vivesects the New York Deb set in Metroplitan, an independent film that spawned two follow-ups (Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco). The original is still the freshest and least pretentious; Stillman's recurrent interest in "the end of an era" lends poignancy and warmth to the proceedings. While his dialogue is perhaps too articulate ("Brunuel's a surrealist -- despising the bourgeoisie's part of their credo") and cerebral (quoting Veblin and Fourier) it merely adds to exclusive tone of the film; these are young adults from another world entirely. They shop at the same shops and ride in the same taxis but inhabit a parallel universe within New York. Their fate as a class is self-consciously discussed and they justify their defining class lines by claiming they are doomed. Stillman does make the point that this world will soon (or has already) ceased to exist but I'm sure that there are Toms, Nicks and Audreys walking among us in 2006.

A time when class difference was even greater due to the effects of the Great Depression, The Philadelphia Story seems today like a witty homage to a bygone way of life. In reality, not much changed about people with money between this and Stillman's world. Writer Macaulay (James Stewart) and photographer Liz (the forgotten but terrif Ruth Hussey) crash into the affluent Lord household on the eve of the second marriage of their eldest daughter Tracy (Katharine Hepburn). They really want a peek at how the upper crust live (the viewer is shown early on that they are people with problems like anyone else) and end up getting involved in the domestic drama. Like Tom in Metropolitan, Liz and Mike are the eyes of the middle class peering into high society, a clever device used to illustrate difference. In both films, these idealized characters sneer at the upper class but are secretly fascinated by it; by the end, they discover the humanity behind the parties and social conventions. But the fun of The Philadelphia Story lies in the wonderful stars saying wonderful words amid MGM gloss. And it's not in every movie that you can hear Jimmy Stewart singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
DVD has certainly done right by both of these movies: Metropolitan came out 2 weeks ago in a splendid Criterion edition; The Philadelphia Story last year with the typical Warner high-class treatment. These two films are in a class by themselves.