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Sunday, November 19

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The Philadelphia Story
5 of 5 stars
Directed by George Cukor.
Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey.

Bad Santa — Badder Santa: the Unrated Version DVD
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Terry Zwigoff.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham and Bernie Mac.

Previously one of RKO's highest paid actresses, after Katharine Hepburn was placed at the top of a list of actors and actresses considered to be "box office poison" by Photoplay Magazine, RKO feared Hepburn's career in movies was over (despite the fact that her most recent pictures, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, were both considerable successes). Insulted by being offered a B-movie as her next feature for RKO, Hepburn bought out the remainder of her contract and returned to Broadway, eventually starring in a play written expressly for her by playwright Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story.

A resounding success on Broadway, Hepburn purchased the film rights herself and, with producer extraordinaire Joseph L. Mankiewicz at MGM, brought back together the team behind the film version of Holiday, which, incidentally, was also based on a Philip Barry play. Cary Grant (who previously starred opposite Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), George Cukor (who had directed Hepburn in four films, including her screen debut) and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. Of course, the film was a huge success — it made a whopping $3 million in its initial release! — and Hepburn was a undisputed star from then on.

In the film version of The Philadelphia Story, Grant and Hepburn star as a divorced couple — C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord (yes, this is where Traci Lords' name came from) — in the final days before Tracy's second wedding to a self-made but spineless man named George Kittredge (John Howard). Seemingly to get even with Tracy, or perhaps to win her back, Dexter arranges for Spy magazine reporter and fiction writer Mike Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (the beautifully smarmy Ruth Hussey) to pose as friends of the Lord family's son, who is off globetrotting somewhere, and stay at the Lord's mansion so they can surreptitiously cover the wedding.

Dexter, who gets on famously with Tracy's sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) and mother (Mary Nash), leaks the true reason for Mike and Liz's visit before the Lord family even meets the pair of interlopers, and the family has a bit of hilarious fun hamming it up as, apparently, their idea of what Mike and Liz expect the Lord family to be like. Mike and Liz's lower-class presence in the story not only humanizes what could have otherwise been another example of Hollywood's long-standing, insufferable obsession with the lives of the idle rich, though the rich-versus-poor commentary is largely ignored once Mike forms something of a crush on the future Mrs. Kittredge when he catches her reading his book of short stories at the local library. The film also displays a bit of chauvinism near the end of act two, as one male after another either tells Tracy how much he worships her or tells her what a self-righteous prig she is (including her philandering bastard of a father), prompting Tracy to have at the bubbly with a vengeance.

As funny as everything before it has been, it's in the beginning of the third act, at a party the Lord family throws the night before the wedding (who does that?), that the biggest laughs are found, particularly Jimmy Stewart giving one of the most convincing, hilarious performances as a drunk ever. Stewart took home a Best Actor Oscar for this role, and though he is undoubtedly terrific, it is popularly considered to be a gimme for passing him up the previous year, when he was nominated for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Although also earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Hussey, with her only Academy nod before disappearing into B-movie hell), and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Philadelphia Story's only other win was the last of these.

The next morning, Kittredge sees Mike carrying Tracy back from the pool house (while belting out a version of "Over the Rainbow" that will make fans of The Wizard of Oz cringe) and assumes they've done more than just go for a swim, prompting a bit of a scuffle and leading to Tracy calling the wedding off — until Jimmy Stewart offers to take Kittredge's place. But while the switcheroo on the groom side is to be expected (there wouldn't be much of a Story if there wasn't) and there is little surprise in who the lucky man finally turns out to be, sparkling dialogue and amazing performances by three of Old Hollywood's biggest and best stars at the top of their game make the journey wonderfully intoxicating.

A much darker, bitter tale than Hepburn's slightly tipsy love story is Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff's alcohol-drenched Bad Santa, released last month on DVD in both its original theatrical version and a new, unrated version with seven minutes of footage added in. The majority of the footage added into the unrated version is in one sequence early on, filling out what Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) does after the first Noel in the movie, before it skips ahead a few months to shortly before the next Christmas; these scenes are pretty funny and a welcome addition to the movie, but none of the rest of the footage adds anything at all to the film. In fact, a couple of the additions screw up the note-perfect pacing of the original version's third act, so I actually prefer the original. But either version of Bad Santa is one of the most fucked up, vile comedies to ever come out of Hollywood; it is the funniest comedy since Wet Hot American Summer and also the best Christmas movie since Gremlins.

Originating from an idea by the Coen brothers (who also produced) and fleshed out by the writing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also wrote Cats & Dogs, believe it or not), Bad Santa is nominally about a horny, foulmouthed drunkard, Willie, and his diminutive partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), who work as a department store Santa and his elf in order to rob their safes at Christmastime. But, really, Bad Santa is just a forum for showing Billy Bob getting wasted and acting like a complete prick to everyone around him. Pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it sort of movie, those of you with a bit of a mean streak in you will find Bad Santa absolutely hysterical; the rest of you should go watch Elf again instead.

Originally slated to star Bill Murray, who dropped out to do Lost in Translation, Billy Bob Thornton turns in a better performance than I could possibly have anticipated, and the rest of the supporting cast does a fine job keeping up the standard Thornton sets. John Ritter is terrific in his last appearance on the big screen before his death as the prudish department store manager who is trying to get them fired, and he spends many of his scenes opposite the inimitable Bernie Mac's role as head of security for the store. Brett Kelly — as the fat, stupid (or is he?) kid Willie at first takes advantage of but, of course, begins to care about in his own pathetic way — is either hilariously pitiful or very, very good; I can't really tell which, but it works. In the film's only major female role, The Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham earns a few laughs as Willie's bartender girlfriend with a Santa fetish, but she mostly turns up when the movie needs to be warm and cuddly for a moment or two or when Willie needs someone to climb on; it's a role with little thanks, but she does what she needs to with it.

When the "plot" takes over, Bad Santa turns into the Mirror Universe version of exactly the kind of Christmas movie it pisses on for every second of its glorious 98 minutes (91 in the theatrical version), with the Scrooge lightening up towards the end and embracing the true meaning of Chrstmas. But the greatest accomplishment of the film, aside from actually getting made, is how it manages to do that without, as in films like The Tao of Steve or Roger Dodger, completely undermining everything that has gone before. Bad Santa may end with our "hero" redeemed … kind of … but he earns his redemption in the most fucked up way imaginable outside of a Tarantino flick.

Ho ho ho.

The Philadelphia Story is playing at 600 N. Michigan this Thursday, July 22, at 7:00 pm as part of the Loews Classic Film Series. It is also available on a DVD with no features other than the theatrical trailer at every video store on the planet.

Bad Santa — Badder Santa: the Unrated Version is available for rent from Netflix, GreenCine.com, and finer video stores everywhere. The theatrical version is also available. There are no current plans for a sequel, but Ficarra and Requa will be penning a new Bad News Bears movie, also starring Billy Bob Thornton.

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Comments

Gordon / July 16, 2004 9:27 AM

I swear I'm going to give a bad review one of these days … there are just too many good movies, y'know?

Naz / July 16, 2004 10:17 AM

Or you could review The Chronicles of Riddick, The Day After Tomorrow or Van Helsing.

Gordon / July 16, 2004 1:14 PM

Yeah, I thought about that. Very, very briefly ...

Naz / July 16, 2004 1:35 PM

You gotta give people what they want!

Naz / July 16, 2004 1:42 PM

You forgot to mention the kid from Bad Santa - he was quite a character.

Gordon / July 16, 2004 1:47 PM

Hey, if anyone wants to speak up and ask me to review a particular film for next week, feel free! It needs to be something that will be running in two weeks and, ideally, something new this weekend …

Steve / July 16, 2004 2:07 PM

Critics seem kinda split on The Door in the Floor (AO Scott jizzed over it, while others whizzed on it) -- I'd like to see your take on it!

Gordon / July 16, 2004 6:34 PM

Naz: Hey, I did mention the kid (Brett Kelly)! I wanted to write about him more, but I found myself ruining some really good jokes …

Steve and everyone else: Unless we get some other suggestions/votes in the next day or two, I'm watching Door on the Floor! In the Floor? Wherever it is. (The Corporation? Bukowski: Born Into This? Princess Diaries 2? Anyone ... anyone?)

Naz / July 16, 2004 8:00 PM

I, Robot!

Leigh Hanlon / July 17, 2004 1:20 PM

Glad to see someone else appreciates "Bad Santa" -- in its own way, the film's far better holiday fare than standard Capracorn. I hadn't planned on seeing it at all, but wound up there on Christmas Day when my friend _____ sent me the following e-mail:

"I'm bored. How about you? Wanna bust out of this Merry Axe-Mess, get a few drinks and see 'Bad Santa'?"

So, we went to Tazio's for tacos and maragaritas and then saw "Bad Santa." Watching "Bad Santa" while annihilated almost adds a third-dimension to the film.

Steve / July 19, 2004 10:39 AM

So Gordon, which flick did you go see? We can't wait 'til the actual review!

Gordon / July 19, 2004 10:55 AM

I'm not tellin'!

Steve / July 19, 2004 11:15 AM

Not tellin'? That's not the Gapers Block spirit!!!

Charlene / September 8, 2004 9:03 AM

What is that?

It's a pickle!

 

About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn’t like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, instead of using the comments below, do so at .

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