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Movie Crash Course: Olympia

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So, here’s the thing.  I’m not really a sports person.  Never have been, never will be.  I respect athletes, mind, it’s just that watching them do their job is not something I would ever really do.  So that was a big strike I had in mind against Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia – on top of the already-existing and inescapable fact that Olympia was about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and so I was bound to see lots of shots of swastikas and people Heiling Hitler, something I’ve really had quite enough of as of late, thanks very much.  So I was surprised to discover that I….kind of liked this.

Part of what seduced me may have been through a simple quirk of fate.  The full four-hour Olympia is split into two parts at most screenings and on most streaming services – and for reasons I cannot ascertain, the print of the first part I watched did not have subtitles. I even tried turning on the closed-captioning, but all they had for the frequent sportscaster commentary was the phrase “man speaking German” in parentheses.  So I switched it right back off and just studied the visuals; maybe that was all I needed.  And it was – Riefenstahl was an amazingly innovative visual artist, including such a broad range of detail that I was getting a narrative simply out of what I was seeing.

Mind you, Riefenstahl’s techniques aren’t anything you haven’t seen in your average Sunday night football or 21st-Century Olympics broadcast – closeups of the athletes preparing for action, shots of the screaming crowd, lots of different angles on the action from all perspectives, slow-motion plays for the really killer stuff.  But that’s exactly it – Riefenstahl was the one who came up with all that.  A year ago I was in Berlin, and visited their Deutsche Kinemathek museum for film and television; there’s a whole room devoted just to this one movie, with a scale model of the Berlin Olympic Stadium showing you with pinpoint lights precisely where Riefenstahl had the camera set up for specific shots; from what I can recall, there were cameras all over the dang place, from the ones in the house right next to the Yutz In Charge to the ones down on the oval, up in the rafters, down in a dugout-y thing….they were everywhere.

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But having a lot of cameras isn’t all there is to it.  Riefenstahl was also capturing interesting things with those cameras – there were lots of shots of different nations’ cheering sections, cheering on athletes from all over the world.  And she matched the athlete to their nation’s fans – when a Japanese pole vaulter had a particularly good run, we got a shot of a big cluster of Japanese fans all cheering and waving.  A tight race between an Italian and a French runner saw both of their fans as well.   There was a whole drama involving an American shotput guy and some dudes in straw hats in the audience; the shotput guy kept falling short before finally making a good throw, and the dudes in the straw hats kept getting more and more despondent with each of his misses before Riefenstahl showed them losing their minds at his success.

Other bits seemed strangely intimate.  For one late-night pole-vaulting sequence, it was too dark to show the surrounding crowds; in response, it feels like Riefenstahl embraced that, turning down the sound on the crowd completely so that all you hear is each athlete’s running footsteps in the dirt and their pants of breath.  And instead of the crowds watching them, she would cut to closeups of the other athletes watching them instead, peering at their rivals with rapt attention.  In those moments, the politics of the Berlin Olympiad are stripped away – it feels more like a late-night casual pick-up match between a couple of neighboring colleges or something.

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This was the Olympics where American runner Jesse Owens showed up Hitler’s race prejudice but good, so I was curious to see how his races were treated.  And – I’m happy to say that Riefenstahl shows him in a favorable light.  I’m even happier to report, however, that he was not the only non-German athlete that Riefenstahl made look good.  Every athlete who had a notable achievement – regardless what country they were from – gets celebrated by this film, with lots of beauty shots of their performance, closeups of their fans, and a shot of their medal ceremony.  There are even two instances when an American gold medalist’s face is superimposed over a shot of the fluttering Stars and Stripes, as “The Star Spangled Banner” echoes through the Olympic Stadium.  But the same happens with the Japanese athletes listening to the “Kimiyago” or the French athletes with the tricoleur and “La Marsellaise”.

There’s even some possibly-unintentional comedy, in a sequence covering an equestrian event; about eight riders are following a complicated cross-country track, with lots of hurdles and obstacles; one such hurdle was set up right before a stream, such that horse and rider got a splashdown on landing.  Easily half the riders got thrown off into the stream, or their horses would want to stop and shake off a bit.  Even funnier was a sequence at another obstacle with two hurdles on either side of a ditch; horses had to jump the first hurdle, land on a steep slope on the other side, climb down to the bottom and then back up and over the second hurdle.  One rider’s horse took one look at that setup and stopped dead, refusing to jump.  Three times the rider tried to circle it back for another attempt, but each time the horse said “nope” and stopped short.  The commentator drily noted that the rider was eliminated from the match as a result, but honestly, I’m with the horse.

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For the second half of the film, Riefenstahl isn’t even showcasing the competitive angle all that much.  The second half is set up as more of a celebration of the universality and commonality of sport, and the beauty of the athletes.   For the competitive sailing races, there’s not much commentary on the races themselves; instead, there are beautiful shots of a fleet of boats, sails all unfurled, darting through the sea on a gorgeous day.  A sequence on diving towards the end doesn’t just abandon the commentary towards the end, it also abandons any effort to distinguish one diver from another – all we see is a series of beautiful men soaring gracefully through the air in perfectly precise arcs, or curling themselves up gracefully into flips and spins, then splashing effortlessly into water.  Once or twice, Riefenstahl even reverses the film, tracing the diver’s flight backwards just to show you how it looks that way.  Other times she even shows you the divers’ path from underwater.

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Riefenstahl’s association with the Third Reich unquestionably makes her a controversial figure, and during the 1930s she reported having a favorable opinion of Adolf Hitler.  And yet I can’t shake the notion that someone who really bought into the Nazi party line wouldn’t have treated other country’s athletes as sensitively and favorably as she did with this film.


Movie Crash Course: Wuthering Heights

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It’s strange – when it comes to film adaptations of books, I usually turn up my nose at the idea of using the film as a “cheat” to help you follow the book.  However, this Wuthering Heights adaptation is now the second time I’ve done precisely that (the first was 2012’s Cloud Atlas, which has sadly not made it onto the list).

Like most, I had the book as assigned reading in high school, so I had vague recollections of the plot; dude named Heathcliff, northern English setting, doomed love story, something like that. However, I had great gaps in my memory (whether Emily Bronte’s opaque writing style is at fault, or whether it’s due to my being three decades out of high school, is a judgement call I leave to the reader), and watching this film helped reinforce the story for me: as a boy, the orphan Healthcliff is swept up off the Liverpool streets and adopted by widower Yorkshireman Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him home to his farm on the moors to live with him and his son Hindley and daughter Catherine.

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Heathcliff and Catherine bond deeply, but Hindley looks down on the orphan, and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley demotes Heathcliff from the status of “adopted brother” to “farmhand”, sending him off to sleep in the stable.  Catherine also starts to look down on Heathcliff a little as well, despite herself – she has girlish dreams of marrying wealthy and becoming a genteel lady-of-the-manor, something Heathcliff can’t provide for her. A misunderstanding drives Heathcliff away to seek his fortune and come back to her, but by the time he returns, Catherine has already married the wealthy Edgar Linton and is living the high life.  So Heathcliff instead marries Edgar’s sister and buys the Earnshaw family home instead, thus forcing himself into Catherine’s orbit, to punish her for shunning him.

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Now, I’ve spoken before about what a tricky tightrope adapting books to film can be.  It’s nearly impossible to make a 100% faithful adaptation of book-to-film, simply because books and films are two completely different art forms.  One of the big things filmmakers have to wrestle with is time – some bits of books get left out of adaptations simply because the filmmakers don’t want to make a five-hour epic saga.  So this film, like most adaptations, completely omits the half of the book which deals with Heathcliff and Catherine’s children and their relationships, keeping strictly to the story of Heathcliff and Catherine and their doomed affair.  It also greatly simplifies the framing narrative – the whole story in the novel is an “as-told-to” kind of thing, with our narrator hearing the story from Heathcliff’s housemaid over the course of several visits to Wuthering Heights.  But the novel also gets bogged down with the narrator getting sick and going on trips and having his own issues to deal with, all of which ultimately distracted 16-year-old me from following the novel that well.  Here, the narrator’s bit is simply to get snowed in at Wuthering Heights and hear the whole story in one fell swoop, which made the actual story much clearer.

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However – some literary critics have pointed out that the tone of the film greatly changes one element of that story. Here, the implication seems to be that fate and bad luck is the biggest wedge between Heathcliff and Catherine; they love each other, but Catherine is too seduced by riches and doesn’t want to live in poverty with Heathcliff, while Heathcliff is a heel for wanting to punish her instead of keeping his distance and letting her be.  Whereas the book implies that it’s much more of a mutual antagonism – Catherine doesn’t marry Edgar Linton because she thinks “oh, Heathcliff ran off, he’s not an option any  more,” it’s more like “he ran off, but he’ll come back one day and I’ll be married already, that’ll teach him”.  The film reforms both characters’ image a lot, turning a story about mutual cruelty into a story about thwarted passion; making it a bit more palatable for modern audiences, perhaps.

It also tacks on a movie-romantic final sequence, wholly invented for the film, depicting a reunion between the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff.  This sequence was actually tacked on by producer Samuel Goldwyn; Goldwyn had suggested it to director William Wyler, who hated the idea.  But Goldwyn insisted on adding it in, and even had to call in doubles for stars Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, both of whom had since moved on to other projects.

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Still, the changes and tweaks seem to have paid off; Wuthering Heights was soundly praised by critics, and scoring eight Oscar nominations that year.  The 1939 Oscars offered some unusually stiff competition, however, with juggernaut films Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz also scoring nominations. Ultimately, its one win was for Cinematography, and even then that may have only been because there were two cinematography categories that year, one for color films and one for black and white films.  I have to say, though, that frequently I was struck by the shots cinematographer Gregg Toland was setting up on the screen; if someone like me is noticing how well things are composed, that’s saying something.

Movie Crash Course: Angels With Dirty Faces

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I think I’m starting to get won over by Jimmy Cagney.

My only exposure to Jimmy Cagney prior to this was through seeing some random cilps from Yankee Doodle Dandy somewhere, where he sang in a sort of Rex Harrison singspiel spoken-word thing that I always associated with “guy who can’t sing but they cast him in a musical anyway” and I turned up my nose.  But then after seeing him first as an actor in Public Enemy, then as a dancer in Footlight Parade, and now in this, I’m starting to think I judged the fellow a little prematurely.

This role is a return to Jimmy Cagney as tough guy, Rocky Sullivan by name, whose fate is permanently set as a boy when he and his buddy Jerry try to rob a box car in a train yard. The cops chase them both, but Jerry outruns Rocky and makes his getaway. Rocky falls into the hands of the cops, and then a reform school, and from there into a fifteen-year stretch of crimes both big and small, interspersed with hops in and out of jail.

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After one three-year stint in the slammer he comes back to the old neighborhood, in search of the corrupt lawyer who bribed him to plead guilty (Humphrey Bogart).  Rocky is seeking his revenge, but while he’s back in town he looks up his old buddy Jerry (Pat O’Brien), finding that their youthful crime scared Jerry straight, and he’s now a priest at the church in their old street.  Jerry has been making the kids in his parish his special crusade, hoping to steer them away from the petty crime and gang rivalries that steered his old buddy wrong; when he realizes that some of his young charges idolize Rocky, he enlists Rocky’s help in steering them straight.  Rocky is all too happy to help, out of affection for his old friend. But the criminal world catches up to Rocky again, interfering with Rocky’s plans; and even worse, the kids in Rocky’s fan club seem impressed instead of scared straight.  Jerry is forced to ask Rocky for one final sacrifice for their sake.

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The kids in Rocky’s “fan club” were an interesting group; six teenage boys who often appeared together as “The Dead End Kids”.  From what I’ve read, it sounds like they were “The Brat Pack” of the 1930s – a group of young actors who were all independently cast in the same play which granted them collective fame, leading to further work for the group entire.  This film was actually first proposed as a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, in fact, instead of being a Jimmy Cagney feature; at this time, Cagney was trying to avoid “tough guy” roles.  But the role of Rocky Sullivan was nuanced enough that Cagney was intrigued and took the part.  It’s definitely a performance with more variety than he had in Public Enemy – there’s the bluster and cockiness of the street tough, but also quieter moments that flesh out the character.  One moment that especially caught my eye came early on, when Rocky has first returned to find Jerry in the church, directing a rehearsal of the boys’ choir; as he waits quietly out of sight, listening to the boys singing a Latin hymn, Rocky gets a wistful look and starts singing along, quietly, despite himself.

Cagney’s last scene is also beautifully done – I can’t discuss it in detail without spoiling the film, so suffice it to say that the specific motivation for Rocky’s last actions in the film is a matter of some debate, and Cagney intended it to be that way.  Even today – a few days after seeing the film – I still have questions, and it’s thanks to Cagney’s exemplary performance.  He was of course nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, and while he didn’t win, critics regarded it as one of his finest works.

State Of The Blog Update….

“Uh….say, Kim, didn’t you say that you were going to break out the movie stuff onto another blog soon?”

Yes.  Yes I did.  However – I’m still in the clinging-stubbornly-to-a-single-design-element stage that’s taking a while to accomplish, and…it’s not quite ready yet.  However, it may be ready to roll out right around the time that the holiday season kicks into gear.

-panicked, hysterical laughter-

Fortunately, I’m not going to be going too over-the-top for the holidays this year.  Firstly because I’ve gotta be cheap – I’m in a super-focused drive to pay down some debt, and that doesn’t leave much left over in the way of frills.  Fortunately, I wasn’t really ever a huge fan of the whole inflatable-lawn-ornament, tinsel-and-flocking-on-everything decor aesthetic where it looks like the warehouse of a Michaels’ craft shop blew up on you.  My instincts are more in the rustic-and-homey area, heavy on the DIY and stuff from junk shops.  My friend Niki gifted me with a big box of leftover candlemaking supplies she didn’t want to tote with her when she moved to Colorado, so that’s the candles sorted; and tucked into that box was a sizeable bag of pinecones.  That plus some of the squillion Mason jars I have from canning, a cheap buffalo-plaid throw and some burlap and scrap wood and I’m set.

the betting is now open on whether I will have a future blog post where I get into a borderline obscene accident involving a hot glue gun-

I also don’t want to get too overly-Christmas up in here because we have an interfaith household.  I asked Alex if he wanted me to tone things down at all (being Jewish and coming home to “YAY CHRISTMAS” for a solid month might get annoying), but he was largely indifferent; “honestly, it’s a time of year when the attitude is ‘how about we all be nice to each other for a change’, and that’s good.”  His Thanksgiving visit is also going to be on the lengthy side, and he joked that “I fully expect to walk back in and find it’s a winter wonderland in here anyway.”

I told him we could also do what I did with another old roommate, Eric, who is also Jewish – we both went overboard, at Eric’s suggestion. “You get the biggest tree you can,” Eric said, “and I’ll get the biggest menorah I can, and we’ll put them both up right next to each other and confuse everyone.”  That actually was a delightful holiday – we both decked and gelt-ed the halls to the hilt, and got so carried away we looked up every other holiday that happened in December and celebrated that as well.  We even invented a separate holiday expressly for the cat.

I may not go quite that far this year, but there will still be some fuss and fancy going on.  I confess that when Alex told me he would be out of town for two weeks, one of my thoughts was “ooh, that gives me a chance to spread out pine cone crafts in the living room….”


World War One Blogathon

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Huzzah, another blogathon!

This one is devoted to movies about the First World War, hosted by the blog Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.  I’m contributing The Big Paradebut there are some other recently-familiar outings as well.

Movie Crash Course: The Adventures Of Robin Hood

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By now there is no need for me to acquaint the reader with the plot of this film – this is one of a long, long line of adaptations of the Robin Hood tales, which have seen adaptations both gritty and fanciful, period and contemporary; it has been given serious treatment by Kevin Reynolds and Ridley Scott, spoof treatment by Mel Brooks and Terry Gilliam, an animated treatment by Mel Blanc and Disney, and even a burlesque treatment on the British pantomime circuit.  And that’s not even getting into the times that TV shows like Star Trek: Next Generation or Doctor Who have done a “Robin Hood episode”.  It’s Robin Hood.  We all know the drill, and I would bet that a number of you are still giggling over the memory of Worf growling “Sir, I am not a Merry Man!” after I mentioned that Star Trek episode.

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….Which brings me to my biggest complaint about this film, actually.  I know that Robin Hood’s band goes by the name “Merry Men”, but ultimately everyone was so merry in this film it got on my damn nerves.  Errol Flynn – who will be our Sir Robin of Locksley for this evening – seems to have a perpetual smirk on his face no matter how dire the circumstances. Even in an early scene when he’s in Prince John’s castle, he notices the guards are locking him in and preparing to jump him, but doesn’t look scared or troubled at all; instead, it looks more like he’s started working on an unusually tricky crossword puzzle.  He recruits Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) through lively sparring matches, which both end with everyone throwing back their heads for a hearty laugh before a chummy handshake and a trip to a tavern for some ale.  Ambushing a tax collectors’ haul is cause enough for a huge banquet scene complete with Morris dancers, lute players, roast pigs on spits and crowds of people clanking tankards – basically anything you’ve seen at a suburban Renaissance Faire.

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And that hearty jollity killed a lot of the dramatic tension for me.  Not that I need things to be historically accurate or grim all the time – the story of Robin Hood is essentially a fairy tale, and sometimes things get fanciful in fairy tales.  But at least you should feel like there are some things at stake, and that your hero is up against an evenly-matched enemy.  In this version, however, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a milquetoast who chickens out of any potential matchup with Robin, and the real baddy, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), is confined to simply looking menacing as he sits beside Prince John for most of the film.  Anytime we see anyone getting into any real danger, they get out of it within about five minutes, so when things get a wee bit dicey for Maid Marian (Olivia de Haviland) towards the end, we just shrug, thinking that we already know that Robin’s going to save her, so eh.  This isn’t a story, so much as it’s an excuse to watch Robin Hood be awesome.

But that brings me to the thing I thought this film did do well.

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The last time we saw Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn do a stage fight, they were done in less than five minutes and it was a little dull.  But this was more like it.  I got a bit of a crash course in stage combat in college, thanks to a friend who was a genius at combat choreography and performance (I’ll be referencing him in a couple later reviews, since he had some seriously intense opinions about the combat in both Gladiator and Princess Bride).  My friend’s biggest criteria for a fight scene was always whether it felt like the moves in the fight flowed organically from what was happening.  People who just bashed swords at each other didn’t impress him; there has to be a reason why you’re bashing swords at each other, he pointed out, be it “I’m seeking revenge against my father’s murderer” to “I’m sizing this guy’s fight skills up” to “I’m trying to get the hell out of this castle”.  Every fight had to have a story to it, he said.  And in this film, the story of each fight was absolutely clear.  It may have been telegraphed who was going to win each time, but the story of the fight itself was clear.

My friend also liked it when fight scenes worked in other features of the room – if you’re trying to get away from an attacker, anything that will help you do that, you’re gonna use.  So during that early scene when Robin is ambushed by Prince John’s men, and he flips backward in his chair, does a sommersault under it and then picks up the chair to use as a shield, I was there for it.  In a later fight, someone throws an entire candelabra at Robin Hood to trap him under it – but Robin grabs one of the candles and throws it back at his attacker, distracting him long enough to get back on his own feet.  And it’s not just Robin – other characters’ fight moves are choregraphed well, like a little guy who spends an entire fight huddled up in the rafters with a club so he can yank off people’s helmets and bonk them on the noggin.  People in the film are fighting like they’d really be fighting, and in and of itself that was gripping.

Movie Crash Course: Bringing Up Baby

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It’s possible that my perspective on Bringing Up Baby was colored by previous encounters with Katherine Hepburn.  Not in-person encounters – instead, I’ve seen a number of Katherine Hepburns’ later films, like The African Queen or On Golden Pond, in which she played more serious roles; no-nonsense, forthright, kind of like a New England small town matron.  Her early career, however, was very different – she was cast mostly as flighty free spirits in zany screwball comedies like this one.  And that took a wee bit of adjustment for me. About twenty minutes into this film I turned to Alex with a gasp – “I just realized,” I marveled, “She’s playing a manic pixie dream girl.”

In fact, her role in this film is considered one of the earliest examples of the trope.  And that’s fine – if you like manic pixie dream girls.

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This particular MPDG is Susan Vance, a flighty heiress who first crosses paths with David Huxley (Cary Grant) on a golf course. Huxley is a paleontologist in search of funding for his museum, and is out on the links with Alexander Peabody (George Irving), lawyer for a potential donor.  But his pitch is interrupted by Vance, who inadvertently and carelessly steals first Huxley’s ball – and then his car. Huxley flees in pursuit – and when he finally manages to convince Vance that she’s got the wrong car, she’s so remorseful that she offers to help him get in good with Peabody again by dragging him to a night club Vance knows he frequents.  Except that outing also goes awry.  And so does the next one she thinks up, and the next; and before long, Huxley has gone from puttering amongst his fossil collection to dressing in a marabou-trimmed bathrobe and scurrying through Connecticut forests in pursuit of an escaped leopard named “Baby”.

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Okay: the situations they get into are amusing. And both Hepburn and Grant – flexing his newly-earned “screwball comedy” chops after The Awful Truthare good at embodying these two characters. My biggest hurdle, however, is that I’m personally annoyed by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope in general.  Not in the fact that it exists, mind you – in the very character itself.  In this film, about half the scrapes Vance and Huxley get into happen because each time Vance talks so much about herself or the situation or Huxley or the weather or her aunt or her car or whattheheckever that she simply ignores Huxley’s attempts to explain exactly what the problem is with her latest scheme – and only after things have gone horribly wrong does Huxley finally get a word in edgewise and point out that “no, this is my car, not yours” or “no, I am not a zoologist” or “no, that was my golf ball, not yours” – to which Vance always responds, “well, why didn’t you say so sooner?”  Huxley snaps at one point and stomps on her foot in an effort to distract her long enough to stop talking and let him speak already, and honestly, I can sympathize.

I freely admit, though, that this is a personal prejudice, much like my aversion to “idiot plots”.  Interestingly, I also have a personal fondness for moments where a mild-mannered, buttoned-up fuddy-duddy gets increasingly flustered and pestered to the point that they finally completely lose it – and Grant repeatedly delivers that very thing.  He even ad-libbed one such moment, in an exchange that became one of the film’s most famous.

And when Susan Vance isn’t being so….Susan Vance-y, Hepburn is a treat as well.  Her fast-talking and blarney actually help at one point when she’s trying to talk herself and half the cast out of a jail sentence (looooong story), and it’s utterly believable when she singlehandedly wrestles a leopard into submission (another long story).  She’s good at what she does.  It’s just that what she has to do happens to be something that bugs me.  I can’t fault her for that, however.

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Critics and audiences of the time seem to have had similar mixed opinions.  Some praised the freewheeling film and thought both actors a delight; others were annoyed.  Hepburn bore the brunt of the negative impact, being labeled “box office poison” for a couple years when the film flopped. Which hardly seems fair, since Grant also was in the film, and she was just doing what was in the script. But any critical affect seems to have been short-lived – only two years later, Grant and Hepburn teamed back up again for The Philadelphia Story, another screwball comedy outing that fared much better all around.