Monday, August 1, 2016

Love Among the Ruins (1975) & The Corn Is Green (1979)

          Among director George Cukor’s myriad accomplishments, he introduced Katharine Hepburn to the big screen, directing her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and featuring her in several more pictures—including The Philadelphia Story (1940)—before helming a pair of early-’60s comedies starring Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. More than a decade later, the longtime collaborators reunited to make two telefilms.
          First came the highly enjoyable romantic comedy Love Among the Ruins, which pairs Hepburn with another acting legend, Laurence Olivier. Set in England circa 1911, the playful film concerns Jessica Medlicott (Hepburn), a society lady mired in scandal. Widowed two years ago, she has become engaged to a younger man and now seeks to break the engagement because she realizes her fiancé is a gold digger. To plead her case, Jessica hires lawyer Sir Arthur Glanville Jones (Olivier). He’s thrilled because 40 years ago, he and Jessica had a three-day romantic idyll in Toronto, when he was a college student and she was a touring actress. The central joke of Love Among the Ruins is that while Arthur is as smitten with Jessica now as he was then, she doesn’t remember their time together—or does she? It’s a perfect role for Hepburn in the autumn of her years, because she gets to play haughty and narcissistic while winking at the audience to indicate the warmth hidden behind her character’s upper-crust façade.
          Constructed like a play and written with considerable verbal dexterity by James Costigan, Love Among the Ruins features Olivier in nearly every scene and Hepburn in almost as many, so viewers who love these actors can immerse themselves in the stars’ distinctive personas from start to finish. Olivier, whose ’70s work was often cartoonish, mostly restrains himself here, relying upon still-nimble physicality and the incredible musical instrument of his mellifluous diction. With Cukor orchestrating the action so there’s always motion and speed, Love Among the Ruins is often quite delightful even though it’s old-fashioned and talky. The opulent costumes and locations help create the desired effect, and so, too, does the characteristically romantic musical score by the great John Barry.
          For their second TV project, Cukor and Hepburn revived The Corn Is Green, a 1938 play that was previously filmed in 1945, with Bette Davis in the lead role of an English schoolteacher whose integrity and willpower changes provincial attitudes toward education in a 19th-century Welsh mining town. Miss Lilly Moffat is a quintessential Hepburn character. After a small-minded woman says, “Men do know best, I think,” Moffat shoots back, “Then don’t think!” As Hepburn did in real life, Moffat challenges social rules, whether she’s defying restrictive ideas of gender or pushing illiterate people to better themselves.
          In the well-constructed narrative, Moffat inherits a small estate near a coalmine and then opens a school, using her household staff as fellow teachers. Moffat takes a special interest in Morgan Evans (Ian Saynor), a young man who honors tradition by working in the mine but secretly nurtures his natural gift for writing. Moffat tutors Morgan and secures an entrance interview for Trinity College at Oxford, despite resistance from locals. Further complicating matters is Moffat’s nubile charge, Bessie (Toyah Wilcox), who seduces Morgan as a means of expressing her boredom with small-town life.
          There’s never much doubt that Moffat will conquer adversity, but Cukor puts across the material with his signature sophistication. In addition to filming many scenes with long takes and wide shots, a stylistic departure from the usual closeup-heavy mode of ’70s TV, Cukor sparingly employs original music, again by Barry. While Hepburn’s age shows (she shakes periodically and her voice isn’t the blaring trumpet it once was), she convey her unmistakable resolve. By story’s end, Hepburn conveys her character’s pride at a job well done—a fitting final image after nearly 50 years of Cukor/Hepburn collaborations.

Love Among the Ruins: GROOVY
The Corn Is Green: GROOVY

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