Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Snappy Dialogue: Classic Hollywood Love Stories Set the Bar High

When the subject initially came up to talk about Hollywood as one of our Girlfriends Book Club themes for the fall, the very first thing that came to mind for me were these two classic films: "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and "Roman Holiday" (1953), starring Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and Eddie Albert. I watched them both first in black & white as a teen and -- these many, many years later! -- I still love them best that way.

I'll always adore the inspired banter in "The Philadelphia Story," particularly the back-and-forth zings of Katharine (Tracy Lord) and Cary (C.K. Dexter Haven), still-feuding ex-spouses who are reunited by a little journalistic blackmail on the eve of Tracy's wedding to another man. There's this moment, fairly early in the film, when they're out by the pool arguing and Jimmy Stewart's character (innocent journalist Macaulay "Mike" Connor) is getting a bit uncomfortable with Tracy and Dexter's rising tempers. He tries to slink away from them, but they notice, of course, and refuse to let him leave. They like having the audience. Long before I was ever a writer, I'd laugh whenever I'd hear this exchange. It was just so well paced and comical:

Dexter: How about you, Mr. Connor? You drink, don't you? Alcohol, I mean.
Mike: A little.
Dexter: A little? And you're a writer? Tsk, tsk, tsk. I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer. [He looks up at him and grins.]
Tracy: Dexter, would you mind doing something for me?
Dexter: Anything, what?
Tracy: Get the heck out of here.
Dexter: I couldn't do that. That wouldn't be fair to you. You need me too much.
Tracy: Would you tell me what you're hanging around for? [Mike tries to sneak away.] No, please don't go, Mr. Connor.
Dexter: No, please don't go, Mr. Connor. As a writer, this ought to be right up your street.
Tracy: Don't miss a word.

Then, of course, there's "Roman Holiday," with an escaped princess (Audrey Hepburn playing Princess Ann), who's feeling the effects of sleep medication but is on the loose in Rome late one night, and an American journalist (Gregory Peck as Joe Bradley), who just stumbled onto what could be the biggest story of his career. This is one of many laugh-aloud scenes:

Ann: Do you know my favorite poem?
Joe: You already recited that for me.
Ann: "Arethusa rose from her couch of snows in the Acroceraunian mountains" - Keats.
Joe: Shelley.
Ann: Keats!
Joe: Now, you just keep your mind off the poetry and on the pajamas, and everything'll be all right, see.
Ann: It's Keats.
Joe: Now, I'll be - it's Shelley - I'll be back in about ten minutes.
Ann: Keats.
[Joe walks to his door and hides his wine bottle on the top of the mantelpiece.]
Ann: You have my permission to withdraw.
Joe: Thank you very much...

There aren't a lot of films that make me feel as giddy with happiness as these two classic love stories -- I have posters of both in my writing office for inspiration -- but I also really enjoy "When Harry Met Sally," "While I Was Sleeping" and "The Mark of Zorro"... What about you? What are your favorite (modern or classic) Hollywood films? In which of them do you feel the dialogue just sparkles?

Marilyn Brant is a chocolate lover, music junkie and old-movie addict who lives in the Chicago area with her husband and son. She's also the award-winning women's fiction author of According to Jane (October 2009), Friday Mornings at Nine (October 2010) and the upcoming novel A Summer in Europe (Fall 2011). Visit her at:


  1. What a fun post! I recently watched ROMAN HOLIDAY with my sixteen year old daughter (her first time seeing it) and watching her expressions was priceless! Of course, I had to tell her the behind-the-scenes secret about the Bocca della Verita (Gregory Peck wasn't really supposed to scream, he did it as a prank to Hepburn and the director loved it so much they kept it).

    My favorite quote comes from my favorite movie of all time, AUNTIE MAME with Rosalind Russell...

    Auntie Mame: Oh, Agnes! Here you've been taking my dictations for weeks and you haven't gotten the message of my book: live!
    Agnes Gooch: Live?
    Auntie Mame: Yes! Live! Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!

  2. GREAT post.They don't make rom-coms like they used to but I think movies tend to be less talky these days. Pulp Fiction is a very violent movie but it has some really sharp dialogue,

  3. What a fun, fun post, Ms. Marilyn! Girl, I'm an old movie hound, too! I used to be in love with Clark Gable, whose movies thankfully have a lot of snappy dialogue (the rom-coms anyway!). One of my faves is "It Happened One Night," in which he co-starred with Claudette Colbert. I adore the scene where he's trying to thumb a ride and the cars whiz by, then she steps up to the road, shows a little leg, and the first car to come hits the brakes, screeching to a halt. And after:

    Ellie: Aren't you going to give me a little credit?
    Peter: What for?
    Ellie: Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.
    Peter: Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
    Ellie: Oh, I'll remember that when we need forty cars.

    Perfection! :-)

  4. Great post. I always loved the banter in Shakespeare in Love.

    "You never spoke
    so well of him."

    "He was not dead before."

  5. I love this post!! I, too, love old black and white films and Roman Holiday is one of my all-time faves!

    I also love While you were Sleeping, as you mentioned, along with 13 Going on 30 (Jennifer Garner is so, so adorable in that one) and Never Been Kissed (Ditto for Drew Barrymore).

  6. What a great post, Marilyn! Makes me want to watch those movies all over again. For contemporary dialogue, I don't think you can find anyone better than Aaron Sorkin (An American President and West Wing). Love him.

  7. Good morning, everyone!! I'm so glad to be in the company of so many movie lovers ;).

    Jill~that scene with the Bocca della Verita is one of my faves, too (I always scream right along with Audrey when he does that trick -- LOL). How fun it must have been to get to share that film with your daughter! Loved those lines from Auntie Mame! It's been ages since I've seen're inspiring me to watch it again!

    Karin, you're right -- it's hard to find talky movies now. There were some fun exchanges in The Proposal (but I was too distracted by Ryan Reynolds and his amazing abs to remember them all ;). And Pulp Fiction does have some great dialogue!

    Oh, Susan, we own It Happened One Night -- it's one of my hubby's favorite films! -- so we watch it at least once a year ;). I loved that scene you mentioned! I also really love the one where they're pretending to be a fighting married couple in the hotel...and, of course, their "Wall of Jericho"!

    Lauren, oh, my, YES! How could I have forgotten to mention Shakespeare in Love?! The dialogue in there is brilliant. For me, that's one of those movies where I watch it and, as soon as it ends, want to immediately see it again ;).

    Brenda, those were such fun films, too! I've always liked Jennifer Garner and Drew Barrymore (who was also great in Music & Lyrics with Hugh Grant :). And I had a huge crush on Michael Vartan after seeing him in Never Been Kissed... He was SO very much NOT like any high-school English teacher I ever had -- LOL.

  8. Judy, I *loved* The American President -- thank you for reminding me of it! Yes, Aaron Sorkin's writing is so consistently terrific. And what I also love about that film, too (and I'd forgotten this until I checked just now!) was that Rob Reiner was the director. What a great team they made, not to mention all the fabulous acting...

  9. Well, I'm not surprised. I knew Jeff had excellent taste. ;-) (Love the scene where they're pretending to be married, too! I couldn't decide which to quote here, so I went with the hitchhiking one. But that one's right up there!)

  10. Oh my gosh, what a great post, Marilyn! I love both those movies. They just don't write dialogue like that anymore. One of my favorite movies for great dialogue is "His Girl Friday."
    I laugh more each time I see it!

    Here's one of my favorite exchanges of all time:
    Hildy, played by Rosalind Russell goes back to her old job and her old boss (who happens to also be her ex-husband, Walter, played by none other than Cary Grant) to tell him she's getting married again.

    Hildy Johnson: "I suppose I proposed to you?"

    Walter Burns: "Well, you practically did, making goo-goo eyes at me for two years until I broke down. [impersonates Hildy, flutters his eyelashes] "Oh, Walter." "And I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you!"

    Hildy Johnson: [hurls her purse at him] "Why, you - !"

    Walter Burns: [ducks and her purse barely misses him] "You're losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that."

  11. Marilyn,

    Thanks for letting me escape and relive this gems of dialogue. I think you and must be soul sisters, because these are two of my absolute favorite movies of all time.

  12. Susan, hee! I'll tell Jeff you said so ;).

    Maria, oh, yeah!! His Girl Friday is so fast-paced and funny (love the snippet you included), and Cary Grant -- again! -- plays a great ex-husband and bantering partner. Happy sigh. I could spend all month doing nothing but watching this great films. I don't think it's a surprise (esp. with all these journalists running around in them) that these classic movies resonate so well with us as writers.

    Hey, Soul Sister! (Okay, saying this makes me think of Train and I must take a moment to sing... ;) I'm so glad you love them, too, Amy! And I hope you're having a VERY exciting release week!!

  13. Hi Marilyn,
    Sorry to be so late reading and commenting on your great movie blog--but I've been busy reading your book, FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE, and I love it! I started reading one day on the treadmill and didn't get off (burned a lot of calories while reading about chestnut ravioli among other delights). I'm reading the tense part, so forgive me if I write and run...

  14. LOL, Cindy! Well, if *that's* why you're late, you're definitely forgiven... ;) So glad you liked the chestnut ravioli part. I really wish Bridget would cook it for ME!! xo

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