The Philadelphia Story

Studio: Criterion

Nov 30, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

One of the gold standards of Golden Age Hollywood rom-coms - back when the genre was a classy affair - The Philadelphia Story is notable for a number of reasons. It was the film that revitalized Katherine Hepburn’s career following her “box office poison” years in the late 1930s. It was her fourth and final film with co-star Cary Grant and the fifth of nine films she made with director George Cukor. It’s also - improbably - the only film for which Jimmy Stewart won an Academy Award. The story of a flighty, flinty socialite whose wedding weekend is a complicated a love triangle involving her dashing first husband and a salt-of-the-earth reporter, The Philadelphia Story tells a story about class with class, as well as a sharp wit.

Based on a stage play of the same name by Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story luxuriates in the privilege of old money WASPs while also poking fun at their foibles and missteps. As Tracy Lord - a role she originated on Broadway - Hepburn personifies the charm and cynicism of the idle rich; erudite and desirable, if also in need of being taken down a peg. Many of Hepburns post-“box office poison” roles were variations on this “haughty woman brought low” theme, with both the studios and Katherine herself recognizing that audiences had begun to find her too aloof and snobbish. Although The Philadelphia Story won’t rankle modern post-feminism audiences in the same way that, say, Woman of the Year does, there’s still a few uncomfortable bits in the film, particularly the opening scene in which Cary Grant - as her departing first husband - palms Tracy’s face and pushes her to the ground. The scene is played for laughs and still maintains a goofy shock value - not unlike James Cagney famously smashing Mae Clarke in the face with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy - but it sets a tone for the film that’s sexual politics can generously be described as “quaint”.

What keeps The Philadelphia Story not only palatable but engaging for a twenty-first century  audience is the obvious care and affection Cukor and his actors have for these characters. As mentioned earlier, Tracy Lord is the part Hepburn was born to play. Like so many of her society dame characters, Hepburn is able to pivot from imperiously regal to the cool girl you’d meet in a hip bar, not only within the the span of a minute, but often within the span of a single line reading. As her first husband who’s still beloved by Lord’s family, Cary Grant is at his most charmingly pissy. The real standout is Jimmy Stewart who, even in a romantic comedy, can’t keep a lid on the working man’s fire that made him famous in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Still boyish in his slightly overlarge double-breasted suit, Stewart spends most of the film taking the piss out of his self-righteous, stick-in-the-mud persona, culminating in a stretch of scenes that count among the most successful examples of acting drunk in the history of cinema. His hiccuping scene with Grant - a very rare instance of comedic improv in Golden Age Hollywood - ensures that the one film in which the two greats appeared together is suitably memorable. The supporting ensemble is equally excellent with stand outs including Ruth Hussey - who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination and deserved to be a much bigger star than she was - as Stewart’s lovelorn smart-ass of a partner, and thirteen-year old Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s nosy little sister Dinah, one of the rare examples of Old Hollywood child acting that is annoying on purpose.

It’s hard to accuse a film as old and as light on its feet as The Philadelphia Story of being hard-hitting when it comes to class commentary, but it’s easy to see a progressive - for 1940 - thesis amid all the comedic misunderstandings and fluctuating romantic pairings that make up its plot. Hepburn’s three love interests all exist at roughly equidistant points on the class spectrum. Grant’s T.K. Dexter Haven is a formerly rich playboy who’s social status has taken a hit since his divorce from Tracy. Tracy’s fiancé George Kittredge - somehow played by John Howard instead of Ralph Bellamy - is a former working class joe who is deeply concerned with fitting in among the rich. And Stewart’s working stiff writer Mike O’Connor has nothing but contempt for his economic and social betters, despite his burgeoning affections for Tracy, the embodiment of everything he hates. All three orbit Tracy, who draws each of them near before pushing them away, only to end up right back where she started.

Criterion’s new edition of The Philadelphia Story features an informative, if somewhat dry, commentary track by Jeanine Basinger, as well as short documentaries on Hepburn and the various real-life Philadelphia socialites upon whom Tracy Lord was based. There’s also two episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Hepburn, as well as a 1943 radio adaptation of the film.


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