Monday, May 19, 2014

The Philadelphia Story (1940) ****

the philadelphia story

The Philadelphia Story (1940) is a remarkable film for several reasons.  First, the small but stellar cast was comprised of three Hollywood stalwarts—Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn.  Second, Donald Ogden Stewart’s expertly adapted Oscar-winning screenplay was engagingly witty and humanized Hepburn. Which brings me to the most remarkable thing about the movie—it probably saved Hepburn’s film career.  For all of those reasons, and many more, The Philadelphia Story is a classic Hollywood gem.

the_philadelphia_story_katharine_hepburnFor any actor or actress, even Hepburn, being labeled “Box Office Poison” could be damaging.  After several of her films bombed at the box office, Hepburn had to face the fact that moviegoers just weren’t that into her.  To some she seemed hard, aloof, stilted, and affected.  Maybe it was her upper-class Northeastern upbringing or her Bryn Mawr education, but she just wasn’t that likable to many American movie ticket buyers.  Still, Hepburn could always fall back to the one audience that seemed to adore her—Broadway.  So when Philip Barry wrote the stage play of The Philadelphia Story specifically for Hepburn, she was more than happy to finance and star in it. Even before the play was a huge success on Broadway, Howard Hughes bought the film rights for his then-girlfriend, Hepburn, because he believed it was just the vehicle to restart her film career.  He was right, of course, and the rest is Hollywood history.

While the story is somehow labeled a screwball comedy, for me The Philadelphia Story is more of a sophisticated comedy.  The premise, of course, is a bit screwy, but it certainly is not in the screwball realm of The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), or probably the greatest screwball comedy of all time, Easy Living (1937). Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a socialite on the verge of marrying a cothe-philadelphia-story-fathermplete bore, George Kittredge (John Howard), when her ex-husband, Dexter (Grant), shows up with two reporters in tow to cover the nuptials.  To avoid a family scandal involving her father (John Halliday) and a chorus girl, Tracy agrees to allow the reporters, Mike (Stewart) and Liz (Ruth Hussey), to take pictures and write an article for Spy magazine. Of course, this isn’t the only reason Dexter has crashed his ex’s wedding—the flame of love still burns bright for his rigid, unforgiving ex-wife.  And, this is what the story hinges on—Tracy’s inability to accept anyone’s human weakness, even her own.  In between exchanging sharps quips with Dexter, her father, and her beyond hilarious mother (Mary Nash) and sister (Virginia Weidler) and soulfully philosophizing with Mike, Tracy somehow grows up before the audience’s eyes and becomes, dare I say it, human.

Interestingly enough, while Grant and Hepburn had undeniable chemistry, as previously shown in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), most of the film focuses on a budding romantic relationship between Tracy and Mike.  Hepburn had wanted Spencer Tracy to play the part of Mike (this was two jimmyholdkateyears prior to her having ever met Tracy) but he was unavailable, which probably was a blessing, because when you think about it who could have better humanized Hepburn than Mr. Likable himself, Jimmy Stewart?  He, along with director George Cukor, did such a good job of bringing out Hepburn’s vulnerable side that Stewart won his only Oscar (besides his honorary one).  Strangely enough, Stewart and Hepburn never did another film together, and this was also her last pairing with Grant as well. Oh well, both Grant and Stewart moved onto the world of Hitchcock and Hepburn, well, she finally got to work with Spencer Tracy, so I guess things worked out for everyone in the end.

Overall, The Philadelphia Story is a highly enjoyable film.  The story is witty and the cast is engaging.  It also serves as a historical footprint in the film career of Hepburn, because without it things may have turned out very differently for the woman who would go on to be recognized as one of the greatest film actresses ever. 



  1. Welcome back to blogging, Kim. You have been missed.
    This is a fun movie to watch. I had no idea Spencer Tracy was in the picture for this film. I think it was fortunate that it was Stewart and not Tracy who became Mike. I have some difficulty imaginingTracy as the reporter.
    The litle sister is totally hilarious as well.

    1. Thanks, TS. My job was taking too much of my time away from doing the things I love--one being blogging. I think it was fortunate that Tracy was unavailable, too. This role was tailor made for Stewart.

  2. I greatly enjoy your reviews and how really thought-out and measured they are. i've belatedly begun to actively try to watch the movies in the 1001 movies list and thanks to TCM i seen more than a few, including this one as well as other screwball "classics" like The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and Bringing Up Baby. Everybody has their likes and dislikes, but i can sincerely say that the screwball genre is firmly in my LEAST FAVORITE of the movie archetypes i've seen so far. The asinine love triangles where the heroine essentially jerks around one decent guy (LOL poor typecast Ralph Bellamy in TWO of the movies i mentioned) only to let Cary Grant (essentially playing a likable douche, but STILL a douche) swoop in and - not just sweep her off her feet - but RE-sweep her off her feet - essentially lessening the woman since she's shown to be wishy-washy and still dependent on the guy they left prior to the events of the movie. The overrated "comedy" much of which to me consists of physical humor well below the likes of Chaplin and Keaton.

    Anyways The Philadelphia Story suffers from these things, and we don't even get a love triangle, we get a love SQUARE lol, where Man 1 is conveniently "bad", while Man 2 conveniently retreats at the last minute to allow Man 3 (Cary Grant) who's been essentially causing most of the background chaos throughout the story to suddenly don a Sir Galahad tone and get the girl undeservedly i think. And i know i'm in the minority here, but the Katherine Hepburn/screwball mystique is overrated to me (although it was hilarious to watch Cate Blanchett butcher/caricature Hepburn's screwball look/voice in The Aviator - AND GET AN OSCAR FOR IT LOL - had i not seen seen Hepburn in some of these movies, i would not have been able to gauge how laughable many of Blanchett's affectations were)

    1. Thanks, Bobby. The dynamics of the screwball comedy are rather strange, especially when you consider, as you say, how many good guys (and girls) end up getting screwed over--maybe that's part of the reason they're called screwball comedies.

    2. WOW, thanks for the quick (and thoughtful) reply!!! I REALLY tried to temper my comment since I've developed such an animus for the genre, but I still think a little extra venom seeped out, and I thank you for for essentially ignoring that in your response to somebody who had such a contrary opinion to a movie you clearly adore - perusing the average IMDb movie board might have conditioned me to expect a much more acerbic rebuttal LOL.

      btw WHERE do you derive your full 1001 movies list (that you use) from? I'm seeing "Hero" (2002) in your list but the list I'm going by doesn't seem to have "Hero" on it... probably my biggest peeve of trying to watch 'em all - not knowing if I have an up-to-date list or not (though I'll probably try to watch EVERY movie that ever made the list regardless). Keep up the great reviews and good work!!!

    3. I'm not one of those people who go crazy when someone doesn't like I feel I adore--that's just stupid. Films affect people in different ways--no one has a right to think only their opinion matters. Now, if someone verbally attacks someone on a personal scale, then there might be room for a less than polite reply.

      As for where I get my list, it is the most up-to-date list of the American version of the 1001 book, which is now in its 10th Anniversary Edition. I say there are 1152 films, while a friend of mine says there are 1154--he breaks Olympia and Ivan the Terrible into two films each, as they both have two parts. So, from the first edition to this most recent one some films have been taken out and replaced with other titles, usually newer titles, but the last edition I actually added several older films.