Philadelphia Story, The (1940)
Release Date: December 26th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Cukor Actors: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler
wo years after a nasty breakup (involving the unforgivable breaking of a golf club and an ensuing face-grasping push), Tracy Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) is getting married to George Kittredge (John Howard), a General Manager for a coal company, at a lavish social event in Philadelphia, where the Lords represent one of the oldest and richest families in the city. While mother Margaret (Mary Nash) is overseeing the arrangements, younger daughter Dinah (Virginia Weidler) waltzes in to stir up the pot – and is a pure delight as the wisecracking, sarcastic youngster with an opinion on everything. She’s also as much of a comedic fast-talker as Hepburn. She’s permanently loyal to mischievousness, interested in gossip, and intent on disrupting the wedding with both invented and real drama.
Meanwhile, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), an employee of Spy magazine, is assigned the task of getting the scoop on the wedding. With the help of Tracy’s slightly obnoxious, upper class ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who still holds a grudge, Connor and his camera-ready photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey) are introduced to the family as very dear friends. Tracy realizes Dexter’s underhanded tricks immediately, but is extorted into allowing the two reporters to write about the family. Mike isn’t thrilled to cover a story about rapacious, spoiled, rich brats (“privileged people enjoying their privileges”), but Tracy is determined to put on a show and make them all equally as uncomfortable during the tumultuous weekend.
“The Philadelphia Story” is not as generally ridiculous as most screwball comedies, instead reaching for the deeper themes of uncovering self-confidence, wanting the approval of others, disappointment with family, and character misdirection (in both the purposeful deception by Tracy to the reporters, as well as Dexter’s motivation for involving himself in disrupting the wedding). The whole movie is a masterpiece in cast assemblage, firstly by putting together two male leads that could have carried their own films – which earned Stewart an Oscar (for a turn topped by a particularly entertaining drunk skit, though the honor was ultimately somewhat compensatory for the previous year’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) while Grant portrays his quintessential self. Secondly, Hepburn snagged a nomination (as did Hussey for her supporting performance) for deliciously flirting with essentially extramarital affairs. The amusement of the roles can also be largely attributed to the writing – a brilliantly cynical, conspicuously smart collection of misanthropic, combative conversations penned by Donald Ogden Stewart, who took home an Academy Award for his sharp adaptation of Philip Barry’s stage play.
As with “Bringing Up Baby,” the rapid-fire dialogue headlines the nonstop humor, aided by brief slapstick and a bevy of colorful characters. Also included are a wonderfully witty switcheroo with Tracy’s father Seth and jolly Uncle Willie (Roland Young), and a love triangle/quadrangle complete with biting jealousy and adulterous insinuations. The overabundance of mix-ups, feigned surprise/excitement, bitter arguments, and complex situations makes for a brisk class riot, with a touch of drama (and more than a dash of sophisticated intelligence) over Tracy’s displeasure with being worshipped like a goddess instead of being loved (thanks to her overactive ego, which is explained more than shown) and Seth Lord’s blackmail-worthy infidelity (which paints him out to be a solidly dislikeable man), inappropriately blamed on Tracy. As a high society situational comedy, “The Philadelphia Story” is a substantial picture that starts light and funny before gradually revealing layers of more poignant motifs as it unravels its mixed up love story – which provides continued interest and new, subtler elements upon every repeat viewing.
– Mike Massie