The Philadelphia Story
d. George Cukor (1940)
The Criterion Collection

In 1938, the Independent Theatre Owners of America published an article entitled “Dead Cats,” stating that several Hollywood actors we now consider legends were “box office poison.” “Wake up!” the article says. “Practically all the major studios are burdened with stars — whose public appeal is negligible — and receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations.” Among the stars on the list was Katharine Hepburn, fresh from the now highly esteemed flop Bringing Up Baby. Hepburn had a quick response: “They say I’m a has-been. If I weren’t laughing so much, I might cry.” As strong as this quip might sound, the list got to Hepburn and she set about creating a vehicle that would establish her proper place in the firmament.

The new vehicle was to become one of Hollywood’s famous films, The Philadelphia Story. Written for the stage by Philip Barry, with whom Hepburn worked closely to fashion her career move, the story focuses on a wealthy young woman named Tracy Lord, a woman of high standards who prefers to consider herself irreproachable against those standards; however, so high are those standards that folks filled with life don’t happen to meet them. This has led her to divorce one man and become engaged to another man who also prefers to see her as irreproachable. Indeed, he prefers to think of her as an untouchable goddess. As the narrative goes on, Tracy has to come to terms with her own failings and, with that, accept the beautiful, flawed humanity in herself and others.

Through a series of well planned steps, Hepburn starred in the play and then became the powerful force behind its adaptation to the silver screen, co-starring Cary Grant and James Stewart. And it all worked out according to plan. The film was a smash. Giving audiences a new image, showcasing her own humanity, Hepburn’s stardom rose again. She certainly hoped to convey a vulnerable human. As the film was being made, she said:

I don’t want to make a grand entrance in this picture. Moviegoers . . . think I’m too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face.

Personally, I love The Philadelphia Story; however, if it had a different cast, I don’t think I’d care about it much at all. Katharine Hepburn embodies Tracy Lord perfectly, and it’s her own desire to showcase a strong woman who nevertheless has weaknesses that makes the character so strong. She’s definitely the film’s raison d’être. However, I also love watching Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in the film, each giving strong performances of men who also have a strong exterior and hidden desires they prefer to hide for fear of showing weakness.

Cary Grant plays C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy’s ex-husband. The film begins with him leaving home. Is he just going for a business trip? Is Tracy helping him pack his clubs?

No. He’s being banished and the clubs are never to be used again.

This small prologue continues. Tracy Lord is to be married again, this time to the much respected self-made Goerge Kittredge, played with nice stuffiness by John Howard. No one particularly likes Kittredge, but he’s the perfect contrast to Dexter. Furthermore, he’s very concerned about outward stalwartness, so, even if there won’t be as much fun, he’s a stable man.

The papers would all love to get the inside scoop on the wedding, and so we meet our other big star: James Stewart plays the cynical Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a writer who does trash work merely for the check. Working alongside him is Elizabeth Imbrie, played by Ruth Hussey, his long-standing partner who hopes someday he’ll get some sense and they can change the nature of their partnership.

Much of the film takes place in the day and night before the wedding, all parties converging and going through their own transformations.

Kittredge, Tracy, and Dexter: I love the looks!

I particularly love the relationship that develops between Tracy and Mike in the lengthy night before the big wedding. Watching Hepburn and Stewart dance and play in this liminal space is a delight.

The Criterion Collection presentation is wonderful. The film underwent vigorous and careful restoration to remove jitters, damage, and dirt, and it shines better than I’ve ever seen before. It also includes a nice selection of supplements, including an audio commentary, a documentary about Barry and the development of Tracy Lord, a conversation between David Heeley and Joan Kramer about Hepburn, three forays on The Dick Cavett Show (two full-length spots with Hepburn and one 15-minute excerpt with George Cukor), a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, a trailer, and a short piece on the restoration. It’s a satisfying and engaging package!

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By | 2017-11-29T19:02:28+00:00 November 29th, 2017|Categories: Film Reviews, George Cukor|Tags: |5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang November 29, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    I watch this film every time it shows up on TCM but I think I feel the same way–I’m not sure I’d care for it that much if it wasn’t for the fabulous cast. They are terrific and Cukor puts them all in motion, playing off each other with great energy.
    But I can’t get past that it comes off as the stage play it is, driven entirely by dialogue (well, I guess that works for Chekov, but is it “cinema”?) This is probably sacrilege, given its reputation, but by about the fifth viewing it did get kind of boring, and without Grant, Hepburn, Stewart, Hussey and the perfect supporting cast, I sense would be really boring.
    Although,gorgeous B&W as your choice of still attests!

  2. Trevor Berrett November 30, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    I tend to notice the stage play origins, too, Dennis, and I wondered about noting that criticism in my review above. There’s not a lot of movement, and most shots are large enough to showcase the whole cast that’s present in the scene. Indeed, it seems that was Cukor’s primary concern with this particular film — make sure the actors are in the perfect positions. Still, I don’t mind that too much in general, so I felt I’d be simply saying something that I noticed but don’t actually find terribly detrimental in this case!

    But, yes, I wonder just how much we’d care about the film if it weren’t for the actors and, in particular, Hepburn’s background with the project. The weird thing is that despite all of that, my misgivings are mostly hypothetical because I still love the film!

  3. Dennis Lang November 30, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    True. I can’t resist it whenever it’s on. And of course my “is it cinema?” question is not only irrelevant it’s stupid. I take it back.
    Enjoyed your review!

  4. David November 30, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    I have not seen this film in a VERY long time. I should see it again. As a comment on the filming-a-play discussion, I remember when I first saw a number of films from the 30s and 40s how refreshing it was to see films that showed the actors from head to foot in a single shot, where the camera did not move like crazy, and where shots were allowed to be long and static. Too often extreme close ups and frantic editing is used in films as a crutch to generate false excitement because the actors or the script just isn’t good enough. I am glad Dennis, you withdrew your question. I would say it is not stupid as an academic question (much like the question of whether photography is a work of art or the object photographed is the work of art), but I do agree it is irrelevant. When I see a film that looks like a stage play with a camera fixed in one place to record it, I take that as a clue that the director has confidence in the script and actors to do their job. If they do that, then the medium we count it as belonging to is less important than the content.
    .
    As a side note, I just this morning got a new cable service installed at home and now have TCM for the first time. Chuck Connors and Burt Lancaster are winning WWII in the Pacific right now. Much better than the Avengers for my money.

  5. Dennis Lang November 30, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    David–if you’re a film buff, and I think you might be, you’ll love TCM! I’m already anticipating the “Thin Man” series that usually shows up close to New Years. William Powell and Myrna Loy as I imagined all my romantic adventures would be!

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