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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