Truly Great Movies: The Philadelphia Story
I am an unabashed lover of classic cinema, and could watch an entire day’s worth of programming on TCM without blinking twice. Still, it takes a wonderful combination of talent and story to make a classic movie stand the test of time. The Philadelphia Story captures all that magic, and then some.
Under the studio system in classic Hollywood, many stars found their livelihoods threatened when their star power waned. One or two box office bombs could mean the end of a career. In 1939, Katharine Hepburn was considered “box office poison”. She wisely left Hollywood for Broadway – hoping that absence would make the heart grow fonder. It did.
Playwright Phillp Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story with Kate in mind, and she was the triumph of Broadway when it was released. Hoping lightning really would strike twice, and with the financial backing of ex-boyfriend Howard Hughes, Kate sunk all her hopes for a Hollywood comeback on the film version of the play. She would not be disappointed. Along with resurrecting her career, it made a star out of newcomer Jimmy Stewart, and promoted Cary Grant to full-time leading man status.
Hepburn personally selected the cast and director, choosing for the latter her old friend George Cukor, who had directed her in 1933’s Little Women. Cukor, well-known for character-driven films, was an ideal choice for the project. Donald Stewart based the screenplay almost word for word on Barry’s original play, keeping every zinger intact.
The Philadelphia Story begins as spoiled socialite Tracy Samantha Lord (Hepburn)is preparing for her second wedding. Her first husband, the charming but recovering alcoholic C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), views all this with apprehension. In a bid to get some quick cash (and also to protect Tracy’s father from blackmail), he has promised a tabloid that he will give the inside scoop on this wedding of the year. Dexter, along with the reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and his intrepid photographer Liz, depart for the Lord estate, ready to wreak havoc on the proceedings.
Tracy’s choice of a second husband is the everyman George Kittredge, champion of the working class. Kittredge is as reliable and boring as Dexter is complex and endearing. Dexter is worried that Tracy’s new marriage may be a swing to the opposite pole of her first. He, of course, has his own motives for preventing this second marriage.
Meanwhile, Macaulay discovers that Tracy Lord, far from being a paragon of the rich and mighty (“with the rich and might, always a little patience” reads a proverb from one of Macaulay’s failed novels), is a real person with a heart and sould to match her beauty. He falls for her hook, line and sinker, leading to the film’s most charming scene as a drunk Tracy and Mr. Connor cavort and trade witty barbs before a moonlight swim.
Before the end of the movie, couples will break up and make up, not always in the expected patterns. Hepburn’s unusual charms illustrate how these two very different men can be so enthralled with her, and yet very often want to strangle her.
A warning :The Philadelphia Story may ruin you for the modern romantic comedies that are a dime a dozen in the current industry. Nowadays co-stars are chosen more for their banakability than their chemistry, and recent offering such as the dismal Valentine’s Day try to pack so many big names into a bomb that there’s no room for a script.
Seeing Grant, Hepburn and Stewart at their finest is a brilliant way to remember that it is possible to see true romance at the movies. It’s only as far away as your DVD player.
Here are some select scenes from the film (SPOILER ALERT!)…