Warner Bros. // 1940 // 112 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 18th, 2005
Broadway's howling year-run comedy hit of the snooty society beauty who slipped and fell -- IN LOVE!
You have to give Katharine Hepburn credit. She was one smart cookie. When her venture into screen comedy in Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby was a box office dud, the final straw in a string of disappointing movies, she retreated to a stage comedy written for her by Philip Barry called, The Philadelphia Story. Though her performance in Baby was flawless, and the movie's reputation would be rehabilitated in the decades to come, Broadway afforded her the opportunity to hone her comedic timing and fully develop the character of Tracy Lord. By the time The Philadelphia Story was a hit, she owned the rights to adapt it for the screen, having received them as a gift from Howard Hughes. She sold them to Louis B. Mayer on the condition that she be cast in the lead, despite the let down of Baby.
Hepburn smartly tapped George Cukor to direct the screen version of The Philadelphia Story. His Little Women and Holiday had helped make her a star. Her original intention was to cast Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as her co-stars, but when neither actor was available, the poor woman had to settle for Cary Grant (His Girl Friday) and James Stewart (Vertigo). Upon its release, The Philadelphia Story was a smash, and went on to be nominated for six Oscars, winning two (Stewart picked up the award for Best Actor, and Donald Ogden Stewart won for his adapted screenplay).
The Philadelphia Story is a sophisticated screwball comedy, light on slapstick, rife with smart dialogue (delivered at a considerably slower pace than in the comedies of Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks), and bolstered by undertones of drama. It centers on Philadelphia's society event of the season: the second marriage of moneyed socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) to nouveau riche businessman/fuddy-duddy George Kittredge (John Howard, Lost Horizon). Lord's first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) complicates matters by finagling wedding invitations for tabloid writer Mike Connor (Stewart) and his photographer pal Liz (Ruth Hussey, The Women). An aspiring novelist forced into yellow journalism as a way of making ends meet, Connor plans on writing a tell-all exposé, but finds himself falling for Lord, despite her pampered upbringing and icy, judgmental exterior. He's also drawn into friendship with the suave and devilish Haven, in spite of the scoundrel's sabotaging his ex-wife's wedding. But Haven's motives for giving tabloid reporters access to Tracy's big day may not be as mercenary and mean-spirited as they first appear. We know from the beginning that The Philadelphia Story, like so many screwballs, is destined to end with a wedding. But we know just as surely that there's no way Tracy's marrying a stiff like Kittredge.
The Philadelphia Story would have worked with Gable and Tracy as Haven and Connor, but it's difficult to imagine it would have come off as well as it does. With Grant and Stewart, the characters are much more finely balanced. Gable could've played up Haven's roguish tendencies, made him more fiercely masculine. One can imagine a more vigorous conflict between him and Hepburn, something closer to his macho sparring with Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. As a matter of fact, the film's famous opening sequence, in which an exasperated Dex palms Tracy's face and shoves her to the floor, is more in tune with Gable's persona than Cary Grant's. Otherwise, C.K. Dexter Haven is tailor-made for Grant's smoother persona, playful wit, and impeccable comic timing. Grant's Haven is a scoundrel, but not in so obvious a way we feel the need to choose either him or Tracy as the lone recipient of our affinity. He treads so lightly that even the worst of his behavior is more playful than malicious. He plays the role with a wry detachment, his Dex a bon vivant who's messing with his ex-wife's wedding just to amuse himself. Only later in the picture do we see the true depths of his passion.
In the hands of Spencer Tracy, Mike Connor would've been an earthy, working class journalist, gruff and no-nonsense. He'd be closer to type, rumpled, fast-talking, worldly. Played by Stewart, Connor transcends the stereotype of a 1940s newspaper man. He's bright, with a sometimes wicked and subversive sense of humor as when he pranks Mrs. Lord on their mansion's internal telephone line. He's a different sort of man than Tracy Lord is used to, but not so different that he's unable to hang among the elites without standing out like a sore thumb. Stewart's easy-going charm gives Connor a refinement born of education and an experience of the world -- a world from which Ms. Lord and her circle have been largely sheltered. It's believable Tracy Lord might fall for him. He's Kittredge minus the ego, bravado, and desperate need to prove himself among Philadelphia's most influential families. That Connor is the leading man over Haven (Grant received top billing only because his contract demanded it) is The Philadelphia Story's greatest subversion of screwball comedy convention. The vast majority of screwballs lampoon the special eccentricities and moral peculiarities of America's upper crust, but few plant a guy like Connor in the middle of the action. He's an everyman, the eyes, ears, and voice of the audience watching the show. The strength of his character, combined with his neutrality, forces Tracy Lord to recognize her own flaws and that she'd never given her first husband a fair shake. Sure, both her father and Dex try to tell her, but Connor's a different sort of man entirely, an artist and thinker willing to stand on his own convictions. It's Connor's presence that tempers the movie's screwball tendencies, grounding it in such a way it rarely spins off into unbridled zaniness. The quirky buffoonery of the ultra-wealthy is there, and the plot's heavy use of coincidence, misunderstanding, and crossed communication is as absurd as we'd expect from any screwball, but it's all delivered with gentility uncharacteristic of the genre. The Philadelphia Story is part screwball, part droll and sophisticated drawing room comedy.
The subtleties of Grant's and Stewart's performances are essential because they allow Hepburn to be subtle in turn. Tracy Lord is the sort character who, if Hepburn had made the wrong choices, could easily have grated on audiences. She's arrogant and unforgiving. She's a spoiled brat. And, unlike Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, or Hepburn herself in Bringing Up Baby, her sins aren't easily forgiven on account of ditziness. She's a sharp, vibrant woman who demands we like her or hate her on her own terms. Her relationships with both Dex and Connor are complex enough we see more than her faults. We like her and even respect her as much as we do the men. She's their equal, intellectually and emotionally (a rarity even in screwball comedies, a genre that afforded actresses more dynamic and dominant roles than most in that era). Tracy Lord is, then, a character worthy of and perfect for Katharine Hepburn, an actress who'd always rankled some with her independence, forthrightness, and self-confidence. Philip Barry wrote the role for her, and he did a damned fine job of distilling those qualities that made Hepburn into a character who still required the actress to act. The Philadelphia Story is her show in every way, but Grant and Stewart prove the perfect men to bring out the best in her, helping her walk the fine Barry-crafted line of character performance informed by her own personality. It's a perfect melding of character and actress. Hepburn is entirely natural, yet never resting on her laurels or just being herself.
The strong performances of this trio of screen luminaries is the source of the picture's success, the reason it's a classic. There's nothing in particular about the script that would make the movie stand out. Other than the presence of Connor, it is a fairly standard screwball construction, rocketing toward a predictable and, let's face it, rather hokey conclusion. But that's okay, because formula movies are all about how the cast works within the bounds of the formula. And this cast works wonderfully. Each of the three principles is that rare combination of mega-star and highly skilled actor, and Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay mostly succeeds in providing them the space to do their magic without inserting elements to trip them up. One gets so caught up in the interplay between Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart, it doesn't really matter that the next turn of plot is obvious long before it comes, even on a first-time viewing. It's the charm of it all that wins us. The single illusion-busting failure of the movie is the character of Liz. While Ruth Hussey does a fine job, the character feels extraneous. Liz is a likable, down-to-earth woman who acts as a foil to Tracy's excesses, but she's emotionally undeveloped. Her crush on Connor begs for high drama when he begins to fall for Lord, but her response to her partner's growing devotion to the heiress is casual, almost flippant. It's distractingly false and bizarre, even in the fantasy realm of screwball comedies. Perhaps Liz was more fully-developed in the stage version. In the film, her relationships with Connor and Lord play like a subplot left unwritten, a narrative cul de sac that should have been completely excised. Still, this failure of writing isn't nearly enough to derail the show. The Philadelphia Story stands as one of the great romantic comedies of Hollywood's Golden Era.
This Two-Disc Special Edition DVD release of The Philadelphia Story offers a major improvement over Warner's single-disc release from 2000. The image has been fully restored and is free of most of the print damage that occasionally marred the earlier disc. In addition, the contrast is smoother and more subtle, with deeper blacks and a richer range of grays. The film's original mono audio track has been fully restored as well. Presented in a two-channel mix, it's free of hiss and pops. Its only limitations are endemic to the recording technology of the 1940s. Warner's Special Edition releases of their classic catalogue titles have been uniformly impressive, and I'm happy to say The Philadelphia Story is no exception.
This release is worthy of its Special Edition moniker as it's packed with supplemental material. In addition to the main feature, Disc One offers a commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. On the downside, her delivery is a little stiff because she's clearly reading from carefully prepared notes. But on the upside, she has carefully prepared notes. The track offers a wealth of background information on the production, anecdotes about the stars, and solid analysis of the story elements, performances, and Cukor's style. If you like a commentary with substance, you'll like this one.
Also on the first disc is a gallery of trailers for 10 Cukor films: Dinner at Eight, Little Women, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, A Star is Born, Les Girls, and My Fair Lady. If nothing else, the gallery demonstrates the depth and scope of Cukor's work as a director. A Play All option is offered so you can watch them all without returning to the menu.
Finally, there is a single static page that lists the awards won by the picture (the two Oscars for James Stewart and Donald Ogden Stewart, plus Hepburn's New York Film Critics Best Actress award).
Extras on Disc Two begin with Katharine Hepburn: All About Me -- A Self-Portrait, a 1992 documentary, narrated by Hepburn herself. The piece runs 70 minutes and is indexed into 21 menu-accessible chapters. It's occasionally corny, and Hepburn's words sometimes sound scripted and false, but there are also moments when she's surprisingly candid. She describes in detail, for instance, the first time she met Spencer Tracy on the studio lot, and how he later told her his first impression was that her demeanor was odd, she had dirt under her fingernails, and she was probably a lesbian. Though its topics span her entire career, the piece lingers a bit on The Philadelphia Story, recognizing it as a crucial turning-point in her work on film. It doesn't, however, offer much in the way of information not already presented in Basinger's commentary. For Hepburn fans, though, the most touching parts of the documentary are her ruminations on her long relationship with Spencer Tracy.
The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor is one of a series of documentaries produced in 2001 by Turner Movie Classics. It runs 55 minutes, is indexed into 14 chapters, and provides an excellent overview of the director's life and career. These two documentaries pair perfectly with those on Cary Grant and Howard Hawks on the second disc of the Special Edition of Bringing Up Baby, released the same day as The Philadelphia Story. You're missing out if you don't add both to your collection.
Rounding out Disc Two's video extras are a 9-minute short film, starring humorist Robert Benchley, called That Inferior Feeling. About the only thing it has in common with The Philadelphia Story is that it was released the same year, but I like that Warner is using these Two-Disc Special Editions to archive some of the miscellany in their classics catalogue. The Homeless Flea, a 7-minute MGM animated short -- beautifully restored with vivid colors -- is also offered on the disc. It's too bad these shorts weren't bundled on Disc One as a part of the "Night at the Movies" option -- meant to recreate the experience of going to the movies in the 1940s -- that Warner experimented with in their Special Edition releases of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Yankee Doodle Dandy, but have apparently abandoned (or, perhaps, only the Warner proper titles receive such treatment, while those produced under the MGM banner do not).
Finally, the second disc houses two radio adaptations of The Philadelphia Story. A 1942 Victory Theater version is the first. It runs nearly an hour and reunites Grant, Hepburn, Hussey, and Stewart, who was serving in the war at that time and is introduced at Lt. James Stewart. The presentation's awash in hiss, but all the dialogue is discernible and the program is entirely entertaining. The Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse adaptation from 1947 finds Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart returning to their celebrated roles. The audio presentation is significantly better than the earlier Victory Theater piece, but at only 29 minutes in length, the story itself is less satisfying.
The Philadelphia Story is a classic. Of course, it belongs in your collection. This new Special Edition offers such an impressive presentation of the film, its well worth an upgrade by those who already own the earlier release. Get out there and buy it if you haven't already. And pick up Bringing Up Baby while you're at the store. You won't be sorry.
This court's in recess.
Review content copyright © 2005 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Film Historian Jeannine Basinger
* Katharine Hepburn: All About Me -- A Self Portrait Documentary
* The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor Documentary
* "That Inferior Feeling" Short Film Starring Robert Benchley
* "The Homeless Flea" MGM Animated Short
* Two Radio Adaptations of The Philadelphia Story
* George Cukor Trailer Gallery