|Philadelphia Story, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 02 May 2000|
This was #15 on the recent American Film Institute list of the 100 Funniest Comedies. While that list, like all such, leaves a hell of a lot to be desired (not enough Preston Sturges, for one thing), it's hard to argue against THE PHILADELPHIA STORY riding high on a list of great comedies -- since it's probably the best movie of its nature ever made.
It's often described as a screwball comedy, but though it reunites Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn from BRINGING UP BABY, one of the best of all screwball comedies, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is another kind of movie. It's more sophisticated, more romantic, wittier and also more serious than screwball comedies; it's what screwball comedies want to be when they grow up: a great comedy of manners full of interesting people with interesting desires and motivations.
The movie certainly does embrace elements of screwball, as when kid sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) enters en pointe, chats like a ten-year-old Bryn Mawr graduate, then totters off to the piano -- to play and lustily sing Groucho Marx's "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." There's also randy, tipsy Uncle Willy (the perfect Roland Young) hanging around, pinching asses and having a grand old time.
Screwball comedies often involved madcap heiresses, so the rich usually came in for a great deal of kidding, but THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is one of the very few Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s to actually criticize the rich for attitudes they too often hold. Here, that criticism is aimed at Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn, perhaps at her very best), the central character, who goes through a lot of growing up over the course of the few days the movie covers.
Tracy is brilliant, charming and beautiful, but she's also arrogant, self-centered and inclined to regard herself as just about perfect. Her mother (Mary Nash) sighs early on, "Tracy sets exceptionally high standards for herself, that's all, and other people aren't apt to live up to them." (The funniest line I've heard this year.) The movie opens as she's breaking up with the equally wealthy C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), in the most screwball comedy-like scene in the entire film. We later learn that Dexter drank too much, and Tracy was hyper-critical of this weakness.
She, of course, doesn't feel she has any weaknesses herself; the movie is about her discovering that she does, and yet that her weaknesses simply make her a part of the very weak human race.
Two years later. Tracy is about to marry George Kittredge (John Howard, in the Ralph Bellamy role), a man who rose up from poverty to wealth equal to that of Tracy's Philadelphia Main Line family. He's always looking for more wealth, though, and we -- though not Tracy -- soon realize that the main reason he wants to marry her is that she represents everything he is aspiring to. He regards Tracy very much as she views herself, but that's not necessarily a good thing.
Dexter has spent the last two years in Argentina working for Spy magazine; he's returned just in time for the wedding, and has agreed to the demands of Spy publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) to get a reporter and photographer into Tracy's wedding. It will make a great story for Spy, Kidd is sure. (We later learn that, and why, Dexter is unwillingly going along with all of this.)
The reporter assigned is Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart), who's had a hard time making a living as a novelist, and who is pretty bitter about having to do this kind of story in the first place. The photographer is Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), a cool, observant type who's somewhat secretly in love with Mike, but who for reasons of her own, isn't ready to bring this into the open.
Tracy is no fool, and despite Dexter's assurances that Mike and Liz are friends of her brother, also off in Argentina (what was the attraction of Argentina in the 1930s?), she soon realizes exactly who and what they are. There's an absolutely brilliant, hilarious scene in which she swoops into the room where they're waiting; she's lofty, snide, condescending, gracious, incisive, flirtatious and airy, all at the same time, a caricature of the wealthy deb who is only pretending that people who work for a living could actually be worth talking to.
But Mike's straightforward honesty and his ability (Tracy sneaks off to the local library to read his novel) end up enchanting her, and he's dazzled by her wit, intelligence and sophistication. But there is a gulf between them. Returning with Tracy from the library, he gazes at the Lords' swimming pool, murmuring, "you've really got something here." Puzzled, Tracy responds, "Where?" It really isn't anything special to her, and she has never met anyone like Mike before. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is one of those rare romantic comedies that offers the heroine two very desirable choices, Dexter and Mike (certainly not George), and up to the very end, it could go either way.
After all, the exchanges between Dexter and Tracy are full of real bitterness and recriminations; there's real history here, and real anger. It's not patently obvious that, as in most such movies, the divorced couple will get together; in fact, the odds seem against it -- even though it is absolutely clear to everyone but Tracy that Dexter is still deeply in love with her.
Even though it's one of his most celebrated roles, C.K. Dexter Haven is an unusual part for Cary Grant; he's far more the observer, making quiet wisecracks and serious observations from a distance. The script, Grant and Cukor also make it clear, without any emphasis at all, that he's been through a rough time -- that he is, in fact, a recovering alcoholic. Grant is excellent -- but then, when wasn't he?
Tracy is something of a caricature of Hepburn herself, or rather of how the public tended to see her. She was one of the biggest stars of the early 1930s; her angular beauty, distinctive diction and firm control of her acting abilities were tremendously appealing. But by 1938, after a couple of bad movie choices, she had been declared "box office poison." Katharine Hepburn was (and presumably still is) nothing if not determined. She was offered the lead in Philip Barry's play "The Philadelphia Story," which turned out to be a major hit on Broadway.
Shrewdly, Hepburn bought the rights to the play herself, and insisted on George Cukor as director. She wasn't able to get her first two choices for the roles of Dexter and Mike (Clark Gable and Gary Cooper), but it's hard to imagine anyone being better in the parts than Grant and Stewart -- who won his only Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so. Everyone, in fact, is excellent.
But the real triumphant performance is that of Katharine Hepburn, who must have polished the part very carefully on Broadway and during rehearsals for the movie -- because there's not the slightest sign of acting. She is Tracy Lord (and yes, that's where the porn star got her name), the dazzlingly brilliant but unforgiving beauty from Philadelphia. It's an amazingly intense performance, and yet the effort is absolutely invisible; Hepburn is incandescent. It's astonishing that she did not win the Oscar for this role; she was nominated.
The screenplay by the great Donald Ogden Stewart was also nominated, as was Cukor as director, Ruth Hussey as supporting actress, and the movie itself as best picture. James Stewart's was the only Oscar the movie won, although Hepburn did with the best actress award that year from the New York Film Critics Circle.
It's too bad that a movie as wonderful as THE PHILADELPHIA STORY has been given a less-than-standard presentation on DVD. Aside from the usual language choices and scene selections, the only extra is the trailer. Surely someone could have rounded up biographies on people as famous as Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart and/or George Cukor? Surely some minimal written notes about the play and how it reached the screen were in order? The movie itself is presented in a sparkling print, but this landmark film deserved far richer treatment.