Three of the brightest stars in the golden years of cinema converge in “The Philadelphia Story,” a romantic comedy of great wit and sophistication. Although it would be unfair to say that the talent makes this film, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart are far and away its best feature.
“Philadelphia Story”” was adapted from the stage production of the same name by Philip Barry. The play was written with the intention of reviving Hepburn’s stage career. It was brought to the screen with the help of Hepburn’s boyfriend Howard Hughes who purchased the rights for her as a gift.
Full of fast-talking highbrow humor, the material is unquestionably aimed at an upper-class audience, but not only in terms of taste, but also thematically. Created during the latter half of the Great Depression, “Philadelphia Story” makes the statement that class is insignificant, that it’s a non-existent social framework that purports itself as an indication of character. We obsess over class, something that couldn’t have been more true during the depression, and it’s a theme all the more impressive considering the film’s popularity and story of celebrity gossip and intrigue.
Hepburn stars as rich socialite Tracy Lord, who is about to marry working-class hero George Kittredge (John Howard), only her wealthy ex-husband, the wealthy and fantastically-named C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) plans on spoiling the big day by sneaking in a tabloid writer (Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey). The jig is up pretty quickly, but not without making things dreadfully difficult on Tracy.
Stewart might have won the Oscar, but this is Hepburn’s film. I’d agree with what Stewart once said: that the statuette was “deferred payment” for losing out in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” an undeniably superior role. Hepburn should have seen the glory for this film for her magnetizing and moving performance. Whether its her distinct and powerful voice or her variety of facial expressions, she’s got us tied on a string and she just plays with us throughout the ups and downs of her character. Tracy is not unlike Hepburn herself as a major public figure that feels worshipped more than truly loved or appreciated.
Stewart and Grant, however, deserve their due. Stewart pilots the best scene of the film when he pays a drunken visit to C.K.’s place late at night. Grant works his charms in a more subdued way as C.K. is more the subtle mastermind than the flashy performer of his schemes. Also worthy of mention is the dry and snide humor of Hussey’s character. She adds a really nice touch to the cast and keeps it balanced.
Although a bit sharper, more sophisticated and dialogue-heavy than most romantic comedies, “Philadelphia Story” is still a classic and it makes its class argument through those weaknesses in ways, making it a terrific film.
“The Philadelphia Story” (1940)
Directed by: George Kucor
Written by: Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay), Philip Barry (play), Waldo Salt (uncredited)
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart