THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

  • Director: George Cukor
  • Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Philip Barry
  • Starring: Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, & Virginia Weidler
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#44), 2 Oscars (Best Actor – James Stewart, Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – George Cukor, Best Actress – Katherine Hepburn, Best Supporting Actress – Ruth Hussey)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video or YouTube

Coming in to watching The Philadelphia Story for the first time, all I really knew about it were the central members of the cast, included three all-time stars in its central sort-of-love-triangle of Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant. Hepburn & Grant starred in a series of classic romantic comedies, including 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, which is also on the most recent edition of the AFI Top 100. Though they’re two very different movies, I was left with the feeling that I’m not sure both are needed on a list like that. The big advantage of The Philadelphia Story is the addition of Stewart, who of the central trio is the one who ended up winning an Oscar (it’s crazy to remember that there was a time when just a really good romantic comedy could get a bunch of Oscar nominations). As the story goes, Stewart thought his chances of winning were so bad that he was originally planning not to attend the ceremony, until he received a phone call from an Academy official who “advised” that he might want to show up in a dinner jacket.

Bringing Up Baby is maybe the definitive entry into the genre of “screwball comedy,” popular around this time, and the feeling it leaves the viewer with is manic energy. The Philadelphia Story’s comedy is based more on effortless charm. In Bringing Up Baby, the problem is that the characters seem to hate each other until they fall in love. In Philadelphia, the main problem the characters have is mostly that they’re not all making out right this second. Normally I’d lean more toward zaniness in my comedy, but screwball comedy at its zenith has a certain aggressiveness that, for some reason, can give me intense anxiety. So I’d definitely go with The Philadelphia Story of my preference of the two. 

The story is part of another subgenre popular at the time, the “comedy of remarriage,” in which a married couple (in this case Hepburn and Grant) get a divorce, flirt with other people, and then end up back together at the end. Showing extramarital affairs at the time was strictly against the production code, so this structure allowed the central couple to explore other romantic possibilities without risking the wrath of the censors. The story centers around the upcoming re-marriage of an “old line” Philadelphia aristocratic heiress Tracy Lord (Hepburn), to a milquetoast who comes from “new money” (John Howard). We know he isn’t right for her because, the horror, he doesn’t know how to ride a horse or sail a boat. Her ex-husband (Grant) plots to “get back” at her by inviting two reporters (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to the wedding under the pretext that they’re his “friends.” After some initial hijinks, this ruse falls by the wayside almost immediately, everybody gets drunk at the rehearsal dinner (except Grant, whose character is a recovering alcoholic), and Stewart and Hepburn’s characters basically hook up the night before she’s supposed to get married to another guy (the movie is very careful to tell us, though in somewhat circuitous fashion, at they DO NOT have sex, but that seems to be mostly because of the censors). Hepburn’s fiancé won’t forgive her, and she is left with a roomful of wedding guests and no groom. Grant offers to re-marry her instead (this seems to have been his plan all along), and the wedding goes on, while Stewart finally finds out that his hot lady photographer (Hussey) has the hots for him and the two of them get together instead. And they all lived happily ever after.

The raison d’etre of this blog is really to look at older movies through the lens of someone coming to them today, and this is a particularly interesting case. The first scene of the movie shows Grant’s character leaving Hepburn’s. After she breaks his golf clubs, he pushes her to the ground and drives off. Yet at the end, when they get back together again, we’re supposed to root for them. It seems unlikely that a 2020 romantic movie would ask the audience to root for a man to get back together with a lady he put his hands on. Even Tracy’s family don’t seem to be very put out about it. “Did he really sock her?” the kid sister (Virginia Weidler) asks excitedly. It’s my guess (as someone who has in the past worked as a divorce lawyer) that at the time you likely needed a specific justification for people to get divorced (“irreconcilable differences” wasn’t enough), and for some reason domestic violence was more “acceptable” an excuse than if he had cheated on her.

Hepburn has become such an icon since that it’s weird to think that in 1939, she couldn’t get a job in Hollywood. She’d had a series of financial flops, capped by Bringing Up Baby. The theater owners declared her, along with several other Hollywood stars, “Box Office Poison” in an infamous article in Time Magazine. She came off as too unapproachable, too smart, too high-class, producers thought. She insisted on wearing pants, at a time when that was considered really weird. So Hepburn left Hollywood for Broadway, where she starred in the debut production of the stage version of The Philadelphia Story to great acclaim. She then got her sometimes-lover Howard Hughes to buy her the rights to the play, making sure she would star in the movie adaptation and have veto rights over everything involved with it. MGM agreed to finance the production on the condition that Hepburn co-star with not one but two star proven male box office leads, and the rest is history.

In many ways, The Philadelphia Story feels designed to help re-ingratiate Hepburn with the public. Her character is constantly criticized throughout. Cary Grant says she’s like a marble statue, without any humanity. James Stewart says she’s “like a goddess, chaste and virginal, like the Moon.” I was almost surprised by the ending, I think because some of the things the movie genuinely thinks are flaws in Tracy’s character are often seen by a modern viewers as actually virtues. The real arc of the movie is, essentially, Tracy Lord getting brought down to the level of the rest of humanity so that she can be with a dude like she’s supposed to be. 

All of this makes it seem like I didn’t enjoy this movie, but actually I did. You just have to take it in its own context. And the dialogue just comes so easily, sometimes edging toward Shakespearean. Here’s the scene where Hepburn and Stewart get together while drunk to give you an idea. I should point out that 1940 was probably the very last year where you could compare a girl to a “holocaust” and have it be considered a compliment.

The director Hepburn picked for this movie was George Cukor, who was seen as a specialist in “women’s pictures” (aka movies telling the stories of women). He had been thrown off of directing his last project, a little movie called Gone With the Wind, after getting into fights with Clark Gable. Supposedly Vivian Leigh and Olivia de Havilland kept sneaking off to work with him on their characters on that movie. He lost the Oscar to John Ford in 1940 but had a long career that eventually did include an Oscar in 1964 for My Fair Lady. He was also seen as the “unofficial head of Hollywood’s gay subculture,” and for this reason was arrested at least once when a party at his house was broken up the local vice squad, though the studio thoroughly hushed this up at the time.

The AFI 100 List should probably have about 4 less movies about Vietnam and way more of a bunch of other genres, and both romances and comedies are the genres that deserve to be more represented. Despite the fact that its story seems to be deliberated designed around the quirks of the production code, The Philadelphia Story’s charisma and effortless charm still come across just as well today as they did in 1940.

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