Philadelphia Story, The (1940)

“You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. And without that, you might just as well be made of bronze.”

Synopsis:
An exacting heiress (Katharine Hepburn) finds her upcoming marriage to a wealthy social climber (John Howard) disrupted by the presence of her alcoholic ex-husband (Cary Grant), who has sought revenge by enlisting the help of a meddling magazine reporter (James Stewart) and his photographer (Ruth Hussey) to cover the wedding — but the situation becomes even more complicated when Stewart falls for Hepburn himself, ignoring the fact that his colleague (Hussey) is smitten with him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic screwball comedy” — “adapted from Philip Barry’s 1939 Broadway success, which he’d written especially for… Hepburn” — was Hepburn’s strategically chosen “vehicle for her return to Hollywood after a two-hear hiatus” due to being “designated box office poison”. Peary notes that Hepburn “got to play with her own public image, in an effort to show that underneath her haughty, classy exterior… she was vulnerable and loyal”. Indeed, the central premise of the film revolves around Hepburn’s character “com[ing] to see her own imperfect side”, and embracing herself as a “woman” rather than a “priggish goddess”. Yet as Peary points out, “the major problem with the play-film is that [Hepburn’s] Tracy Lord never seems like a prig or someone who will accept only perfection”, given that “she is eccentric, funny, wild, and tolerant of unconventional people, like her flighty mother (Mary Nash), quirky younger sister (Virginia Weidler), and dirty old uncle (Roland Young).”

Peary further writes that “two other problems are that Grant is too passive a character and that Hussey really gets mistreated by Stewart without telling him off” — but he notes that “despite all, this is a scintillating comedy, because the acting by the wonderful cast transcends the material”. In addition, “as directed by George Cukor, the comic dialogues have a marvelous rhythm… The characters could be speaking Japanese, but so snappy are their comebacks and so sly are their expressions that we’d laugh anyway”. I’m in full agreement with Peary’s overall assessment: it’s the stellar performances and witty dialogue that ultimately “sell” me on The Philadelphia Story, which I’ll admit to finding a tad too romantically convoluted for my tastes (though at least we’re kept in genuine suspense until the very end about who will end up with whom, and why). However, while not a personal favorite, this classic “comedy of remarriage” — remade with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby in 1956 as the musical High Society — is most definitely must-see viewing for all film fanatics at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord
  • Jimmy Stewart as Macaulay Connor
  • Ruth Hussey as Liz Imbrie
  • Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven
  • Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord
  • Witty dialogue:

    Nash: “We must just be ourselves… Very much ourselves.”
    Weidler: [Without missing a beat] “But you want us to make a good impression, don’t you?”

Must See?
Yes, as a beloved classic and for the standout performances.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Philadelphia Story, The (1940)”

  1. Not a must – possibly one of the most overrated films that remains on countless ‘Best’ lists.

    I tried rewatching this – and was reminded that I have never liked this film. ~and I realize that feeling flies in the face of the (apparently) thousands who love it.

    I also realize that the original play sets out to settle a score with its protagonist and, I guess, reveal that incredibly snobbish, upper-class ninnies can be real people if given half a chance.

    I just don’t find any of it funny or entertaining, in spite of its bid for being sparkling and sophisticated.

    It’s a shame that the three cast members worth watching – Ruth Hussey, Roland Young and John Halliday – remain on the periphery of the story and are given too little to do. Were that not the case, I think there might be a more interesting film here.

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