The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart, Waldo Salt (screenplay), Philip Bary (play)

Photography: Joseph Ruttenberg

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Rolan Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler, Henry Daniell, Lionel Pape, Rex Evans

Many great movies stick out by featuring one of the greatest actors of their generation. Rarely can a movie claim to feature three of the greatest actors of all time in one glorious cast. The Philadelphia Story is that rare exception, featuring a leading trio that will blow any other leading three out of the water — Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, all at their very best.

For Stewart, The Philadelphia Story marked his first — and egregiously only — Academy Award for Best Actor. Many scholars think it was a make-up for the statue he should have won the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) when he most likely split the vote with favorite Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind (1939), allowing Richard Donat to score the upset for Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). Even if Stewart’s Philadelphia Story victory was an Oscar penance, it doesn’t diminish the brilliance of his performance as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a wise-cracking gossip columnist for Spy magazine, reluctantly sent by publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) to get the snarky scoop on the lavish wedding of Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn).

As for Hepburn, the role meant a resurrection of her career. Just seven years earlier, she had made her breakthrough in Little Women (1933) and earned her first Oscar for Morning Glory (1933). But despite another Oscar nomination for Alice Adams (1935), Hepburn hit a streak where she simply could not draw audiences of any significant measure. After the box office flop of her screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) — now widely acclaimed as a Howard Hawks masterpiece — Photoplay Magazine labeled Hepburn “box office poison.”

Needing to rebuild her image, she bought out the rest of her contract with RKO, moved to Broadway and decided to play a role that would mock her reputation, appearing in Philip Barry’s play The Philadelphia Story as a high society snob who learns some humility. After receiving the rights to the play as a gift from sweetheart Howard Hughes (the subject of Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator), Hepburn went to work bringing it to the big screen, recruiting MGM producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and several cohorts from her own previous film Holiday (1938) — director George Cukor, screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart and co-star Cary Grant.

Aside from Hepburn’s own future husband Spencer Tracey, no leading man had more on-screen chemistry with Hepburn than Cary Grant, as the world had seen in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Grant was already a major star after The Awful Truth (1937), Topper (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and my favorite classic comedy, His Girl Friday (1940). Grant agreed to appear alongside the “poisonous” Hepburn, but only if he received top billing and $137,000, all of which he donated to British war relief. The role was one of the very best of his career, playing Hepburn’s jaunty ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven.

But The Philadelphia Story is more than just a showcase for these three enormous talents. Their performances are supported by an Oscar-winning script from Donald Ogden Stewart, who creates a delicious love triangle out of the three stars — the socialite Tracy (Hepburn), her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and gossip reporter Mike (Stewart). In fact, the love triangle is more like a love pentagon, considerring Mike is already involved with his sidekick photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Tracy is already set to marry the boring, yet esteemed George Kittredge (John Howard).

Their upcoming wedding, held at the home of Tracy’s parents, is the big event that brings the whole crowd together. Dexter tries desperately to win back his ex-wife (similar to His Girl Friday), while Mike and Liz try desperately to find a good newspaper gossip story, all while Tracy’s little sister, Dinah (Virginia Weidler), serves as both the film’s sparkplug and its conscience. At the outset of the film, Dinah whines that “nothing in the least ever happens here.” She more than gets her wish with an affair between Tracy and Mike the night before the wedding!

Initially, Mike and Tracy despise each other. More accurately, they despise what the other represents. She hates the thought of a gossip writer, saying, “I’m gonna be examined, undressed and humiliated at 15 cents a copy,” and urges her family to act extra snotty just to spite Spy magazine. Meanwhile, Mike hates the idea of a “young, rich, rapacious American female,” mocking Tracey and all those who would love to read about her, saying, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”

However, after spending some time together, they realize they were wrong in their preconceived notions, as Tracy says, “The time to make your mind up about people is never,” be it class differences or even divorce. During a big blow-out party the night before the wedding, the drunken truth finally comes out — with plenty of “morning after” consequences. Trust me, you won’t find better drunk acting than during this party sequence, particularly as Stewart pays Grant a drunken visit at his home: “Oh, C.K. Dexter Haveennnnnnn!”

From this point on, the film elevates to a level of genre genius that will be hard to touch as long as movies are made. Note how it expresses its themes with as much subtlety as possible. It doesn’t have to tell viewers everything explicitly; it can make its point simply by having Hepburn inflect her voice during certain words: “Hello Dexter. Hello George. Hello Mike.” 

The chemistry between Stewart and Hepburn is off the page, and their moonlit scene together is one of the most romantic in movie history, as Mike carries her by the pool, drunkenly singing the wrong lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which had appeared in The Wizard of Oz (1939) just a year earlier.

And yet, the drunkenness is not merely a laugh-out-loud gag. It ties back into the film’s plot and emotionally complex characters. Remember, it was C.K. Dexter Haven’s obsessive drinking that caused Tracy to divorce him (“Everyone goes a little haywire sometimes, and if they don’t, they ought to”). This allows for hilarious irony after her drunken escapade with Mike, as Tracy has to face her ex-husband humbly with a hangover. “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives? You know, one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer,” Grant says to Stewart in Hepburn’s presence.

Beneath it all, C.K. Dexter Haven is the one pulling the strings. Turns out, he has some dirt on Tracy’s fiance and is trying desperately, but oh so subtly, to win her back. He has a bead on his ex-wife and knows her shortcomings: “You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you learn to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime. But your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.” This is Tracy’s journey throughout the film:

The key symbolic is his wedding gift for her — a model boat of his real boat, called “True Love,” which he and Tracy took sailing on their honeymoon. The boat — and its ability to stay on course, also known as “yar” — becomes a metaphor for their entire failed marriage, as Tracy ultimately admits that she wasn’t always easy to steer.

In this way, director George Cukor (Dinner at Eight) blends screwball comedy with elegant romance in a way that’s rare for most movies. Who else but Cukor could open his film with a slapstick silent sequence — Hepburn snapping Grant’s golf clubs, then Grant palming her face, shoving her to the ground — and end it with a wedding double switch that inspired Moonstruck (1987) and countless movie proposals to follow?

In the end, the story of The Philadelphia Story winds up even wilder than the story Mike and Liz origially set out to get, and the result is without a doubt one of the richest romantic comedies ever done. It was so successful that it was remade as the movie musical High Society (1956), starring Bing Crosby in the role of Grant, Frank Sinatra in the role of Stewart and Grace Kelly in the role of Hepburn.

If you want to know why today’s critics hold rom-coms to such a high standard come award season, pop in The Philadelphia Story. Today’s threshold may have grown for profanity, as Cukor deems “virginal” and “stinks” as words that shouldn’t be said. But aside from these amusing markers of the time, The Philadelphia Story remains just as spectacular a story — with just as powerful of performances — as it was 75 years ago. This is how it should be done, ladies and gentlemen.

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