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Back to the Feature: The Philadelphia Story (1940)


          There was a time when a comedy could win an Oscar. The Philadelphia Story didn’t itself (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca earned that), but it was nominated and won both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for James Stewart. It is also the film that revitalized Katherine Hepburn’s career after years of poorly received movies, and her being the first dubbed “box office poison”. She was in fact responsible for this comeback herself, having procured the rights to the Broadway play, sold them to MGM, and personally selected both writer Donald Ogden Stewart (related to David Ogden Stiers?), and director George Cukor, fresh off of being replaced by Victor Fleming on Gone with the Wind. Hell in a modern age, she would’ve been able to write, direct, or at least produce the movie herself. So this is a pretty important movie in the career of one of the most important actresses who ever lived. Exactly how good is it really?
          Snooty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is preparing for her wedding to George Kittredge (John Howard). But her plans go awry when her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) -whose name sounds just as wonderfully snobby- arranges for a reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover the wedding for a gossip magazine in the spiteful hope they’ll catch her in less glamorous circumstances -this stemming from her divorcing him over his alcoholism. He even blackmails her with an article about her father’s adultery, something her family tries hard to hide. In the days leading up to the wedding, Tracy interacts with Dexter, George, and her relatives, and even forges an unexpected relationship with Mike.
          This movie is quite obviously based on a play, as a lot of it is dialogue-driven. There are lengthy conversations for character and exposition purposes, which makes the opening stand out all the more. It’s a very well done sequence showing Tracy kicking Dexter out, conveyed entirely as a short silent film. Hepburn and Grant have by now done enough physical comedy together the slapstick is really effective. To be honest, I kind of miss it from the rest of the movie, which takes on more of a direct romance route, with mostly witty remarks to carry the comedy, and only a few them work. Though the synopsis is tailor-made for shenanigans, it doesn’t really deliver as a funny movie. Also, for a film called The Philadelphia Story, we see very little of Philadelphia, with the majority of the story taking place on the Lord estate. And to be honest, a story where all but two characters are wealthy snobs, isn’t as funny as the filmmakers want it to be. A bottle plot like this could be made interesting, but George Cukor doesn’t direct it particularly engaging. He’s not a bad director by any means, with his name attached to good movies like Gaslight and 1935’s David Copperfield, but he doesn’t quite have a grasp on film language, and so there’s nothing substantial to his technique (at least not until My Fair Lady). Thus the story can be uninteresting, leaving only the characters to keep it afloat.
          There is a dramatic side to Tracy Lord, which might be the reason Hepburn was keen to take the role. She has a spat with her father midway through, who is of course an absolute dick, and we’re privy to the shadow she’s been living in. She’s a flawed person, with a clear weakness to drink that probably rivals Dexter. And Hepburn plays the part as enjoyably as she does any comedic role, with her signature fast-talking wit and natural camera savviness. The problem I have though is her role in the story. For throwing Dexter out for shallow reasons and a frequent stubbornness relating to her social class, she’s cast in a negative light, in need of reform by one of the men in her life. That’s not entirely a bad thing as her development is good, if typical coming from a background like hers. But where she’s required to change, Dexter is not. Neither are really likeable characters, both driven to humiliate the other, but Dexter gets away without having any change of character which gives the film something of a sexist message. Her lesson is learning that the people below her matter and that she can’t go through life so self-centred. Dexter just becomes slightly less bitter. That being said, Cary Grant is good in the role, his debonair still showing through. And his rapport with Hepburn is on point, they have great chemistry by now in their fourth film together. Grant’s character just doesn’t come off well. And in fact he also seems to be passive for a large part of the story, merely an observer and commenter on what seems to be the primary relationship of Tracy and Mike. As this principled reporter, Stewart is the best part of the movie. He’s certainly the character modern audiences would gravitate towards most, the humble dedicated reporter, not a far cry from his title character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Though some might say otherwise, Stewart was really good at portraying the everyman. He’s not as conventionally handsome as Grant, and his build and trademark drawl are suggestive of someone more down to earth and relatable. And so his romance with Hepburn’s character in this movie is very much the lovers from different classes trope. But I don’t mind it as it allows for both characters to grow and look beyond their prejudices (Mike is very dismissive of the rich for a while, at one point calling out their privilege quite liberally -ironic, considering Stewart was a lifelong conservative). And I forgot how fun it is when Stewart plays drunk. It’s not accurate by any means, but it’s usually enjoyable, and here he has a few good moments with Hepburn incapacitated, and one great scene with Grant. It’s cool to see these two giants work off each other in a funny scene (Grant very clearly nearly corpsing at one point). Though Dexter is the only character with an alcoholic reputation, he’s intentionally the only major character we don’t see drunk. I liked Ruth Hussey for what we got of her. Though sold as the fourth part of a love quartet, she’s not actually as significant a player, largely I assume because of Hussey’s lack of name recognition. Which is a shame because Hussey does a good job. Elizabeth has a great delivery every so often, and there’s a suggestion of an interesting character in some of her interactions with Mike. She’s really the anti-Tracy Lord. But for much of the plot all she does is photograph people from time to time, and in one unfortunate moment, is sexually harassed by one of Tracy’s slimy uncles. That’s uncomfortable. John Howard plays George as a decent if posh individual for a lot of the runtime until presumably the writer realized he can’t end up with Tracy in the end, and so makes him suddenly unreasonable in the last act. 
          The Philadelphia Story’s undoing is in that last act where like Thoroughly Modern Millie, a series of random plot changes dictate a blatantly studio mandated resolution. Tracy and George break up after she gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim with Mike leading George to conclude she’s unfaithful. However it’s the day of the wedding, all of the guests have arrived and they’re expecting a ceremony. Of course Tracey goes in to tell them the wedding is off and apologizes -no wait, she does the far more contrived and stupid thing and decides to marry someone else on a whim so the ceremony can go ahead! Mike proposes first which is the most obvious. His and Tracy’s relationship was the most explored romance of the film. But she turns him down on the grounds it would upset Elizabeth who is suddenly revealed to be in love with Mike. Coming to the conclusion she’s seen the error in her ways, she decides to remarry Dexter instead. Mike and Elizabeth are quickly made Best Man and Maid of Honour, and the wedding takes place resulting in a comical photo of the three lead stars caught slightly unaware.
          Where do I begin with this ending? Well the obvious is that Tracy and Dexter’s relationship has not been the focus of most of the film. In fact their relationship has almost exclusively been one of bickering. Dexter’s proposal is just about the first kind thing he’s said to her. It completely dismisses the relationship between Tracy and Mike that the film’s been more concerned with. And yeah, by this point, Mike’s fallen for her, and I’m more led to believe she loves him more than Dexter. So her rejection of him now is kind of a dick move. Though you could discern from a couple moments and her relationship towards him, that Elizabeth might have feelings for Mike, it never comes up until now. And is Mike just supposed to put aside his love for Tracy in favour of Elizabeth? It’s really insulting to Elizabeth, passing her off as a consolation prize for Mike. Oh, and Mike’s apparently just fine after all this to be the Best Man at a wedding of the woman he’s fallen for. Lastly, the guests just accept this, even though some of them know Dexter’s not George, and to those who don’t, does that mean Dexter’s going to have to pretend to be George? It’s a perfect out-of-nowhere ending that seems to exist just because Hepburn and Grant were an established screen couple. Also, they began the film married and so have to be remarried by the end. Apparently this was a rule of the Production Code when dealing with divorce in films. But it can’t be that strictly enforced. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this movie ought to have ended more like Holiday Inn. That film came out two years later and managed to conclude fine with the couple from the start now with different partners.
          But even with the weird ending aside, I don’t really see why this was the movie that saved Katherine Hepburn’s career. It’s not that far off from the films she’d been doing in the previous few years like Bringing Up Baby. In fact a film like Bringing Up Baby is at least more entertaining for its insanity. I’m grateful for this movie for stimulating Hepburn’s career and leading to greater performances in the future. But despite the good moments and performances, it’s not engaging, not very funny, and betrays its own plot in the end. Did either Stewart deserve their Oscar? Only in the sense that if someone had to win an Academy Award for this movie, it would have been Jimmy Stewart (he deserved it more for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); David Ogden not so much. This film was remade in 1956 as a musical more aptly called High Society, with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm. I don’t know if that film would necessarily be better, but the premise doesn’t interest me enough to check out apart from Kelly and Sinatra (I like Crosby, but his films are very hit and miss). The Philadelphia Story itself is only worth checking out if you’re a really big fan of any of its three stars, and even then, it doesn’t do their star quality many favours.

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