Sunday, July 11, 2010

1940 - The Philadelphia Story

I remember when television shows would screen the end credits in their entirety. Often, there was a voice over while the credits rolled, promoting another show on the same channel. Fair enough. A little while ago, to capitalise on advertising time, some channels began squishing the credits to one side of the screen and presenting a video promo on the other side. Okay, no biggie. But recently I witnessed what must be the conclusion to this escalation. I saw the next show begin as the previous show's credits flashed in a tiny font at the bottom of the screen. Now, that's efficiency.

Yesterday, I had a chance to watch another classic from 1940's Best Picture ballot...

The Philadelphia Story
George Cukor
Donald Ogden Stewart
(based on the play by Philip Barry)
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actor (Stewart)

Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is an upper-class socialite set to wed the dependable George Kittredge (Howard). Tracy's ex-husband, the arrogant yet suave C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), shows up the day before the nuptials to stir up some trouble. He brings with him a reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and a photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey), who are both introduced as "friends of the family" in order that they can secretly cover the wedding of the year. But the evening brings a few surprises, mostly induced by the flow of alcohol, and with three men in her vicinity, Tracy begins to doubt where her affections truly lie.

The entertainment value of The Philadelphia Story lies mostly within its words and its performances. Another adaptation of a stage play, the picture unsurprisingly sees very little action and an abundance of dialogue. Indeed, once the main plot has been set up, not much happens other than conversation. Fortunately, all this talk is delightfully witty, with such gems as Tracy's line regarding her first marriage, "I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon." Additionally, the words are delivered in a typically effective fast-paced manner. Thus, despite the lack of major activity, there are no lulls and the film feels a lot shorter than it is. The ending may feel a touch too neat, but this is a romantic comedy, after all, so it is an appropriate conclusion, sure to put a heartwarming smile on the faces of fans of the genre.

The three leads are a major reason why this picture has remained such a classic. Grant, Hepburn and Stewart (pictured) are all at the top of their respective games. Stewart, in particular, provides plenty of laughs with his adorable drunken behaviour. Ruth Hussey successfully holds her own amongst that famous trio. Playing Tracy's younger sister Dinah is Virginia Weidler, also seen in another 1940 Best Picture nominee All This, and Heaven Too. Here, she proves her talent, delivering a mature performance, including a delightful rendition of one of Groucho Marx's signature tunes, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.


  1. Whenever I start up The Philadelphia Story and hear those Gershwin-like notes from Franz Waxman's score, I can't help but get a smile on my face. I've seen this one many times and it is easily one of the best romance/comedies of this era.

    I think this one may have been George Cukor's best effort. The wordless prologue tell you all you need to know about the relationship between Tracy Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven. Cukor keeps the story flowing elegantly the rest of the way to the ending, that may have a whiff of male chauvinism, but doesn't take anything away from the fact that it's Hepburn's show.

    The casting was impeccable. Hepburn originally wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy for the ex-husband and reporter parts, but they weren't available. I'm not sure Gable would have been the right choice, especially with Cukor as director. Tracy would have been fine I think. Grant and Hepburn had great chemistry, this being their fourth film together. As for Stewart, his only acting Oscar came here, and is usually accompanied by the claim that it was payback for missing out on the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. You know what though, he was very good in this one. It certainly was the choicer part than Grant's (who had first pick and chose the C.K. Dexter Haven role), and Stewart nails it. Ruth Hussey was also excellent as the barb-throwing partner of Stewart's, who obviously pines for him. I'm also glad you singled out Virginia Wiedler. She was terrific and underrated as a child actress.
    1940 was her banner year. She also was great playing Mickey Rooney's sister in Young Tom Edison, a guilty pleasure of mine from 1940.

    If you haven't seen High Society, check it out sometime. It's the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with the Hepburn, Grant, Stewart, Hussey roles going to Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm. Not quite as good, but it doesn't embarrass itself.

  2. I was lucky enough to see this in London a few years back with Kevin Spacey as C.K - I wish I could remember the rest of the cast, because it was certainly a brilliant result of ensemble chemistry. I think a little bit of wee came out when Mr Spacey made his entrance - the woman next to me (we were both flying solo) actually elbowed me in the ribs with delight. Wheeeee!