A classic that defined a star and is everything comedies aspire to be
“The Philadelphia Story” is one of the most beloved films in cinema history. Thoroughly enthralling, this look at finding humanity and the acceptance of human frailty is so enjoyable you might even miss the point of the movie. This film was a turning point in Hollywood in many ways. It pretty much marks the end of the over the top “Screwball” comedies of the 1930s and became the poster child for a new type of sophisticated comedy, appealing to the changing, less innocent audiences of the 1940s. It revived the career of Katharine Hepburn, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, defining and forming her legend for the rest of her life and career. It also solidified the superstar statuses of James Stewart and director George Cukor. The witty Oscar winning dialogue and expert delivery in this film are unmatched. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”, winning two. It often makes it near the top of many “All Time Greatest Comedy Films” lists.
While it's exceedingly amusing and fun, an argument could be made that “The Philadelphia Story” is actually a drama disguised as a comedy, as the core of the story is somewhat dark. Set in Main Line Philadelphia, a section where the super wealthy live, it playfully follows the idle rich on the eve of a wedding, with a somewhat snobbish bride forced to find humility.
“The Philadelphia Story” came about very much because of Katharine Hepburn, who stars as “Tracy Samantha Lord”. I wrote about Kate in the “Bringing Up Baby” post. Known for her drive, she started acting on stage to bad reviews and multiple firings. Determined to be a star, she kept going and eventually found herself an understudy for the Broadway play “Holiday”, written by celebrated playwright Philip Barry, who would later write “The Philadelphia Story”. He was huge in the 1920s, known for writing about the wealthy. When Kate made it to films in 1932, she was an immediate success skyrocketing to fame, becoming RKO studio’s biggest star, and winning her first of four Oscars for her third film, “Morning Glory” in 1933. As the decade pushed on, audiences tired of her. Outspoken and refusing to play the Hollywood game, she was one of only a few stars I can think of (Greta Garbo being another) who hated publicity, never wanting her picture taken. Come the mid to late 1930s, she had flop after flop at the box office (with “Stage Door” being an exception). All of this, along with her East Coast affluent type manner and speech, had audiences feeling she had an arrogance about her. In 1938, during this period, she pushed to make a film version of “Holiday”, which like “Bringing Up Baby”, was not a success at the box office at the time of its release (both films are now considered classics). She became labeled “box office poison”. Kate knew her career was in big trouble. She bought out her contract from RKO and left Hollywood. Just when she left Hollywood Philip Barry called to tell her he had two ideas for plays, and she jumped at the one that would become “The Philadelphia Story”.
Timing is everything. Being very savvy, and knowing what it took to be a star, Kate perceived just what was needed to revive her career. She had major input helping Barry create the play (although he wrote it), and it has been said that the lead character of “Tracy Lord” was partly based on Kate, largely on her mannerisms and way of speaking. Never one to hold back, Kate made sure “Tracy” embodied all the negative elements audiences associated with her (such as arrogance, snobbishness, and being unapproachable), and during the course of the play had “Tracy” brought down off her pedestal. Kate partially financed the play and “The Philadelphia Story” became a huge hit on Broadway and on the road, making her a success once more. She smartly secured the screen rights (which were bought and gifted to her by Howard Hughes), and when selling them to MGM she kept control over the cast, producer, director, and screenwriter. She was responsible for hiring director George Cukor, and even gave up top billing to secure Cary Grant. The film was a huge hit and audiences felt that “Tracy Lord” was Katharine Hepburn. They felt not only was “Tracy” being humbled, but so was Kate. Making fun of herself in this role added vulnerability to her persona redeeming her to the public, and her new image crystallized for the rest of her career. This film put her back in the top echelon of Hollywood stars where she would remain for the rest of her life. While she appeared in many varied roles and exemplary films, “The Philadelphia Story” is the ultimate Katharine Hepburn movie and performance. This is the film that defined and formed the legend that is Katharine Hepburn.
Might I add that she is spectacular in the film! For a simple, straightforward example of her immense talent, when you watch the film notice how she delivers her few lines in the quick scene when “Tracy” is in the pool holding the model of the boat “The True Love”. Nothing is really happening, but while Kate says her lines describing the boat, there is so much going on inside her that the speech is less about the boat and all about her character. That is acting at its finest. Kate acquired her third “Best Actress” Academy Award nomination for this role, one of the 12 she accrued in her career.
George Cukor, director of “The Philadelphia Story”, directed dozens of landmark films. He directed all types of films, and more than any other director was expert at adapting stage plays into movies (such as this film). His work is always solid and moving. Not sure why I rarely hear his name mentioned when people name their favorite directors. Strange because many of his films are often on people’s favorite movies lists. Just a few of his classics include “Gaslight”, "A Star Is Born". "Born Yesterday", "My Fair Lady", "Little Women", “Camille", “Dinner at Eight”, "Adam's Rib", “Holiday", "It Should Happen to You", and "The Women”. This list could definitely continue. Cukor was extremely skillful with actors often extracting iconic performances from them. He worked with just about every major female star in Hollywood including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, Judy Holliday, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Sophia Loren, Ava Garner, Lana Turner, Claudette Colbert, Audrey Hepburn, and more. Because of this, and because many of them received Academy Award nominations and awards under his direction, he became known as a “woman’s director” - a label he hated. For the record, he directed many major male actors such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, William Holden, Jack Lemmon, Rex Harrison, John Barrymore, Gene Kelly, Fredric March, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman, just to name a few. And again, several of them garnered nominations and won Academy Awards under Cukor’s direction as well (including James Stewart in this film).
Cukor made Katharine Hepburn a star after seeing her screen test and fighting to cast her in his film, “A Bill of Divorcement”, which would be her first film. The two would make ten films together, and were lifelong friends (Kate even lived in his guest house for a while). “The Philadelphia Story” was their fifth film together. The editing, lighting, cinematography, set and costume design, and of course acting in this film, are all put together so tightly and precisely, showing exactly what Cukor wants the viewer to see while forwarding the story and heightening the emotion. His sense of timing is also impeccable. The humor is spot on and this film often changes tempo and mood while remaining seamless - something only a master could accomplish so well. Born in New York, Cukor moved to Los Angeles first becoming a film dialect coach and dialogue director for early sound films. He began directing films in 1930, and continued until his final film in 1981, “Best Friends”, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen. He was nominated for five Academy Awards (including one for “The Philadelphia Story”), winning once for 1964’s “Best Picture” Oscar winner, “My Fair Lady”. Cukor was gay and never married. Although he never publicly came out as gay, he never denied it and in Hollywood it was an open secret. He was famous for his parties, including his soirées filled with Hollywood’s top talents, as well as parties for the closeted gay Hollywood subculture. George Cukor died in 1983 at the age of 83. He left an indelible mark in films.
Cary Grant, who stars as “C.K. Dexter Haven”, is marvelous in a misleadingly tough role. As he does in all his films, he makes his part look effortless. He is more subdued in this film than in most of his films, not providing the comedy or the drama but instead providing the reality and glue holding everything together. Grant was given his choice of parts between playing “C.K.” and the part of “Mike” (which James Stewart ended up taking). He chose “C.K. Dexter Haven”, a challenging role to which he more than rose. He is so likable that you can’t help but root for him the entire time whatever it is he is up to. Unfortunately, this is his fourth and final pairing with Katharine Hepburn, their other three films being "Sylvia Scarlett", "Bringing Up Baby", and “Holiday". They certainly are great together. Like the two other roles you’ve see him in if you are watching the films on this blog (“Bringing Up Baby” and “Notorious”), his role in “The Philadelphia Story” is atypical for Grant. We’ll watch several “typical” Cary Grant characters in the future. Luckily, he is in countless classic films of all types. You can't help but love Cary!
The third star, who plays “Macaulay ‘Mike’ Connor” in “The Philadelphia Story”, is James Stewart, one of cinema’s giants (and another favorite of mine). One of the most esteemed actors of classic cinema, he was known for his tall thin build, distinct drawl when he spoke, his sort of stuttering, and his small town, everyman quality. His persona, speech pattern and drawl were so specific, he became one of the most imitated people by comedians and voice impersonators. Like all major stars, James (also known as “Jimmy”) played around with his screen persona until he found what worked. However, he didn’t just portray honest wholesome types, but also played many dark characters. Equally adept at comedy and drama, he worked multiple times with some of Hollywood’s top directors including Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. James is always fantastic, very real, with emotion just below the surface, sometimes bubbling up. James Stewart began in theater, including summer stock and some Broadway. After being spotted by a talent scout he became an MGM contract player, and started appearing in films in 1935. After just over two dozen films, and making somewhat of a name for himself, stardom came when he played the lead in the 1938 Frank Capra “Best Picture” Oscar winning classic, “You Can’t Take It with You”. The following year James would receive his first of five “Best Actor” Academy Award nominations, for the 1939 classic Frank Capra film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. The next year brought James his only “Best Actor” Academy Award, which he won for “The Philadelphia Story”. In 1985 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his body of work. He was voted number 3 of the men on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years...100 Stars” list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”.
At the height of his stardom he enlisted in the US Army during World War II, and became a colonel. After the war he remained in the Air Force Reserve where he became a brigadier general. He appeared in films and television (except for during his time in WWII) until 1986, and in 1991 was the voice of “Wylie” in the animated film “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”. He appeared in many classics including "You Can't Take It with You ", "Rear Window", "Vertigo", "The Shop Around the Corner", "Destry Rides Again", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "It's a Wonderful Life”, "Harvey", "The Greatest Show on Earth", "The Spirit of St. Louis", "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "Anatomy of a Murder", "How the West Was Won”, and many, many more. In his Oscar winning portrayal as “Mike” in “The Philadelphia Story”, he brings comedy, romance and conflict to the film in a very complex role and is nothing short of outstanding. Stewart’s small town persona fits this part so well, and he also gets a chance to emphasize his gifts for comedy and romance - qualities he didn’t show to this extent prior to this film. “The Philadelphia Story” completely heightened the awareness of how tremendous his talent was, cementing his superstar status. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when “Mike”, who is drunk, visits “C.K.” in the middle of the night, which I’ll talk more about below in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section. James plays drunk better than anyone I’ve ever seen onscreen. He is simply a delight to watch. He was married once, for 44 years until his wife’s death in 1994. James Stewart died in 1997 at the age of 89.
The chemistry between the three gigantic Hollywood stars in “The Philadelphia Story” is phenomenal. Not one of them tries to outdo the other two at any moment and the interplay between them all is thrilling to watch. Chemistry is abundant throughout, as the supporting players are also exquisite.
Ruth Hussey, who plays “Elizabeth Imbrie”, garnered her only “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination for her role in “The Philadelphia Story”. Beginning her career as a model and in theater, she was spotted by an MGM talent scout and given a contract. As a contract player she received smaller roles in “A” pictures and leads in “B” pictures. She appeared in films and television from 1937 until 1973. Some of her best films include “The Women”, "Susan and God", "Northwest Passage”, and "The Uninvited”. She is a perfect fit in “The Philadelphia Story”, delivering quips with perfect timing, while retaining a core of emotion. This is her best remembered role. Ruth Hussey died in 2005 at the age of 93.
The costume design in “The Philadelphia Story” is by one of the leading designers in Hollywood, Adrian. MGM’s preeminent designer from 1928 to 1941, he designed costumes for hundreds of films and particularly became known for designing gowns for actresses. You will often see in film credits, “Gowns by Adrian”. He worked (often repeatedly) with many of the most glamorous stars of his day, including Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, and Jeanette MacDonald. So many of his dresses have become iconic, and he is also the person who gave Joan Crawford her historic shoulder pads. Just a few of the classic films in which his costumes appear include “The Wizard of Oz”, "Red Dust ", "Dinner at Eight", "Queen Christina ", "Humoresque", "Woman of the Year", "Anna Christie ", "The Merry Widow", "San Francisco", "Camille ", and "The Women”. His designs for Katharine Hepburn’s costumes in “The Philadelphia Story” are a perfect statement of “Tracy Lord’s” wealth and elegance while being approachable, and accenting Kate’s slender figure. He designed costumes for films from 1923 until 1948, with one additional film in 1952. Sadly, he was never nominated for an Academy Award because the “Best Costume Design” category began in 1949. He was married once to actress Janet Gaynor. As they were both reportedly gay, it has been said theirs was an arranged marriage. They had one child together. Adrian died in 1959 at the age of 56.
The cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg in “The Philadelphia Story” is also definitely worth pointing out. He was especially known for lighting and you can see why in this film. Katharine Hepburn was not your typical glamour gal, and she never looked more beautiful than in this film. Ruttenberg is also noted for keeping the actors in focus against an out of focus background (as in the scene with “Tracy” and “Mike” by the pool at night). Ruttenberg was an MGM cinematographer from 1934 until 1968, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for “Best Cinematography, winning four. Just a few of the classic films he shot include "Gigi", "Gaslight", "Mrs. Miniver", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Butterfield 8", "Brigadoon", and "Woman of the Year”. He worked in films from 1917 until 1968. Joseph Ruttenberg died in 1983 at the age of 93.
Not just the costumes and cinematography, but all of the elements in this film are first rate: Donald Ogden Stewart was nominated for “Best Screenplay” for “The Philadelphia Story”, and the dialogue in this film is about as perfect as you can get; The art direction and sets by Cedric Gibbons (who I talk about in the “The Good Earth" post) construct a thoroughly real world of aristocracy; The film was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who I talk about in the first film on this blog, “All About Eve”.
“The Philadelphia Story” was very successfully remade in 1956 as a musical starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Celeste Holm, called, “High Society”. While that film is loved by many, it doesn’t hold a candle to this classic.
“The Philadelphia Story” is filled with so many famous scenes, beginning with the opening. You are in for a truly fun time and one of the top classics! Enjoy “The Philadelphia Story”.
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Director George Cukor allowed some improvisation on “The Philadelphia Story”, and in the scene where “Mike” stops by “C.K. Dexter Haven’s” house drunk, both actors are improvising a bit. Before shooting, James Stewart decided to add “hiccups” to his drunk character, not telling Cukor or scene partner Cary Grant his idea. When they shot the scene and Stewart hiccuped, Grant unexpectedly improvised back with the line, “Excuse me”. From that point on you can see both actors smiling, holding back laughter, and enjoying playing off each other. Grant and Stewart are so in tune watching and listening to each other, it is such a joy to watch. A brilliantly acted scene by two pros, just one of many standouts in the film.