Today’s classic film is The Philadelphia Story. This is one of my absolute favorite films and features some of my favorite performers. It is a 1940 romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. George Cukor directed the film, which went on to win two Academy Awards. Today, the American Film Institute consistently ranks it in the top 50 films of all time. What could be better, huh?
I love this movie. It was originally a Broadway play written by Philip Barry specifically for Katharine Hepburn. This was around the time that she had been labeled “Box Office Poison” and she didn’t have a whole lot going for her. She starred in the play and ended up getting the movie rights through her then boyfriend Howard Hughes. Ever the shrewd genius, she then turned around and sold them to MGM for a mere $250,000 with the agreement that not only would she star in the movie, but she would also have veto power over their choices for producer, director, screenwriter, and actors.
Hepburn immediately signed on Donald Ogden Smith to write the screenplay and George Cukor to direct. She had originally wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy to be her costars, but both were unavailable so she ended up going with Cary Grant and James Stewart, for which I will always be thankful. Cary Grant only agreed to the part with the understanding that he would be paid $137,00, a quite large sum of money in 1940. When this was agreed upon, he donated every penny of it to the British War Relief Fund. One more example of how cool he was. Once this was all in place the movie was made.
The film tells the story of wealthy, divorced socialite Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn). She divorced her husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) for being an alcoholic two years before the film’s actions take place. Our story really begins as she is about to be married again, this time to wealthy coal miner George Kittredge (John Howard). C. K. Dexter Haven, in an attempt to save the Lord family from some embarrassing blackmail, is himself blackmailed into sneaking two reporters into the wedding, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Umbrie (Ruth Hussey). From that point, things go from bad to worse.
This story is told through the actions of some of Hollywood’s most impressive actors. Katharine Hepburn was one of kind, and she is at her most hilarious in this film as the sophisticated socialite who still has so much to learn about both herself and the world around her. She had played the role of wealthy socialite to perfection before (see Bringing Up Baby, I’m sure we’ll talk about it at a later time), but with the added dimension of the character maturing as the film goes, she topped her previous roles with The Philadelphia Story.
Add James Stewart and Cary Grant to the picture and you might have a perfect movie. James Stewart gives what is one of his best performances as the confused writer Macaulay Connor. His outrage at the upper class is believable, his confusion over Tracy Lord is heartfelt, and his drunkenness in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is hilarious. Competing for the affections of Miss Hepburn, Cary Grant is utterly charming. One of his greatest strengths is the verbal duels he has with his costars, and the clashes with Hepburn are among his best. Also, the scene in which a drunk James Stewart visits Cary Grant in the middle of the night is simply amazing.
All in all, this movie is as close to perfect as I have seen. All the dialogue about the differences of class seem a little dated, not because there isn’t a difference anymore, but because of the way they discuss it. That is really my only criticism. The acting is perfect. The story is wonderful and charming. The directing is spot on. And this movie has probably my favorite example of a child actor ever in Virginia Weidler. James Stewart won his only Academy Award for it. Watch it.
wishing I was cool as Cary Grant,