The Philadelphia Story, 1940.
Directed by George Cukor.
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart.
Set to remarry, Tracy Lord (Hepburn) has to contend with her ex-husband (Cary Grant) and a reporter on the snoop (James Stewart) as she tries to go through with her upper-class wedding – with their intention to spoil it.
Romance is in the air. The arrow of cupid has struck and, as Robson and Jerome covered, this Saturday night is at the movies. You may believe a Subway and Titanic is a romantic night in. I would argue it’s not*. In fact, an alternative is to head down to the BFI and watch a re-mastered copy of The Philadelphia Story. Not only will this extraordinary comedy give you a superior sense of cinematic taste, but it also features the genius pairing of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart – and that’s in addition to the feisty Katharine Hepburn, who’s the subject of a retrospective throughout February. The Philadelphia Story is a fast-paced, playful romance that toys with ideas of wealth, duty and love. Jimmy Stewart the hardworking cynic. Cary Grant the smug, self-assured playboy. And, of course, Katharine Hepburn herself, who’s due to be married to a sensible fellow.
Laid back and nonchalant, Cary Grant is the ex-husband hiring the press to snoop on the rich Lord Family, as Tracy Lord (Hepburn) intends to remarry. The affluence of the Lord’s is not to be ignored. There are expectations and roles to represent – and Tracy has no interest in doggedly following Daddy’s orders. But this rebellious streak can be found in the two who eventually vie for her love. Dexter (Cary Grant) and Connor (James Stewart) are both rebellious creatures. Dexter plots to spoil Tracy’s wedding, while Connor simply despises the entire elite system. It’s only George Kittredge (John Howard) who gamely attempts to follow the rules. If you’re to strike a lover off Tracy’s list, her husband-to-be is surely at the top.
Rumour has it that J.J. Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, watches The Philadelphia Story before going into production on every film he creates. It may not be the sci-fi you’d assume or an action jaunt that would seem more in keeping with the genre filmmaking of Abrams, but it does prove how Donald Ogden Stewart’s script is something to behold. Winning an Oscar for the screenplay, it manages to weave in and out of different stories changing your attention between each character and reframing your initial judgements. Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor and, though nominated for Best Picture, it lost out to Hitchcock’s first American production, Rebecca. It seems Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock were destined for each other –perhaps it was at that very ceremony whereby their partnership was formed.
The Philadelphia Story also holds a little history too, as this was Katherine Hepburn’s comeback film. After a run of failed films (including the magnificent Bringing Up Baby failing to pull in the crowds), she was deemed ‘box office poison’ by independent cinemas across America. Written by Philip Barry for the stage, Barry wrote the part with Hepburn in mind and it consequently led to a successful Broadway show co-starring Joseph Cotton. Interestingly, The Philadelphia Story was adapted further into a musical in High Society.
So, with your plans arranged for this weekend, there is no need to thank me. Instead, thank the impeccable comedic timing of Cary Grant and the cheeky face of Jimmy Stewart. In fact, thank Katherine Hepburn, who seems to be so exquisite that she turned the audience around and won their support. This was the beginning of her “comeback”, to lead to, among others, The African Queen. This is a romantic comedy of the highest order, and shouldn’t be missed.
*but we all make mistakes
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Columb – Follow me on Twitter