Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, on my screen at the same time, delightful!
Screenplay By: Waldo Salt & Donald Ogden Stewart
Directed By: George Cukor
The movie industry loves redemption tales, when you couple a storyline redemption with a real life redemption that’s Hollywood gold. The Philadelphia Story is all about redemption, for Katherine Hepburn in real life and for her character of Tracy. In real life Hepburn had been dubbed box office poison after a series of critical successes that nonetheless bombed at the box office. This led to a two year break from the film industry for Hepburn. But, The Philadelphia Story was her play, she owned the rights to it and if it was going to be a film she was going to be in the lead. One of the reasons it was believed she failed at the box office was the audiences inability to connect with her icy demeanor. Thus, the PR people went to work on selling The Philadelphia Story as Hepburn’s deicing for all the world to see. This was the film where the subject matter would allow her talent to be seen wholly but for her vulnerabilities to be seen as well. The PR people were right and The Philadelphia Story once again thrust Hepburn into the upper echelons of Hollywood leading ladies.
A real world tie-in does not a movie make great. A redemptive story on the screen does, and that is where Hepburn truly shines. From the very moment she appears on screen you can sense that Tracy is a bit different, even when she is having fun she comes across as cold and distant. But, the story paints her not as an ice queen, but as a woman simply misunderstood. Someone who would love and only wants love, but doesn’t know how because no one understands her uniqueness (that is the most direct parallel to Hepburn in real life). The genius of The Philadelphia Story lies in its ability to take someone we initially perceive as an ice queen and reveal the truth that is underneath the surface. By the end of The Philadelphia Story we are happy for Tracy, she has bared herself to us and we have accepted her.
The above is pretty heavy stuff, yet The Philadelphia Story is a comedy. It has been referenced as a slapstick or screwball comedy, but I didn’t find either of those to be apt descriptions. The Philadelphia Story is a smart comedy, with witty dialogue, intelligent exchanges and enough truth in its message to make the comedy have meaning beyond just laughter. There were still some moments that weren’t as funny as they could have been, or that didn’t end up funny at all, but even the best of comedies have those moments.
The one area in the entire film where I wasn’t impressed was in John Howard as George Kittredge. The rest of the supporting cast I found to be up to the task of playing alongside Hepburbn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Howard came across as out of his league, unable to keep up in the majority of his scenes. This is a problem because you need to view him as a legitimate contender for Hepburn’s heart, and I never did. But, as I said, his character was the only area of the film I didn’t find impressive. It’s hard to not be impressed by a film that has scene after scene with some combination of Hepburn, Grant and Stewart exchanging cutting dialogue and great comedic timing between the three of them. I said it already, but it is because of their performances, as well as the support of Ruth Hussey, Roland Young, Virginia Weidler and the rest that The Philadelphia Story is such a smart comedy.
A movie like The Philadelphia Story wouldn’t fly today. Undoubtedly lots of people would like it, love it even, but I can’t see it making any real dent in the box office. It’s laid back, smart nature isn’t what people look for in their comedy nowadays. It’s not that there is anything wrong with raunchy humor, but another piece of pie is good every once in a while. Maybe I’m wrong, I hope I am, but whether it would do well or not doesn’t matter when you get down to it. Quality is what matters, and The Philadelphia Story delivers quality in spades. Whether you are looking for a great story, a tale of redemption, great performances or funny and smart dialogue The Philadelphia Story has what you need.