THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
Review by Ed Nguyen
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland
Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler
Director: George Cukor
Audio: English monaural 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary, trailers, two documentaries, short subject, cartoon, two radio adaptations
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: March 1, 2005
don't want to be worshipped. I want
to be loved."
it or not, legendary Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn was once considered box
office poison. Following an early
career summit with the Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn endured a stunning fall from grace
with a long string of box office flops that included such now-acknowledged
classics as Bringing Up Baby and Holiday. While public opinion may not necessarily have been an
accurate measure of Hepburn's quality or worth, regardless, for some time, the
feisty actress simply could not find good work in the film industry.
Dorothy Parker even once infamously remarked of her that Hepburn
"ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."
Hepburn remained too independent, regularly refusing to do interviews and
preferring to dress in casual pants, hardly the desirable image for any aspiring
screen siren. But Katherine Hepburn
refused to become a glamour girl - she was simply "Kate," too quirky
and too opinionated for the likes of Hollywood studio heads who preferred their
leading ladies more demure and gentle-natured.
one to be deterred for long, Hepburn bided her time instead in the theatrical
world, appearing in the late 1930's in Philip Barry's play "The
Philadelphia Story." The stage
comedy was a smash hit that cantered to Hepburn's strengths as an actress -
stinging witticisms, strong female characterizations, and a natural flair for
comedy. Hepburn acquired the film
rights to the play and when Hollywood began to show an interest in adapting the
play into a movie, she was able to negotiate her way back onto the silver screen
on her own terms. Not only would
Katharine Hepburn star in the film version of the play, but she would have her
choice of the film's director and co-stars.
(1940) has since established itself as one of the quintessential Hollywood
romantic comedies. Directed by
George Cukor, produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, featuring an Oscar-winning
adapted screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, and co-starring legendary Hollywood
leading men Cary Grant and James Stewart, this was a film with incomparable
pedigree and class. Katharine
Hepburn would earn her third Oscar nomination for The
Philadelphia Story, the commencement of a remarkable career renaissance that
would eventually encompass twelve nominations, including a still-unsurpassed
four Best Actress trophies.
The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn
portrays haughty and headstrong socialite Tracy Lord, a character not too
dissimilar to Hepburn's own upbringing. Hepburn
was herself the daughter of a prominent surgeon and a dedicated suffragette.
Willful from the very start of her acting career, Hepburn nevertheless
commanded respect for her thespian attributes.
An unusual beauty, Hepburn could appear hard and angular at one moment,
then feminine, vulnerable, and soft-featured the next, depending on how she held
herself and how she peered at audiences or into the camera lens.
She was a highly versatile actress and demonstrated her incredible range
in all manners of film and stage genres from comedy to romance to drama to
Shakespeare and even a western or musical or two.
The Philadelphia Story co-star Cary
Grant, of course, needs little introduction.
Among the most popular of Hollywood's classic leading men, the suave and
handsome actor was already an established veteran of numerous light comedies and
screwball comedies by the time of The
Philadelphia Story. In the
film, he is cast opposite Katharine Hepburn as Tracy's ex-husband, C.K. Dexter
Haven, who secretly is still in love with her.
This film would be the fourth and sadly last pairing between Grant and
Hepburn (the other films, all classics, being the aforementioned Bringing
Up Baby and Holiday as well as the
cult favorite Sylvia Scarlett).
other co-star, James Stewart, was the immensely likable star of such Frank Capra
hits as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
and You Can't Take It With You.
He was even nominated for an Oscar for the former film, but lost to
Ronald Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). As
a result, Stewart's Best Actor win the following year for The Philadelphia Story over Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator) is sometimes seen as somewhat of a conciliatory
award. Still, while Chaplin's
classic film and fine performance have since dated somewhat, Stewart's energetic
if cynical reporter Mike Connor remains as refreshing as ever and in actually
represents one of the actor's best star turns.
The Philadelphia Story as a whole
stands up quite well in viewings today and is probably director George Cukor's
best-loved film. Today, the
director has been exemplified as not only a great "actor's director"
but more specifically a great "woman's director." Originally a stage director, he guided such screen legends as
Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Audrey Hepburn, and Judy Garland to some of their
finest film performances. Katharine
Hepburn, however, was his favorite actress, and Cukor would eventually direct
her in ten films, of which The
Philadelphia Story was their fifth collaboration together.
opens with a short prelude - an immortal, comical break-up scene between Dexter
and Tracy in which Cary memorably socks it to Kate.
On that shocking but amusing note, the film than jumps forward to the
final days before Tracy Lord's upcoming second wedding.
expectant groom is George Kittredge (John Howard), a dull businessman who is all
wrong for Tracy. As such situations
go, she is unable to notice this simple and obvious fact, much to the
disappointment of her younger, mischievous sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler).
Furthermore, Tracy's now ex-husband, Dexter, has no intentions of
allowing his ex-wife to marry a man so clearly undeserving of her affections.
At least, not without a fight! So,
Dexter shows up for the pending nuptials to trade some minor quips with his
ex-wife but more importantly to perhaps dissuade her from undertaking a
potentially grave mistake. He
naturally has the full support of Dinah, who prefers the affable Dexter to the
attendant for the upcoming wedding, albeit somewhat reluctantly, is reporter
Mike Connor from Spy magazine.
Mike is a dreamer who aspires to greater literary heights than the pulp
trash that he must produce regularly for Spy
magazine. He deems the assignment of covering the society marriage
merely another in long line of undignified projects not worthy of his earnest
efforts. Nonetheless, hungry
stomachs must be fed and so, accompanied by his sarcastic but no-nonsense
photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), Mike arrives at the expansive Lord
estate. Therein, under the pretense
of being a family friend, he is given freedom to wander the mansion grounds that
will host the wedding ceremony. Inevitably,
Mike runs into Tracy herself.
Mike soon finds the expectant bride to be a charming and intelligent woman and
begins to fall for her even on the eve of her wedding.
The more practical Liz attempts to talk some sense into her stubborn
partner, but the smitten Mike has turned a deaf ear.
For her part, Tracy Lord would rather die than have her private affairs
paraded about like gossip upon the pages of some worthless tabloid magazine,
like Spy: "I'm to be examined, undressed, and generally humiliated
at fifteen cents a copy!" Truer
words were never uttered about the artlessness of the tabloid!
Nevertheless, certain personal insinuations (and possible blackmail),
courtesy of Spy's chief editor, compel
her to tolerate the presence of the two society snoops.
However, Tracy too begins to see beneath the surface cynicism of Mike
Connor and begins to understand and appreciate him more as a person and perhaps
even a kindred spirit.
the stage is set for a vibrant comedy of romantic intrigue with Tracy caught
fairly in the center. Will she go
through with her marriage as planned to the respectable but stiff George
Kittredge? Will she remember
the tender traits that first attracted her to Dexter Haven and fall for him
again? Or, will she succumb to the
exciting lure of adventure and the unexplored, as represented by reporter Mike
of The Philadelphia Story are probably
aware that the film was later remade in the 1950's as the musical High
Society. While the later film starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and
Grace Kelly and was entertaining in its own right, even re-using much of the
same dialogue, High Society ultimately
paled in comparison to The Philadelphia
Story. After all, one simply
cannot replace Cary Grant, the epitome of Hollywood debonair, with a short and
slightly-balding warbler like Der Bingle. Nor can Ol' Blue Eyes pass for a likely romantic lead
opposite Grace Kelly as James Stewart had opposite Katharine Hepburn (for
comparison, witness the fine chemistry between James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear
Window). On the other hand, the sparkling, liberal spirit of Katharine
Hepburn is fairly matched by the regal beauty and decided glamour of Grace
Kelly, admittedly the very definition of Hollywood royalty.
However, in the end, The Philadelphia Story is one of Hollywood's finest romantic
comedies, while High Society is a
merely serviceable musical.
represented a pivotal point in Katharine Hepburn's film career, after which her
former label as "box office poison" would appear rather silly.
Even so, despite the top-notch quality of the film itself, Hepburn's
greatest triumphs as an actress were all still to come.
She had yet to embark upon the greatest on-screen coupling (with Spencer
Tracy) in cinema history, beginning with 1942's Woman
of the Year. Three further
Academy Awards, an Emmy, and even two Tony nominations still awaited her.
In a career that spanned seven decades, no screen actress achieved more
than Hepburn. She was and remains
the greatest American screen actress of all time, an incomparable force, an
indomitable spirit, and always, undeniably Kate.
TRIVIA: Katharine Hepburn
originally requested Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey for the cast of The Philadelphia Story but settled for Cary Grant and James Stewart
instead. Not a bad trade-off!
is shown in a black & white, full-frame format.
Not having viewed the prior bare-bones DVD release of this film, I cannot
judge whether the video quality has been improved.
Nevertheless, with an average transfer rate of 5 Mbps, the film looks
nice but not pristine. There are
minor dust specks and emulsion scuffs, and the brightness intensity fluctuates
ever so slightly (par for these old films).
Generally though, the contrast level is good, and there is a nice
silver-screen glow to the lush and luxurious "old money" scenery born
of the creative mind of art director Cedric Gibbons (winner of eleven Oscars!)
is presented with its original English monaural soundtrack.
Optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles are available, too.
The sparse score, what little there is of it, is by noted screen composer
Franz Waxman. The soundtrack has
some mild background hiss but nothing too significant.
Fortunately, dialogue is always clear, an important characteristic for a
film that relies more so on its script than its visuals.
to the song of life."
The Philadelphia Story has been
released previously on DVD, this "Special Edition" re-issue offers a
lot more for fans in terms of bonus features.
There are two discs provided in this set. The first disc holds the film as well as a trailer gallery, a
list of the film's awards, and a commentary track by film historian Jeannine
trailer gallery has previews for ten George Cukor films.
Each trailer can be watched individually or, better yet, back-to-back for
over thirty minutes of vintage cinema. So,
grab some popcorn, sit back, relax, and check out these classic trailers from
yesteryear for Dinner at Eight (1933), Little
Women (1933), The Women (1939), The
Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight
(1944), Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and
Mike (1952), A Star is Born
(1954), Les Girls (1957), and My
Fair Lady (1964). If anyone
should question George Cukor's honored place among the giants of Hollywood
cinema, a single glance at the incredible films on this list should dispel such
lingering doubts. In any pantheon
of the "Great" directors, George Cukor has a reserved seat.
Jeannine Basinger commentary touches upon the history of The Philadelphia Story from its stage origins through its various
screen adaptations. Basinger also
discusses the careers of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and
director George Cukor, as well as other significant members of the cast and crew
(especially art director Cedric Gibbons, composer Franz Waxman, costume designer
Adrian, and sound designer Douglas Shearer). Basinger clearly ranks this movie among the greatest of
Hollywood comedies, a fine transition between the traditional screwball comedies
of the 1930's to the romantic comedies of the 1940's.
on to the second disc, we encounter the meat of the bonus features.
The first (and best) feature is Katharine
Hepburn: All About Me - a Self-Portrait (70 min.).
This 1993 TV documentary is narrated by Hepburn herself.
As energetic and witty as ever, Hepburn had been in her mid-80's when
this documentary was filmed, but her mental capacities had clearly not been
diminished by the passage of time. Hepburn
narrates her life story from her youth through her various film and stage roles
right up to her present time. She
is rather honest and candid, never hesitating to mock her occasional bad past
performances or to acknowledge her notoriety for being difficult.
Many home movies, film clips, and early screen tests provide color to
Hepburn's comments. Among the
screen tests is an extremely rare Technicolor test for a Joan of Arc role;
Hepburn looks quite stunning in this brief clip.
Adoring fans who have watched Hepburn age gracefully over the years will
be reminded throughout this documentary of what a truly charming smile and
lovely profile she possessed in her youth.
is not afraid to spill some secrets, either.
She offers her true birth date, recalls a beloved brother who died in his
youth, and reminisces poignantly about her long-standing relationship with
Spencer Tracy. Fans will be
particularly interested to hear how Hepburn first met Spencer Tracy for Woman
of the Year. Hepburn also
describes how, in an arrangement by Cary Grant, she first met Howard Hughes on
the set of Sylvia Scarlett, too.
In fact, it was Hughes who later purchased the film rights to The
Philadelphia Story for Hepburn, a generous gift that would turn out to have
a rather significant impact upon Hepburn's film career.
All in all, this is truly a wonderful documentary and easily worth the
price of purchase alone for this "Special Edition" DVD set.
next documentary is The Men Who Made the
Movies: George Cukor (55 min.). Focusing
on the career of this premier Hollywood director, the documentary presents Cukor
in an extended interview as he discusses his ideas of how a director should
interact with his actors. Cukor also comments on his various early films.
One such film, What Price Hollywood (1932), was his first hit and clearly a
predecessor to Cukor's later masterpiece A
Star is Born. The documentary
also alludes to Cukor's brief stint as director on Gone with the Wind; Victor Fleming would later finish the film,
although Cukor's directed scenes still remain in the film. Much of the length of this feature consists of extensive film
clips, so the documentary, although decent, is not quite as absorbing or
comprehensive as the previous one on this disc.
are two short subjects. Robert
Benchley's That Inferior Feeling (9
min.) is a somewhat unfunny comedy short that describes awkward situations in
which anxiety and nerves can get the better of a person.
Skits include measurements for a new suit, checking into a hotel, and
cashing a check at the bank. Somehow,
these mundane activities were once deemed amusing, but this clearly-dated short
will probably not result in much uproarious laughter today.
The other short is a Technicolor MGM cartoon, The
Homeless Flea (7 min.). It is a
passably entertaining battle of wits between a homeless hobo flea and a
reluctant country dog chosen by the flea to be its new home.
What either of these comedy shorts has in common with The
Philadelphia Story, I cannot say. However,
if watched together prior to The
Philadelphia Story, they can provide a facsimile of how an afternoon at the
movie houses was once like (all that is missing is a Fox Movietone
there are two radio adaptations of The
Philadelphia Story. One is a
July 20, 1942 broadcast for the Victory Theater, while the other is a broadcast
from March 17, 1947 for the Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse.
Both radio plays feature the voices of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and
James Stewart, while the Victory Theater broadcast also features the voices of
Ruth Hussey and Virginia Weidler, too. These
adaptations are faithful to the film's script with some cuts only for time; the
wit and vitality of the dialogue holds up remarkably well even without
accompanying images. Just keep in
mind that these are full-length radio skits and together provide ninety minutes'
worth of listening entertainment. Allot
some uninterrupted free time if you want to listen to both radio adaptations.