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THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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  

"I don't want to be worshipped.  I want to be loved."

Film ****

Believe 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.

Not 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.

The Philadelphia Story (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.

In 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.

Hepburn's 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).

Hepburn's 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.

Overall, 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.

The Philadelphia Story 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.

The 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 bland George.

Another 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.

Surprisingly, 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.

Thus, 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 Connor?

Fans 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.

The Philadelphia Story 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.

BONUS 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!

Video **1/2

The Philadelphia Story 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!)

Audio **1/2

The Philadelphia Story 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.

Features ****

"Listen to the song of life."

While 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 Basinger.

The 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.

The 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.

Moving 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.

Hepburn 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.

The 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.

Following 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 reel).

Lastly, 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.

Summary:

One of the finest Hollywood romantic comedies, The Philadelphia Story is a timeless film that has delighted generations of fans.  If you have yet to experience this classic film, you can't go wrong with this fine Special Edition DVD.  Top recommendation!

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